Sunday review: “Populism in Europe and the Americas: threat or corrective for democracy?” by Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser

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.

Anthony Painter leads the “populism, extremism and the mainstream” project at Policy Network

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5 Responses to “Sunday review: “Populism in Europe and the Americas: threat or corrective for democracy?” by Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser”

  1. wg says:

    It is indeed scary, isn’t it.

    People waking up to the three-party stitch-up – I mean, the established three-party hydra have a divine right to power, don’t they.

    As for the “national interest”, “generating wealth”, and “protecting workers rights” – I have seen nothing emanating from Brussels that fits either of those descriptions.

    But please, don’t blame the people of the EU states by ascribing the term “populism” to them – a term you and the EU corporatists use as a catch-all word for racist, xenophobe, or nationalist – the EU has no democratic credibility because it has no demos; the working people don’t want and can’t support this bureaucratic quango.

    Incidentally/also – by “Europe” I presume you mean the European Union, and I’m just wondering how “populism” is any different from “the existing way of doing democracy”.

    I think that I can supply a better description of “populism” – a form of popular democracy that doesn’t support an entrenched political elite who believe that freedom and independence are dirty words.

    I’m not a big fan of a Farage-led UKIP but I am a big fan of its independently-minded supporters – populist or not I shall be voting for them from now on.

  2. Let’s leave aside the fact that I explicitly didn’t equate populism with xenophobia, nationalism and racism … in fact, separating populism from those things was precisely the point of the article…actually your wider comment is quite helpfully illustrative. Your point re the UK’s political elites and the EU v ‘the people’ and the expression of pure form of popular democracy v the current democracy is exactly what I mean by populism. I don’t say it’s a good or bad thing – I think it’s misunderstood. It’s actually an argument about how democracy should work. Knowing the starting point is essential for understanding how to engage in debate for non-populist democrats.

  3. wg says:

    But you offer no alternative.

    Representative democracy is obviously failing – we vote in people for five years and they damn well do what they like; the present LibCon is a perfect example.

    If you wish to come down to a more direct “local” democratic model you are closer to the populism you are so concerned about.

    It’s this argument that is at the heart of the EU issue.

  4. You are right. I don’t. But that wasn’t my purpose. The question is how democracy can secure something that meets the needs of many rather than simply 50%+1 in a series of referendums or pure majority rule. That’s where liberal democracy has an edge over populist democracy. That’s not to say things are perfect – far from it.

  5. swatantra says:

    I would have thought that Britain has a good track record on resolving the Northern Ireland issue and that same model of conflict resolution could be the answer to all our prayers in settling the Israeli-Palestinian problem once and for all: One State:One All Inclusive Govt. Its the only answer; its the liberal democratic approach and not the populist approach adopted by previous leaders of both Israeli and Palestinian parties, which frankly is not going anywhere and putting the peace of the World at risk not just the peace of Europe.

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