Populism and democracy: friend or foe? Rising stars deepen dilemma

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias of Podemos have taken their populist parties to victory in Greece and a lead in the polls in Spain. Flickr/Fanis Xouryas, CC BY

This article is part of a series on Crossroads Europe for the Democracy Futures project, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Over the past two decades, populism in Europe, the US and the Antipodes has been almost exclusively associated with the radical right. When populism is mentioned, figures linked with anti-immigrant sentiment or xenophobia like Pauline Hanson, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen come to mind.

Due to their inclination for polarised, uncompromising politics and aggressive targeting of vulnerable minorities, these public figures are are often viewed as a dangerous threat to democracy.

However, a shift has been taking place in recent months. The election of the Syriza government in Greece and the rise of Podemos in Spain – which is polling strongly in the lead-up to the national election later in 2015 – have drawn attention to the rise of left-wing populism in Europe.

The rise of parties like Syriza forces poses a dilemma for those who dismissed right-wing populism as undemocratic. EPA/Simela Pantzartzi

This has led previous naysayers to reconsider their position. If not all populists are interested in targeting immigrants and demonising Muslims – instead, some seem to be genuinely interested in recuperating the power of “the people” – is populism so bad? Do emerging populist groups around the world have the potential to bring about more inclusive versions of democracy?

The short answer is a little bit of both. Whether on the left or the right, populism has both democratic and anti-democratic tendencies. These often manifest simultaneously, making populism quite difficult to assess.

Democratic tendencies

One important democratic tendency of populism is that it can make politics more accessible, comprehensible and “popular”. When people talk about politics being boring, they are definitely not talking about populism. Populism can offer an important corrective to the dry, technocratic nature of much contemporary politics by making it far more interesting and relatable to everyday citizens.

Critics often regard populists’ embrace of the language of “the common man” as demagogy. The flipside of this is that engaging people with politics – especially those who might otherwise be disenchanted or uninterested – is vital to a healthy democracy.

Populism acknowledges that modern politics is not just a matter of putting forward policies for voters to deliberate rationally upon as some kind of Homo politicus. Rather, it appeals to the people with a full performative “package” that is both attractive and relevant.

Populist actors also have the ability to include previously excluded identities within their performances of “the people”. This symbolically transforms these identities and associated sites of contestation into “legitimate” political actors and sites.

In the recent past of Venezuela, Bolivia and Thailand, populists such as Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Thaksin Shinawatra have dramatically increased the inclusion of the poor by including them in their conception of “the people”. This has proven to be democratic beyond the mere symbolic level. The poor in each of these countries subsequently experienced a strong increase in material and political inclusion.

Supporters of Syriza and Podemos likely hope that these parties might similarly return more political and economic power to those who have been on the receiving end of some of the Eurocrisis’ worst outcomes.

Federal MP Bob Katter has been an advocate for the neglected interests of rural Australians. AAP/Joel Carrett

More controversially, even populists on the right of the political spectrum can include previously marginalised voices in their conception of “the people”. Katter’s Australian Party leader Bob Katter has proven to be one of the most vocal representatives of rural Australians, who are often ignored by the mainstream parties.

Similarly, federal senator Jacqui Lambie has certainly demonstrated a dedication to raising issues pertinent to Tasmania, which are often left off the political agenda. Even Hanson has shown a relatively democratic streak at times – her One Nation Party advocates a system of Citizen Initiated Referenda.

A third democratic tendency of populism is its ability to expose the dysfunctions of today’s democratic systems. The most obvious way it does this is by revealing corruption or elite collusion, and by calling for the increased sovereignty of “the people” in the name of democracy.

This has certainly been the case in Latin America. There, populism has often been an understandable reaction to hollowed-out, corrupt and exclusionary “democratic” systems. In Europe, many populist actors’ opposition to the European Union has effectively brought to light the “democratic deficit” at the heart of elite projects.

Populists can also offer effective critiques of the structural shortcomings and inefficiencies of democratic systems. Figures like Clive Palmer and Ross Perot have publicised the deficiency of political vision and lack of choice offered to voters in the Australian and US two-party systems. One of the key drivers of Beppe Grillo’s MoVimento 5 Stelle has been voters’ disaffection with the entire Italian political system.

In such environments, populists can shine a light on democratic systems not living up to their full potential and demand increased accountability of representatives to their constituents.

This is not to say that contemporary populism delivers on its promise to reclaim democracy from the elites by returning power to “the people”. It is impossible to ignore that populism’s foundational schema can too easily reduce complex political problems into simple solutions. These are just as – if not more – exclusive and undemocratic than the status quo.

Anti-democratic tendencies

Populism’s most problematic anti-democratic aspect is its strong inclination to target minorities and those labelled “others” as enemies of “the people”.

Populists’ invocation of “the people” relies on elevating one part of the community to the role of embodying the whole community. Consequently, those who do not fit into the category of “the people” are deemed illegitimate. So, while populist invocations of “the people” can sometimes open spaces for new democratic subjects, this inclusivity always comes at the price of the – sometimes virulent and violent – exclusion of the “other”.

This is most evident in the cases of radical right-wing populism – for example Hanson’s targeting of Asian immigrants, Wilders’ war against Islam and Marine Le Pen’s hatred of migrants. Yet even the “inclusive” populists mentioned earlier also demonstrate a worrying tendency to target their favoured “other”. Chávez allegedly withheld social insurance from those who offered political support to opposition parties and compared his enemies – such as then-US president George W. Bush – to the “devil”.

Thaksin has been accused of intimidating the opposition, bullying non-governmental organisations, shutting down media outlets and even carrying out extra-judicial killings.

None of these actions can be considered democratic in the least.

Late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez revealed an authoritarian streak as he targeted his political enemies. EPA/Fernando Bizerra Jr

These undemocratic and antagonistic tactics are indicative of another dangerous tendency of populism. Its simple vision of politics is one of an ongoing war between “the people” and their enemies (“the elite” and associated “others”).

Unfortunately, populism’s view of “the people” as unified and homogenous simply does not square with the complex reality. The contemporary political landscape is criss-crossed by difference and heterogeneity. The flows of global capital, migration, cross-border and transnational bodies and identities have made political communities ever more diverse, and identities more complex.

As such, the nostalgic view of the unified “people” of the past – or what political scientist Paul Taggart calls the populist “heartland” – makes little sense.

Geerd Wilders’ simple ‘solution’ is to remove Muslims from the Netherlands. EPA/Georg Hochmuth

Equally problematic is the populists’ tendency to offer simplistic solutions to complex problems. The basic logic behind Hanson’s calls for less immigration, Wilders’ calls to repatriate Muslims or even Chávez’s constant accusations of attacks from the US is this: remove or eradicate “the people’s” enemy and the problem will be solved.

Such scapegoating is not conducive to tackling the multifaceted and often international dimensions of the political, economic and cultural pressures facing political communities across the globe.

A last crucial anti-democratic tendency of populism is its drive towards extreme personalisation. Populism tends to rely on a strong charismatic leader to speak for, represent and embody the hopes, desires and voice of “the people”. This attitude is dangerous for democracy because by symbolically conflating a leader with an entire population, they become infallible.

Simply put, if the leader represents or embodies “the people’s” will, and “the people” are always right, then the leader is always right. Therefore, the granting of more power to the populist leader is not seen as a problem, as this is ultimately giving more power to “the people”.

Understandably, this trajectory worries many analysts of populism. A number of prominent populist actors have gone on to abuse their powers by utilising this logic to monopolise power and shift towards authoritarianism.

The future

So, what can we expect from populist movements today? Will they prove to be democratic or anti-democratic? Unsurprisingly, it is not that simple.

Populism can appear as a democratic force in some contexts and anti-democratic in others. Additionally, these tendencies are often simultaneously at play and in tension with one another. Populists can flaunt their democratic tendencies at the same time as undoing democratic guarantees.

Ultimately, the answer to the question of whether populism is democratic or not really depends on our view of what kind of democracy is best. Is it liberal democracy? If so, we probably see populism as problematic, given the targeting of minorities, the ignorance of procedures and the lack of acknowledgement of heterogeneity.

Or do we favour “radical” or “grassroots” democracy? In that case, we probably consider populism to be a democratic force, returning power to “the people” by removing it from the hands of “the elite” who never deserved their power in the first place.

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