Resisting the seductions of populism

by Daphne Halikiopoulou on 19th November 2019
References to ‘the people’ are misleading. Populism is no democratic corrective. The world is changing rapidly. Artificial intelligence, climate change and demographic shifts shape the structures of our societies and determine what types of new challenges they face. It is only to be expected that social change will be followed by political change, as the losers of these processes are likely to respond electorally.
For many, this explains the rise of populist politics—increasing electoral support for political actors who seek to return politics back to ‘the people’, often in the name of taking back control and restoring national sovereignty. Most definitions centre on populism’s emphasis on the people, and the dichotomy between the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’. For this reason, so the theory goes, populism can potentially be a democratic corrective—shedding light on issues neglected by the elites and giving a voice to discontent.
Some go as far as to argue that we must fight populism with populism. This view often calls for a distinction between ‘bad’, far-right populism, which combines populism with nationalism, and a ‘better’, more progressive version, often from the left. It may even be accompanied by the idea that the left should itself go nationalist, to be able to put forward a viable counter-narrative to far-right populism which will win back those losers of new social cleavages.
Dangerous route
Appealing though it might seem to see populism as a democratic corrective, and to try to fight the bad version with the good, this is a dangerous route which treads on the fine line between democracy and authoritarianism. Here’s why.
What if populism is more than a communication style, and even an ideology that parties adopt? What if it is also, and perhaps more importantly, a system of collective decision-making and governance—an alternative vision of democratic society which such parties seek to implement?
Then the focus on ‘the people’ against a corrupt elite is not what should concern us most about populism. It is a descriptor of populist parties, yes, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us something analytical about populism. After all, who in a democracy doesn’t speak about the people, to the people and on behalf of the people, to some extent?
If populism is a vision about how we should be making collective choices in society, and how these choices should be justified and legitimated, then what should concern us most about populism is the extent to which it seeks to bypass representative institutions in the name of the ‘popular will’.
Precarious ground
For populists, societal choices come from below: only decisions made by ‘the people’ are legitimate and morally superior. Populism rallies behind the ‘will of the people’, which, it purports, is the only valid basis for decision-making.
But herein lies the problem: there is no single popular will. Societies consist of different social and attitudinal groups, with diverse—often conflicting—preferences. Without institutions which reconcile rather than exacerbate these preferences, democracy stands on precarious ground.
The insistence on equating the will of some of the people with the will of all of the people—and portraying that will as indivisible and morally superior—is an obstacle, not a corrective, to democracy. It inevitably means that those not associated with the thus-constructed political majority are not only excluded but demonised. It also means that the intermediary institutions designed to preserve rights and liberties in societies are undermined.
It is important to distinguish here between populist political actors and their voters. Discontented citizens might indeed seek democratic expression in niche politics, as research shows. But this focus displaces the supply side of those political actors who pursue populist forms of collective decision-making and seek to enact them. These actors often seek to bypass the institutions we have in place that make our democracies work.
Competing visions
Take ‘Brexit’. It is ironic that ‘taking back control’ of Westminster from the EU has come in direct confrontation with Parliament. This is a good example of two competing visions of democracy at odds with each other: the populist vision, which draws on popular sovereignty and asserts that decisions made from below are superior to all others, and the representative version, which stresses the legitimacy of public institutions.
Translating the will of the 52 per cent of those who voted in the 2016 referendum into the indivisible and indisputable ‘will of the British people’ has engendered antagonism and exacerbated social divisions. Democratic stability can best be achieved if we are able to manage diversity and seek consensus—and that can only be done through those democratic institutions designed to make our systems function.
Liberal—or pluralist or representative—democracy is not some abstract, normative idea. It is the institutional framework upon which our democracies are premised. Parliaments and the judicial system guarantee the rule of law and comprise the intermediary institutions which make, legitimate and implement collective societal decisions.
Populism seeks to bypass them. The result is to undermine—not correct—democracy. References to ‘the people’ don’t necessarily imply democracy. On the contrary: ‘the people’ has often been the language of dictators.
(Daphne Halikiopoulou is an associate professor in comparative politics at the University of Reading, focusing on populism, nationalism and the cultural and economic determinants of far-right party support in Europe.)