Spotlight on Chapter 14: Understanding the recent rise of populism

by | Sep 25, 2016 | Blog | 0 comments

This is an abridged version of Section 2.6 (Populism: A challenge from within) of Chapter 14.

Populism remains a deeply contested term, often used merely to brand and accuse actual political movements or leaders. However, recent events in Europe and the United States and recent literature have helped shed light on populism and some agreement is possible upon basic definitions of it concerning its ideological character, its relation to democracy’s promises of public equality, its socio-cultural content and its strategic mechanism.

Populism’s recognizable characters

Populism develops within representative democracies (not merely democracies) as a fight over the meaning and representation of the people, an extreme expression of intense majority politics and thus a straining of constitutional democracy to its extreme limits, beyond which a change of regime (tyranny or dictatorship) could occur. All populist movements exhibit a strong reservation and even hostility to the mechanisms of representation, in the name of an almost unanimous collective affirmation of the will of the people under a leading figure and above party pluralism.

Populism is not external to representative democracy but competes with it about the meaning and use of representation as a strategy for claiming, affirming, and managing the will of the masses.  Its representative claim is the source of its radical contestation of parliamentary democracy, its real target.  Indeed, it treats pluralism (of interests and ideas, but also as manifested by parties) as litigious claims that fragment the body of popular sovereignty and thus must be simplified so as to create a polarized scenario that makes the people immediately know how to judge and with whom to side. Simplification and polarization are in the view of achieving a deeper unification of the masses against the existing elites and under an organic narrative that most of the time a leader embodies. Populism can be identified with two intertwined political processes: one that goes toward polarization of the citizenry in two homogenous groups (the many and the few), and the other that goes toward a verticalization of the political system that minimizes the role of deliberation and mediation and exalts instead that of strong majorities and steadfast decisions. Polarization and Caesarism go hand in hand and both of them constitute a radical challenge to constitutional democracy. Populism can thus be rendered in the following way: it is a symptom of representative democracy’s malaise as denunciation of the failure of constitutional democracy to be consistent with its promises of guaranteeing that all citizens enjoy an equal political power and that public equality is the norm leading institutions, politicians, and citizens.

The promise of democracy

Both in its classical and modern version, democracy promises to institute and guarantee legal, civil and political equality. In relation to its promises of equality, however, democracy proposes things that at first glance seem contradictory: that political power should be distributed regardless of the social, cultural, and economic conditions of the citizens and that it should be used by the citizens to make sure that those conditions are not so unequal if the equal political power is to be effective. The tension between formal and substantial equality is in the very genes of democracy, not an accident or a defect because citizens’ equality refers to both a way of making decisions (government form) and a way of participating in making them (political form). This makes a procedural conception of democracy simply an incomplete picture.

De iure and de facto levels are intertwined and their tense combination makes a democratic society an amalgam in permanent and sometimes turbulent motion, in which the promises of equality are at once working procedures and instigations to social criticism and innovation. This tension feeds populism, which represents an all-political transformation of the forum of opinions that becomes a force more authoritative than elections, often amplified by the media. Populism repudiates democracy’s diarchy of opinion and decision in view of merging fully the way people think and the way people want. It is to representative democracy what demagoguery was to direct democracy. According to Aristotle’s pivotal analysis, demagoguery within democracy is: (a) a permanent possibility insofar as it relies upon the public use of speech and opinion like democracy; (b) a more intense use of the principle of the majority so as to make it almost absolute or a form of power more than a method for making decisions (populism is the rule of the majority rather than a politics that uses majority rule); and (c) a waiting room for a possible tyrannical regime. We may attribute the following four aspects to populism: it flourishes as a fellow traveler of democracy; is a radical form of democratic action as strong majoritarianism; develops in times of social distress and increasing inequality; and its outcome may be risky to constitutional democracy.

Populism’s contextual specificity

A complex category hard to synthetize in a clear-cut definition, populism’s factors and implications are deeply contextual and connected to the malaise of democratizing or democratic societies. In the United States, born when the country was ruled by an elected notabilate representing the interests of an oligarchy (before universal suffrage was implemented), the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights became extant conditions for a more democratized polity, and populism a collective movement against the “domestic enemies of the people” in the name of an alleged purity of the origins of popular government and its adulteration by the artificial complexity of civilization and the institutional organization of the state. The bureaucratic and normative state apparatus, which started to be built in mid-nineteenth century, made the work of the government more distant from the people and its operations more opaque and hard to be understood by ordinary citizens.

Like in the United States, populism in Latin America also emerged in the age of social modernization but much like fascism in Italy it governed the path towards modernity that used state power to protect and empower their popular classes, repress dissent, and meanwhile implement social-welfare policies. Thus Ernesto Laclau described populism (and Peronism in particular) as a strategy of hegemonic rebalancing within the “power blocs” through the incorporation of the popular-democratic ideology of the masses within the ruling majority.

Finally, in Western Europe, populism made its appearance with democratization in early twentieth century, along with colonial expansionism, militarization of society coinciding with World War One, and the growth of ethnic nationalism per effect of the distress that the war. It helped justify xenophobic ideologies that aimed at homogenizing the nation and in fact promoted Fascist regimes based on mass propaganda, political simplification of friends/enemies divide and Caesaristic leadership incorporating the people as one.

Populism is growing once again, not only in Latin America and in poor societies struggling to modernize and democratize. Populism is back in several European countries, within a supranational quasi-federative context and several decades of cosmopolitan culture of rights and toleration that lessened nationalistic politics. The European Union, which developed as anti-totalitarian project after World War Two, is a novel frontier of populism, which is emerging no longer and simplistically as a claim for going back to a pre-European Union order, but rather as a design for a new representation of the European peoples as ancestral totalities against external sources of contamination such as affluent cosmopolitan elites and migrants. Decline of socio-economic wellbeing combines with an erosion of democratic legitimacy in relaunching populist leaders and movements in several European states and also the Unites States, which is experiencing resurgent nativism aimed against immigrants much like the old Europe and is no longer the exceptional and only place in which populism is the name of good democracy. To be sure, there are some leftwing forms of populism in both continents that claim to be inclusive of the new immigrants rather than exclusionary, yet they make their claim not in the name of the democratic promises but as a challenge to the constitutional fabric of representative democracy.

Renascent populism witnesses waning confidence in core representative democratic institutions such as parties, parliaments and elections. As leading scholars (Mair, Manin, Merkel, Rosanvallon) have stressed, shrinking party membership and increasing estrangement between politicians and voters testify to disillusionment with representative democracy.  Politicians are regularly accused of having lost touch with ordinary people’s concerns and made politics into an insipid mainstreamism that chooses to neglect society’s most grave needs and concerns in order not to compromise electoral consent. Yet anti-party sentiment is primed to damage constitutional democracy as citizens need to be offered recognizable political proposals in order to side with and against and choose and participate. In consolidated democracies, thus, populism seems to follow a cycle of electoral abstention and apathy, which is a side effect of mainstreamism and at the origin of citizens’ mistrust in party politics, the growth of anti-party sentiments, and the attraction of the populist rebuff of “practical democracy”. When elected politicians and citizens become two separate groups that make the opposition between “the many” and “the few” an easily grasped catchword, when ordinary citizens witness increase of social distress and gross violations of economic equality in the general indifference of their representatives and while the most powerful acquire more voice in politics, it may very well happen that people distrust “practical politics”.

These are traditional factors that help explain the growth of populism in democratic societies: the quest for more intense power by the majority is primed to emerge from time to time like a symptom of mistrust in democracy’s ability to fulfill its promise of equal political power. Yet some additional factors contribute today in reinvigorating the populist rhetoric, such as a globalized financial capitalism that weakens the decision-making power of sovereign states and a globalized market of labor force that narrows the possibility of striking a social-democratic compromise between capital and labor upon which democracy was rebuilt after World War Two. The weakening of state sovereignty before global corporate business meets with the people’s call for closed borders in several nation-states as if democratic citizens thought that the protection of their political power demands the containment of free movement of peoples and of free competition over salary and social benefits. Like in the past, populism associates politics of social redistribution with protectionist politics; in addition, the dramatic phenomenon of terrorism associated with Islamic extremism propels a politics of state security at expense of civil rights and highlights the nationalistic character of democracy as a vital condition of cultural and religious homogeneity to be protected against external enemies. Hence, in several member-states of the European Union, anti-European sentiments, economic distress, and a cultural discourse dominated by cosmopolitan elites determine a representative deficit which can open a political space for those who have the perception of not having their voice represented: populist leaders are primed to find there an inviting milieu for their anti-establishment plans.

In a globalized world, populism comes to play two roles: that of denouncing social inequality and the privileges of the wealthy few and that of reclaiming the priority of the national unity of the people. Resuming the two ancient categories—ethnos and demos—whose mix steered the construction of post-Eighteenth century democratic “people”, one might say that populism’s renaissance in several democratic countries is both a symptom and a triggering force that can disrupt that mix.  Indeed, on the one hand, the demos (“the people”) tends to deflate its political meaning as the collective of equals in power (citizens/electors) and to translate it into a social unit identified with the majority, and on the other hand, the ethnos (“the nation”), which the political nation of the equal subjects to the law was meant to neat of all ancestral meanings, tends to be identified with pre-political characters not acquirable by simply being subjects to the law. Briefly, populism combines two processes: of politicization of the ethnical aspect and of ethnicization of the political aspect that have made for “the popular sovereign” in modern democracy. It thus shows how weak and context-dependent the roots of representative democracy are.

Populism in power

Populism, both as a movement and populism as an intra-state power, is parasitical on representative democracy either because it opposes representative democracy or wants to conquer it.  But while a certain populist rhetoric is to be detected in almost all parties (particularly when they radicalize their claims close to elections), populism as a ruling power has some recognizable characteristics that can sharply contrast with “practical democracy” and the procedural structures of ordinary politics, like hostility towards party pluralism, the principles of constitutional democracy and the division of powers. Hence although ingrained in the ideology of the people and the language of democracy, populism as a ruling power tends to give life to governments that stretch the democratic rules toward an extreme majoritarianism, often discriminating against minorities. Populism in power is a pars-pro-toto project that may have devastating effects on constitutional democracy.  This makes us conclude that while a symptom of political and social malaise in democratic societies, populism can hardly be a cure. Factors driving populism can be found in the partial regimes of elections and political rights to participation within embedded democracies, where people at the lower end of the social strata feel systematically excluded and underrepresented or simply fear to be victims of threats they cannot face and control with ordinary legal and political means. In addition, a cause for populist discourse is also to be found in the partial regime of “power to govern” as national sovereignty is challenged by global markets and supranational governances such as the European Union. Yet regardless of its social specificity and the objective duress that fuels it, if populism comes to power it explicitly challenges the proper working of the “civil rights” regime and the regime of horizontal accountability granting too much power to the executive (decisionism and democracy of the leader) at the expenses of the legislature and the judiciary (deliberation and the rule of law). The question is that although populist leaders seeking power promise to include the excluded and overturn an elected oligarchy, once in power they end up by attacking the institutions of liberal democracy, seizing central government, controlling and even repressing social movements and oppositions, limiting civil liberty and contrasting media pluralism. For this reason, although a symptom of malaise of democratic societies, populism can hardly be a remedy.


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