Populism – a danger to democracy


The conventional wisdom that populists want to bring politics closer to the people or even clamor for direct democracy could not be more mistaken, notes Jan Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, and the author of What Is Populism? They do say that they are the only ones who care for the “people’s will”, but they are hardly interested in an open-ended, bottom-up process where citizens debate policy issues, he writes:

What populists take to be the people’s real will is derived from what they stipulate to be the real people. What’s worse, “the people’s will” that populists claim they will just faithfully execute – in that sense denying their own role as leaders and also any real political responsibility – is a fiction. There is no single political will, let alone a single political opinion, in a modern, complex, pluralist – in short, enormously messy – democracy. Populists put words into the mouth of what is after all their own creation: the fiction of the homogeneous, always righteous people.

“Populism is not just antiliberal, it is antidemocratic—the permanent shadow of representative politics,” according to Ivan Krastev, a council member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.

More worryingly still: when populists have sufficiently large majorities in parliament, they try to build regimes that might still look like democracies, but are actually designed to perpetuate the power of the populists (as supposedly the only authentic representatives of the people), argues Müller writes for The Guardian:

To start with, populists colonize or “occupy” the state. Think of Hungary and Poland as recent examples. One of the first changes Viktor Orbán [right] and his party Fidesz sought after coming to power in Hungary in 2010 was a transformation of the civil service law, so as to enable them to place loyalists in what should have been non-partisan bureaucratic positions. Both Fidesz and Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland also immediately moved against the independence of courts. Media authorities were captured; the signal went out that journalists should not report in ways that violate the interests of the nation (which were equated with the interests of the governing party). Whoever criticised any of these measures was vilified as doing the bidding of the old elites, or as being outright traitors (Kaczyński spoke of “Poles of the worst sort” who supposedly have “treason in their genes”).

Populism was not supposed to happen, analyst Aviezer Tucker writes for The American Interest:

During the 20th century, humanity subjected itself to a painful learning process by trying ideologies from the totalitarian extremes of the conventional Right and Left. The extreme Right led to the catastrophe of World War II. The extreme Left collapsed with the Soviet Bloc in 1989. At the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama argued that humanity had learned its lesson and, by elimination, only liberal democracy was left standing at the (philosophical, not literal) end of history. A minor assumption in Fukuyama’s reasoning was that nations do learn from history, retain the lessons, and pass them down through the generations. He did not examine at any length the possibility that societies might not remember failed historical experiments and so unwittingly repeat versions of them.

On the side of populist actors we often find rhetoric that is emotional, includes blame attribution and scapegoats, uses straightforward and sometimes violent language, and presents simplistic solutions to problems, according to the authors of Populist Political Communication in Europe. [T]he essence of populist communication consists of references to the people, anti-elitism, and the exclusion of various out-groups.

There is one further element of populist statecraft that is important to understand. Populists in power tend to be harsh (to say the least) with non-governmental organizations that criticize them, Müller concludes:

Again, harassing civil society is not a practice exclusive to populists. But for them opposition from within civil society creates a particular symbolic problem: it potentially undermines their claim to exclusive moral representation. Hence it becomes crucial to argue (and supposedly “prove”) that civil society isn’t civil society at all, and that what can seem like popular opposition has nothing to do with the real people. This explains why Putin, Orbán and PiS in Poland have gone out of their way to try to discredit NGOs as being controlled by outside powers (and also legally declare them to be “foreign agents”).


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