Putinism, populism and defending liberal democracy


Boell Stiftung

No definition of populism will fully describe all populists, Uri Friedman writes for The Atlantic:

That’s because populism is a “thin ideology” in that it “only speaks to a very small part of a political agenda,” according to Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia and the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction. An ideology like fascism involves a holistic view of how politics, the economy, and society as a whole should be ordered. Populism doesn’t; it calls for kicking out the political establishment, but it doesn’t specify what should replace it. So it’s usually paired with “thicker” left- or right-wing ideologies like socialism or nationalism….Given their moral framing, populists conclude that they alone represent “the people.” They may not win 100 percent of the vote, but they lay claim to 100 percent of the support of good, hardworking folks who have been exploited by the establishment. They don’t assert that the neglected people who back them should be kept in mind by political leaders just like all other citizens; they claim that these neglected people are the only people that matter.

The evidence that we do have strongly indicates that, for those who seek to preserve and strengthen liberal democracy, complacency in the face of current trends would be a mistake, analyst Olga Oliker contends. While it is true that the premise behind the checks and balances built into constitutional democracies is that they will prevent tyrannies from emerging, it is wrong to believe that they do this automatically, she writes for Survival:

Existing institutions are there to be used by the people. If those who believe in free speech, civil liberties and constraints on power do not make use of the tools at their disposal, those who disdain them will work to take them away. It is, as it were, a use-them-or-lose-them proposition. Political awareness, political organisation and political action are therefore crucial. To be effective, however, defenders of constitutional democracy must recognise that they also have to make the case for it to a broader public, which appears to have become disenchanted, which requires dialogue and political education.

It is also unwise to focus too much on Russia. This is not to say that Russian meddling should be ignored. It is to say that Russia is not the principal cause of the West’s problems, Oliker adds:

If Western democracies are to succeed, they must get their own houses in order – and in doing that, they will render themselves less vulnerable both to capture by would-be authoritarians and to Russia. For example, the best defence against efforts to transform business ties with less-than-above-board Russian firms and organisations into leverage for the Kremlin and others may well be to ensure transparency and clear regulation of corporations.

Putinism, Populism and the Defence of Liberal Democracy

“[P]opulists only lose if ‘the silent majority’—shorthand for ‘the real people’—has not had a chance to speak, or worse, has been prevented from expressing itself,” explains Jan-Werner Müller, a professor at Princeton University and the author of What Is Populism? “Hence the frequent invocation of conspiracy theories by populists: something going on behind the scenes has to account for the fact that corrupt elites are still keeping the people down. … [I]f the people’s politician doesn’t win, there must be something wrong with the system.”….

The irony, Müller writes, is that populists, after coming to power, tend to commit the same sins they ascribe to elites: “excluding citizens and usurping the state. What the establishment supposedly has always done, populists will also end up doing. Only with a clear justification and, perhaps, even a clear conscience.”


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