Populist infection need not mean democratic deconsolidation



Whether recent signs of democratic de-consolidation are a predictor of a possible non-democratic backlash, is far from being ascertained, according to Daniele Archibugi, professor of innovation, governance and public policy at Birkbeck College, and the LUISS University of Rome’s Marco Cellini.

We are facing two possible alternative scenarios, both plausible, they write for Open Democracy:

  • [I]n the optimistic one, the new political forces become domesticated and after a while get accustomed to using parliamentary language and strategies. Their language and policies aim to harness the attention of the dissatisfied, and they “mature” to become fresh contenders in the usual electoral race.
  • But in the pessimistic one, they may use their popular support to reduce liberties and modify the institutions that should guarantee democratic checks and balances.

The temporal evolution of the populists (Figure 1 – above) indicates that the economic variable played an important role both in the affirmation and in the growth of populist parties’ consensus, they add:

  • In the first place, the consolidation of most populist parties in the 1990s coincided with a quite strong, even if not prolonged, economic stagnation starting in 1992/1993.
  • In the second, their growth coincided with the prolonged economic crisis that began in 2008. In both cases, western countries experienced a steady drop in their growth rates and a significant economic stagnation (figure 2 – right).

In a widely discussed article in the July 2016 issue of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa explored the concept of democratic deconsolidation. In the January 2017 issue, they further detailed “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” identifying the “early warning signs” that indicate democracy is in trouble.

But Harvard University’s Pippa Norris questions Mounk and Foa’s suggestion that Western democracy is in danger. To say that liberal democracies are under threat, “there are three kind of factors you need to look out for and this goes back to our theories of democratic consolidation from the early ’90s,” she tells Vox:

  • Democracy is stable if, culturally, the overwhelming majority of people believe that democracy is the best form of government, meaning they adhere to the values.
  • Secondly, constitutionally all the basic agencies and organizations of a state have to reflect those democratic norms.
  • Thirdly, no significant groups actively seek to overthrow the regime.

“[T]here is some reduced support for democracy amongst young people, but it’s mostly under Anglo-American democracies; it’s not universal,” she adds:

I also look for evidence that democracy is slipping at the institutional level across Western democracies. It turns out there is not much evidence for this, and indeed most of the trends go in a positive direction. Most of the slippage that has occurred has been in hybrid regimes in countries like Poland, Hungary, Venezuela, and Mexico, all of which have been under threat for some time.

In most liberal democracies, institutional checks and balances will also curb populist tendencies morphing into authoritarian rule, analysts suggest.

“Unlike a parliamentary system, the U.S. Constitution firmly vests most powers in Congress; the president is powerful only to the extent that he can be a cheerleader and consensus-builder in a system of widely shared powers,” Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama writes for POLITICO.

The biggest threat to Western democracy comes from populism and terrorism, adds Norris, the co-author of a recent study on the rising support for populist parties in Western societies. Populism has three dimensions, she contends:

  • One of which is an appeal to popular sovereignty over and above liberal democracy. So the argument is that moral virtue and power should be with the ordinary people and not the elites.
  • The second dimension is anti-establishment, and this is opposed not just to political and economic elites but also to other perceived power-holders, like intellectuals or journalists or other groups at the top of society.
  • And then thirdly, even though it’s about popular sovereignty in practice, there aren’t that many mechanisms. Mechanisms like public opinion polls or other forms of democratic referendum are typically weak. So in practice, what happens is the power is seen to reside in the individual leader, the charismatic leader who represents the voice of the ordinary people.

Since at least the 1970s, Western societies have emphasized “post-materialist” and “self-expression” values among the young educated strata of society, she notes in a recent paper outlining the cultural roots of modern populism:

A lot depends on the type of system a country has. Different systems will respond in different ways to populist pressures. In most European systems, the party system is flexible. In the United Kingdom, for example, you have 13 parties sitting in Parliament. In Netherlands, Germany, and other countries, you’ve got a multi-party system. In a few countries like the United States, you’ve only got two parties. Now those parties themselves are umbrellas, so they’re ideologically indistinct in certain regards, but it’s also very difficult for other parties to break through.

There are many striking parallels between the “Arab Spring” that began in 2010 and the current populist resurgence, argues Ishac Diwan, an affiliate at the Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative at Harvard University. In each case, an old order fell, and progressive parties have been too weak to counter the emergence of authoritarian and xenophobic forms of governance, he writes for Project Syndicate:

In the West today, populist politicians with no realistic plans for actually building a better future are emulating Middle Eastern autocrats. They win power by stoking fear of the “other” – refugees, Muslims, or foreign terrorists – and promising to establish security through force. Once in power, they begin to consolidate their rule accordingly. Democratic institutions may be resilient to populist governance; but, as we are already witnessing in the US, these institutions will soon be tested, and undoubtedly weakened before all is said and done.

“Restoring optimism, in both the Middle East and the West, will depend on whether intellectuals, unions, progressive parties, and civil-society groups can build a common political base and offer a shared vision for the future,” Diwan contends. “This will require not only novel solutions to emerging problems, but also a credible means to implement change democratically.”

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