These comments on the topical subject of populism have been gathered by the University of Sydney’s Sydney Democracy Network and its Democracy Futures team. SDN is a global network of researchers, journalists, activists, policy makers and citizens concerned with the future of democracy. The comments form part of a longer series on populism on The Conversation.
Populism is everywhere on the rise. Why is this happening? Why are the peddlers of populism proving so popular? Are there deep forces driving the spread of their style of politics, and what, if anything, has populism to do with democracy? Is populism democracy’s essence, as some maintain?
Is the new populism therefore to be welcomed, harnessed and “mainstreamed” in support of more democracy? Or is populism on balance politically dangerous, a cultish recipe for damaging democracy by bringing to life what George Orwell termed the “smelly little orthodoxies” that feed demagogy, big business and bossy power?
As US voters consider whether to vote for Donald Trump, and Filipino citizens live with the fall-out of Rodrigo Duterte’s populist rhetoric, scholars from China to Brazil to Australia analyse the phenomena behind populism’s ascent in 2016.
John Keane, University of Sydney
Ancient Greeks knew democracy could be snuffed out by rich and powerful aristoi backed by demagogues ruling the people in their own name. They even had a verb (now obsolete) for describing how people are ruled while seeming to rule. They called it dēmokrateo. It’s the word we need for making sense of the contradiction that cuts through contemporary populism.
Populism is a democratic phenomenon. Mobilised through available democratic freedoms, it’s a public protest by millions of people (the demos) who feel annoyed, powerless, no longer “held” in the arms of society.
The analyst D W Winnicott used the term to warn that people who feel dropped strike back. That’s the populist moment when humiliated people lash out in support of demagogues promising them dignity. They do so not because they “naturally” crave leaders, or yield to the inherited “fascism in us all”.
Populism attracts people because it raises their expectations of betterment. But there’s a price. In exchange for promises of popular sovereignty, populism easily mass produces figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
And in contrast to the 19th-century populist politics of enfranchisement, today’s populism has exclusionary effects. The dēmokrateo of it all isn’t stoppable by anodyne calls for “dialogue”, or false hopes populism will somehow burn itself out. What’s needed is something more radically democratic: a new politics of equitable redistribution of power, wealth and life chances that shows populism to be a form of counterfeit democracy.
Once upon a time, such political redistribution was called “democracy”, or “welfare state”, or “socialism”.
Benjamin Moffitt, Stockholm University
If there’s one thing we need to do in response to populism’s triumphant return to the global political landscape, it is this: stop shaking our heads and feigning shock. Media pundits, mainstream parties, pollsters and experts of various stripes are continually dazed by populists’ success – think Donald Trump, Brexit, Pauline Hanson, Rodrigo Duterte - but these are not weird one-offs: these events are happening across the globe.
Why now? There are at least five central factors. “The elite” is on the nose, for good reason, in many parts of the world. The shifting media landscape favours the simple, headline-grabbing, dramatic message of populists. Populist actors have become increasingly savvy and increased their appeal over the past decade. Populists have seized the crisis-ridden moment, and have been remarkably successful at not only reacting to crises, but actively aiming to bring about and perpetuate a sense of crisis. Finally, populists have been very effective at exposing the deficiencies of contemporary democratic systems across the globe.
So let’s drop the surprise, the shaking of heads in disbelief, the paralysis brought on by continually asking ourselves “how can this be?” It’s now time to acknowledge that populism is a central part of contemporary politics.
Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Diego Portales University
Whether we like it or not, populists around the world are posing legitimate questions about the state of democracy. Many citizens feel betrayed by mainstream political forces. To a great extent, this can be explained by the growing influence of unelected bodies.
Although elected leaders can take important decisions, their room for manoeuvre is increasingly limited by unelected institutions, which in theory are autonomous and contribute to the provision of public goods. However, nothing precludes that unelected bodies run amok or side with powerful minorities.
Consider the way the US Supreme Court has intensified the role of money in politics, or the failure of the European Union to force the financial sector to pay its fair share of the costs of the recession.
Populists are real experts in politicising these and other issues ignored by the political establishment. This is why policy makers and scholars need to avoid falling into the populist trap: portraying themselves as the good and smart fighters against bad and stupid populists. The best way of dealing with populists is to engage them in honest dialogue and to propose solutions to the problems they seek to politicise.
Jan Zielonka, University of Oxford
Ruling elites in the Western world have recently identified a convenient scapegoat explaining all their failures: they call it populism.
The future of America, Europe or Australia, they say, would be bright if not for a bunch of populists destroying all the good work done by (neo-)liberals. These distasteful populists propose simple solutions to complicated problems. They use moralistic rhetoric, make unrealistic promises and launch unfair personal attacks on their opponents. They demonise the elite and idealise ordinary people, setting the latter against the former. Populists manipulate the confused and uninformed electorate. They make it difficult for the elite to govern in a rational and effective manner.
The story is too devious to be true. There’s nothing wrong with simple solutions if they are just, efficient, and based on democratic procedures. Moralistic rhetoric is used by the ruling elite itself on a daily basis: remember the “axis of evil” on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion?
Smearing opponents and making empty promises are the daily bread and butter of mainstream politicians. And what is wrong with implementing the will of the people? Aren’t elections a means of defining citizens’ preferred policies, and not just a beauty contest of politicians? Mainstream elites, centre-left and centre-right today presume that government is a kind of enlightened administration on behalf of an ignorant public. Yet their political practices betray their proclaimed liberal ideals: they tolerate rampant inequality, spy on citizens, torture prisoners, and invade other countries.
The borders between democracy and autocracy, civility and barbarity have become blurred. No wonder voters are searching for alternatives. Ruling elites should look at themselves in the mirror before blaming others.
Takashi Inoguchi, University of Niigata Prefecture
John Maynard Keynes’ Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930) speculated that in one hundred years productivity would so increase by leaps and bounds that most of humanity would no longer need to work. The economic problem of how to produce and allocate goods and services, and how to distribute money, would cease to exist. Economics would lose its raison d’être.
Although, as Keynes predicted, productivity has risen, economic policy has obviously not reduced the need for work, or consumption. Understandably, American political economists came to argue that recent employment growth and per capita income increases would explain more or less which US presidential election candidate would win. No more!
What we witness today is not the end of economic policy but the beginning of populism. People the world over are now allured by the folksy slogans of populism, which raises the question: why didn’t Keynes imagine the thriving of populism after the death of economics?
Thamy Pogrebinschi, Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB)
The concept of populism is highly contestable, but clarifying the difference between its left-wing and right-wing variants is both the best and the worst starting point for making sense of its contours.
Populism is not an ideology. Yet populism of the left and populism of the right produce different sets of ideas, identities and effects. Populism can be so politically empty that it joins forces with ideologies as different as socialism and nationalism. Populist discourses can thus favour exclusion, or inclusion.
The experiences of Latin America and Europe illustrate this difference well. In Latin America, populism has tried to include workers and middle class citizens socially dislocated by capitalism. In contemporary Europe, populism is attempting to exclude people dislocated by wars, and by capitalism in different parts of the world.
In both cases, however, the appeal to popular sovereignty exposes the deep tension between democracy and capitalism. We should therefore care less about definitions, and ask the real question: is representative democracy now so overshadowed by capitalism that it is no longer able to make room for the popular sovereignty upon which it was founded?
Ulrike Guérot, Danube University Krems
Two hundred words on populism are barely sufficient to point out that a century ago, before populism became a swear word mostly directed at right-wing parties such as the Alternative for Germany, Hungary’s Fides and the Front National in France, populism was the pride of social democracy.
The “classes populaires” were important for left-wing leaders such as Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum and Jules Ferry. These were men who cared for the people, especially exploited workers; they wanted to improve their lives. Caring was their key word.
Today, nobody seems to care for people. The European losers in today’s globalisation, people living, and failing, mostly in devastated rural areas, are mainly left to themselves. If they fail, due to lack of education and life chances, they’re told they are living in free societies, where everybody has the potential to succeed.
Hatred for democracy stems from the fact that opportunity remains a fiction for many people. Hence Étienne Balibar’s warning: since there’s no such thing as freedom without equality, the right to rebel and change a political order is a human right, especially when “equaliberty” and dignity are quashed. Populists know this.
Wolfgang Merkel, Humboldt University
From a normative standpoint, things are clear: cosmopolitans who uphold equality, global justice, ethno-religious tolerance and human rights cannot accept right-wing populism. Nationalism, chauvinism, ethno-religious intolerance are incommensurable with the values of an open and tolerant society.
Things are less clear when we try to explain the rise of right-wing populist parties. People who belong to the enlightened, cosmopolitan, middle and upper classes often argue that right-wing populism is the result of a demagoguery that is especially attractive to uneducated people from the lower classes. This explanation is not just inadequate; it bespeaks arrogant ignorance.
Right-wing populism in Europe has three causes: a general discontent with European integration; economic exclusion; and disaffection and fear of a large influx of migrants and refugees. Large swathes of the lower middle class complain of their exclusion from public discourse. The neo-liberal version of globalisation and the general failure of the moderate left to address the distributive question have created feelings of impotence and marginalisation among the lower classes.
Right-wing populism is thus a rebellion of the disenfranchised. The establishment parties have arguably committed serious political errors. It’s high time that they leave their fortress of normative arrogance and grant a democratic voice to the non-represented. If they fail to do so, right-wing populists will transform our democracies: they will become more parochial, intolerant and polarised.
Yu Keping, Peking University
Both the Chinese government and Chinese intellectuals are acutely aware of the phenomenon of populism, which last flourished here during the Cultural Revolution. In 1996, I urged Chinese policy makers to prevent populism, which always tends towards extreme forms of plebeianism. Plebeian standards are seen as the ultimate source of legitimacy of all social and political dynamics.
In its opposition to elitism, populism ignores, or radically negates, the vital role played by political elites in processes of social and political change and historical development. Populism instead advocates radical reforms, and deems ordinary people the only decisive force capable of promoting these reforms. The hopes, needs and emotions of the people are the origin and destiny of its concerns. By affirming their spirit and capacity for innovation, populism has a positive implication: it teaches us to pay attention to the historical role played by people.
But populism has its limits. Not only does it ignore the role played by elites in making historical progress, by emphasising the need for mobilising the general population, it also calls for absolute obedience to the passions and will of the people. That is why populism often manages to manipulate and control people in highly centralised ways. Populism can thus easily lead to autocracy, and to anarchy.