by Anthony Painter
Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, has granted himself sweeping new constitutional powers over the constitution, democracy and the legal system. Hugo Chavez did the same in Venezuela and suppressed political opposition and voices of dissent in the media. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, has changed voting rules and given himself power over the judiciary and a wide range of protections against legislative change unfavourable to Orban – constitutionally enshrined.
Ideologically, Morsi, Orban, and Chavez could not be more dissimilar: a political Islamist, a socialist, and a radical conservative. Something does link them though: they are all, in different ways, populists. Straight away we enter the realm of confusion. Populism has become a dirty word, synonymous with impulse, emotion, charisma, authoritarianism, fundamental institutional change and destruction of minority rights. From Morsi, Orban and Chavez it can be seen as some if not many of these things but it’s something even deeper than that and where there is democracy then there is populism – yes, even in the case of the UK as we shall see.
Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser take a look at the impact and nature of populism in their important new work, Populism in Europe and the Americas. In this edited volume, experts look at Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Austria, Venezuela, Peru, and Slovakia. They might well have added the tea party in the US and euroscepticism in the UK for they define populism as a battle between “the pure people” and “corrupt elites.” In the case of the former, the “corrupt elite” is, of course, Washington and the Wall Street. For eurosceptics they are “eurocrats” or ECHR judges and all who conspire with them.
Paul Taggart in his classic work, Populism sees the essential features of populism as a commitment to a (mythical) people in a heartland, a moral fight between the pure and the corrupted, and seeing representative democracy as the latter. Populism has a deep place within American history. The agrarian populism of the People’s party at the end of the nineteenth century, Huey Long in the 1930s (and, one wonders, did Franklin Roosevelt come close to pursuing a populist course when he threatened to pack the Supreme Court?), and George Wallace in the 1960s. The tea party is part of an American tradition.
When populism is confronted, it is often on the basis of the causes a populist advocates: Geert Wilders’ anti-Islamic nationalism, Wallace and racial segregation, Morsi and political Islam. The sub-title of Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser’s work is “threat or corrective to democracy?” The reality is that it can be either. It is commonly a threat to representative or liberal democracy as the examples above demonstrate. But it can also express and represent voices that otherwise are excluded from democratic politics – the poor in the case of a Chavez or a Long, the culturally threatened in the case of Wilders, the Muslim majority in the case of Morsi. We may not like the ideologies and we may not like more authoritarian forms of democracy that can result from them but they are legitimate voices. So while populism is decried in “normal” political discourse, its impacts are much more uncertain.
Populists want not only to represent a “people” but they also want to change the way democracy functions – fewer checks and balances, more direct responses to the popular or “general” will. This is why UK euroscepticism falls into this category. It speaks to a “people”, it wants to change how British democracy functions, and sees democracy as having been corrupted by elites within and beyond these shores. When Tony Blair is castigated for accepting a reduction in the UK’s rebate, it is not only in practical but moral terms. He was taken in by a foreign elite. Interestingly, the allegations levelled at him with regard to the Iraq war and the US are rather similar. The anti-war march is seen as a moment where a “general will” was expressed but not responded to. Populism appears across the spectrum.
The question then arises of how populism can be – or should be – responded to. Firstly, it is important to note that populism may well perform an important signaling mechanism – its causes or people shouldn’t be dismissed. Secondly, it does have a tendency towards simplistic solutions than could well not have the desired impact and cause harm in the process. As Margaret Thatcher knew, the qualified majority vote was essential to advancing the single market even if it did dilute the national veto.
Thirdly, checks and balances exist for a reason. They may not be the right checks and balances but, for example, decision-making in the EU couldn’t function without them. Without human rights laws then people will be subjected to arbitrary powers without any form of redress. Just by willing something, it doesn’t mean that you can achieve it. Again, looking at euroscepticism, leaving the EU would restore formal powers to Westminster but would that result in a greater pursuit of the national interest? With those powers, less can be achieved in generating wealth, protecting the environment, or workers’ rights than in European cooperation.
Populists come in many different shapes and forms. Understanding the essence of populism – a challenge to the existing way of doing democracy – is critical if the causes it advocates are to be responded to: positively or negatively. Don’t think for a minute, however, that populism is a continental or US phenomenon alone. There is a British populism that is gaining momentum through UKIP, the right of the Conservative party, and the media. How are democrats who see the current system as serving the national interest going to respond? So far, mainly with silence or defensiveness and that could well spell defeat.