Trump was able to garner massive support in segments of the American population, whereas Palmer’s UAP only managed 3.43% of first preference votes in the lower house at the 2019 federal election.
American-style populism does not resonate with large numbers of Australians. Australian political traditions are quite different to those of America especially in terms of welfare and health provision. Those who seek to take the populist route find it a hard road.
The last 12 months has demonstrated the significance of “quarantine culture” in Australia, a term first coined by cultural historian John Williams in the 1990s.
The natural instinct of Australians is to close borders against outside threats, be they national or state. The only partial exception to this rule at the moment is New South Wales — the one part of Australia that had a vigorous free trade (or internationalist) political culture in the 19th century.
In late 19th century and early 20th century Australia, writers such as WG Spence and magazines like The Bulletin talked about a desire to “protect” Australia against a harsh outside world and, if possible, limit the operation of international finance. The ideal was an Australia not dependent on the rest of the world.
In this regard, it is also worth recalling that one of the arguments often given for restricting Chinese immigration at the time was they were seen as carrying diseases into Australia.
This was a form of populism — but one quite different to the American version. It sought to protect Australia and Australians from the outside world, not to assert their right to liberty.
The COVID pandemic seems to have reignited this desire to protect Australians from an outside threat. The most remarkable aspect of this development has been the way in which this desire for protection has devolved to the state level.
Moves to close borders and institute quite draconian measures to halt the spread of the virus have been generally popular. Australians, it would seem, are more interested in being protected than they are in asserting their rights to do as they please.
What does this mean for Palmer?
This makes life quite difficult for someone such as Palmer, who has pushed for freedoms and border openings.
No wonder he has decided not to contest the WA state election. He is not in tune with the popular mood, which has strongly backed Labor Premier Mark McGowan’s hard border approach. It is not the time for libertarian populism.
It is difficult to know how long this protectionist attitude will last. One suspects the current situation with China has also fed into it. The mood is one of a threatening world.
… and for Morrison?
From here, two comments are worth making.
The first is political. Prime Minister Scott Morrison will need to cultivate this threatening mood if he is to succeed at the next federal election, which could be held as early as August. He will need to convince Australians he is the leader who will protect them most effectively. This means going slowly, slowly on things such as opening the international border.
The second is economic. Even in the 1890s, the Australian economy depended on international trade through the sale of wool. The idea Australia could operate independently of other countries was a fantasy.
The same is true today. The borders will need to re-open and students and tourists let in.
Morrison will have to perform a juggling act. He must appear to be providing protection even as he appreciates protection can only go so far.
In the meantime, the prospects look grim for populists such as Palmer and Hanson.
The prime minister and his coalition have the opportunity to steal many of their supporters. The pandemic shows that to be successful in Australian politics, leaders needs to pose as the protector of the people, not promise more freedom and more openness.
Three of the world’s most populist leaders of modern times – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, have handled the COVID crisis badly.
All three have caught it.
In the Financial Times, chief economics commentator Martin Wolf has asked whether this spells the end of the sort of right wing aggressive populism that has been so successful in recent times.
Part of his answer is that populism hasn’t lined up neatly against relative success in keeping populations safe.
In the Anglosphere, Trump and Johnson have indeed been much more chaotic in tackling COVID than Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
But other populist governments such as those in Hungary and Poland have done well.
“The really interesting question” he says, turns out to be “is a government actually interested in governing?”.
Trump and Bolsonaro are basically interested in politics as performance.
They don’t care about government but they don’t really understand what government is for and they’re indifferent to it. In some ways and in some cases, they’re actually trying to dismantle the state.
As Wolf says, it’s obvious if that’s what you want to do, you can’t manage a disease well.
But there are other autocratic and indeed populist politicians who understand that ultimately their claim on power depends on being reasonably effective in dealing with such things.
The populists who don’t care about government are likely to be disposed of.
It’s possible for populists to govern well
But, what will replace them will not necessarily be a more effective democratic government, it could just as easily be a more effective dictator who understands the importance of delivering what people care about.
Wolf says that’s what Hungary and, in a different way, Poland has shown.
Alasdair MacIntyre’s concepts of “internal” and “external” goods offer some useful tools with which the think about these issues.
MacIntyre explains them with an example in which a child is taught to play chess and rewarded with candy if she wins.
The skills required for excellence in chess are “internal goods”. They include spatial vision, computational accuracy and competitive intensity. They are “internal” because they emerge organically from the activity.
Candy is an “external good” because it is provided from outside the game.
All of the practices that have acquired any significance in the world, from chess playing to accountancy, from business management to political statesmanship are all entanglements of internal and external goods mutually supporting each other.
Rewards matter, but they are not everything
The internal goods of a practice can’t prosper – can’t exist in the world as more than a hobby – without the external goods such as money (and sometimes candy), power and esteem.
Thought of economically, they enable the practice to bid resources (of people’s attention, time and money) away from other activities.
Medicine is a practice with its own internal goods, but there wouldn’t be much of it unless practitioners were paid.
The converse is also true. People are prepared to part with their scarce resources to fund medicine or some other practice only because they value what it produces. Equally medicine can’t function without internal goods – such as the skills taught at med school.
However, although they complement one another, internal and external goods are in tension.
The girl in pursuit of candy will be tempted to cheat, undermining her incentive to acquire the game’s internal goods. A doctor will be tempted to over-service to obtain more external goods at the cost of sacrificing internal goods.
MacIntyre says it is virtues that keep this from happening.
Without them, in particular, “without justice, courage and truthfulness, practices could not resist the corrupting power of institutions”.
Leaders are getting skilled, at the wrong things
As MacIntyre sees it, the skill of political performance is actually an internal good of politics. It’s an important skill that helps one excel at politics. But it’s a particular kind of internal good.
Many internal goods are unquestionably meritorious unless they’re deliberately used for some nefarious purpose. Such skills include an astronomer’s or a chess player’s accuracy in calculation or the sensitivity of a medical professional’s skills of observation and diagnosis.
On the other hand the business person’s focus on profit, the sportsperson’s competitive intensity and the politician’s capacity to perform are internal goods that are, in their respective areas, most closely associated with acquiring external goods.
This makes them more morally ambiguous than other internal goods.
This has been true since ancient Athens, but in my view what has changed is the fast foodification of our culture; the growing focus of our institutions on the external rewards of profit, power and prestige.
As fast food is to ordinary food, so porn is to sexuality, memes are to culture and to our capacity to concentrate, auto-tuned formulaic pop is to popular music, and linkbait and trolling are to journalism.
It was MacIntyre’s horror that this was increasingly the case in modern liberal capitalist democracies that motivated his thinking. As he put it
if in a particular society the pursuit of external goods were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer first attrition and then perhaps something near total effacement, although simulacra might abound.
So how did we get here and what can we do about it?
It seems to have arisen from the way the markets or “theatres of action” have scaled.
A generation ago, party politics had deep roots into the community across the Western world with party membership of around 14% of population.
By the turn of this century average membership had fallen to just 5% of the population and active membership had fallen to a mere fraction of that.
Politicians doorknock less than they used to. After COVID they mighn’t do it much at all.
The mass scale of campaigning has forced politics to be conducted through media far more than it used to be, making the external goods of power and prestige much more dependent on performance in the media.
Fast food media, fast food politics
But the media has been driven by its own competitive imperatives to attract audiences, and so has concentrated on reporting the theatrics of political performance – intensifying the vicious cycle which hollows out political discourse as loss of members and local action has hollowed out party membership.
So much so that politicians do increasingly farcical things for the cameras – none more so than the famously irreligious (or perhaps “areligious’”) Trump photo-op, bible in hand, at a church outside the White House, having walked through public space that had been cleared of demonstrators with tear gas.
Because these phenomena have developed deep structural roots, I’d expect there to be strict limits to the extent that they can be addressed within the existing system – though measures within it to improve integrity such as fundraising limits on political parties might be helpful.
Wolf may also be right that the extraordinary incompetence of the worst of the populists will trigger a backlash against them.
But I fear we’re in the grip of something bigger.
This analysis points to the possible healing qualities of injecting into our system small-scale deliberation of the kind of I have argued for elsewhere through mechanisms that aren’t “scaled” via media performances such as citizen’s juries.
We are prepared to do it for court cases. We are prepared to appoint as our representatives a jury of twelve ordinary people chosen without reference to performance or external rewards.
That Western democracies used to deliver good outcomes is not a good argument for maintaining the status quo. If we care about our institutions we will try to improve them.
Scott Morrison’s Lowy lecture on foreign policy, titled “In our interest” and delivered on Thursday, was peevish in its tone and lacked nuance in its content.
While Morrison canvassed the positive side of globalism, the take-out was his forthright criticisms of what he sees as its negatives.
He warned against globalism “that coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community. And worse still, an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy”.
He went on, “We can never answer to a higher authority than the people of Australia”.
Morrison’s visit to New York last week seems to have left him particularly liverish about international institutions.
Not that he even attended the United Nations leaders summit on climate. His office explained his absence by the fact Australia wouldn’t get a speaking spot, which only went to countries with new initiatives to announce. So Morrison devoted his address to the UN General Assembly to defending his government’s climate policy.
The prime minister is clearly frustrated at the pot shots that are fired at Australia over climate change, although they come from well beyond the UN (remember the Pacific Islands Forum). Successive conservative governments have also been riled by the long running criticism from UN bodies over Australia’s treatment of refugees.
When on Friday he was pressed for an example of where an unaccountable international bureaucracy had sought to coerce Australia, Morrison started talking about commentary on border protection, while stressing Australia determines its own policy.
In general, Morrison believes that activists on various issues are too entrenched and powerful in UN institutions.
His angst about internationalism also stretches to the European Union and its failure to facilitate Brexit.
He deploys stark lines of defiance.
On climate, he told the general assembly Australia was “doing our bit” and “we reject any suggestion to the contrary”.
On Australia’s international engagement, he adapted a Howardism to say in the Lowy lecture: “We will decide our interests and the circumstances in which we seek to pursue them”.
With only a year’s experience as a prime minister on the international stage, Morrison is becoming assertive. He has told the foreign affairs department “to come back to me with a comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes where we have the greatest stake”.
He wants Australia to have a bigger role in setting “the standards that will shape our global economy”. The speech didn’t spell this out fully, but it includes industry standards.
Morrison appears to be tracking to the right. He always has an eye to the immediate politics and his attack on “negative globalism” will play well with the conservatives in the ranks of the Liberal party and the more strident commentariat.
But there is a rather startling lack of thought in the stance he adopted in the Lowy address.
Yes, the government is sensitive to UN pressures over climate and asylum policy.
But we are signed up – of our own choosing – to a range of international institutions, from the UN to the World Trade Organisation, because they are part of a rules based international order that serves our long term interests.
The government might be narky about the UN on some issues, but it was only a few years ago that it was highlighting Australia’s role on the Security Council after the MH17 downing.
And it’s one thing saying institutions like the WTO need to reform – which is correct – and another having a general spray about international bureaucracy.
Australia is urging both the US and China to a greater commitment to the rules based system. If it wants its arguments to be taken seriously, it’s best to talk up global co-operation, not talk it down.
It was unfortunate that Morrison’s words had an echo of Donald Trump’s speech last week, in which he elevated patriots over globalists.
Given Trump’s rants over the past few days, one can’t help feeling Morrison was lucky he came out of the US trip as well (and as unscathed) as he did.
Now is no time to appear to be, in the words of one observer, “sitting on the conveyor belt of Trumpism”.
All in all, the text of the Lowy speech needed a good deal more subtlety, as well as having the white-out applied to the frustrations.
In the hit biopic Rocket Man, the ambitious young Reginald Dwight is counselled to hide his working-class roots if he wants to make it in “showbiz”:
You gotta kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.
Arriving in Canberra in 2013, Jacqui Lambie carried just that kind of baggage – the burden of tough starts, frequent setbacks, of being a fish out of water.
The former soldier is now back in the Senate for a second stint.
Her parliamentary reprise was not just something of a surprise, it lent the May 18 federal election a sense of restorative justice after her admittedly gaffe-prone first term was cut short in 2017 by a Section 44 citizenship hitch.
She’d arrived in 2013 as a total unknown under Clive Palmer’s eponymous PUP.
Impulsive, frequently angry and clearly ill-prepared, Lambie soon cut ties with the irascible mining magnate, leaving him muttering about her ingratitude and a breach of promise.
Yet in 2019, when the eccentric millionaire ploughed upwards of A$60 million into a gaudy, winless nationwide campaign, Lambie triumphed on a shoestring, boosted by Tasmanians to fill the last available Senate spot.
But there was no Elton John-style artifice involved. Forming the Jacqui Lambie Network, she would defiantly trumpet her own name and working-class roots, parading herself as the real deal, pure battler, core-Apple Isle.
It was an exercise characterised by a brutal frankness about her past. Disarmingly so.
“I was a bloody wrecking ball,” she recently told Nine Newspapers, about why she was so controversial and had flamed out in her first period in Canberra.
I just had no idea what idea what I was doing. I’d come from ten years, basically between the bed, the couch and a couple of years in the psych ward.
Now she’s back. Better, stronger and wiser for the journey.
Already, the proudly rough-edged advocate for the battler state has had a significant impact while signalling to Prime Minister Scott Morrison that her vote for future government bills will carry a price.
The concession followed Lambie’s swift post-election support for the Morrison government’s signature A$158 billion election pledge of income tax cuts for low, middle and high-income earners.
The housing debt waiver was a solid victory for the frail Tasmanian economy. It was reminiscent of the fiercely parochial Brian Harradine – a conservative Catholic independent who used his pivotal vote through the Howard years to get special deals for the smallest state.
But Lambie’s response in the moment of victory betrayed her continuing lack of political polish.
Rather than hammer home the full weight of her achievement, she remarked that she should have asked for more, driven a harder bargain. Is this a harbinger of her approach in future fights? Probably.
What is clear is that the government’s concession, and the intent in her response, together underscore the importance of Lambie’s so-called swing vote.
With 35 senators and Cory Bernardi more or less in the bag also, Team Morrison needs a further three to reach the required majority of 39 votes in the Senate – assuming Labor and the Greens are offside.
That is, three out of the five crossbench votes comprising either the two Pauline Hanson votes plus Lambie, or the two Centre Alliance votes plus Lambie. A number of crucial bills loom.
Eager to scrape together a third-term agenda from the parched policy landscape of its unexpected victory, the Coalition is reheating ideas proposed and defeated in previous terms.
Lambie’s support is likely to be pivotal – depending on what the other two micro-parties do.
Another issue is the proposal to expand the cashless welfare card to reduce the incidence of welfare being spent on non-necessities.
All are controversial.
On drug testing for Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients, Lambie is playing hardball.
After initially signalling some sympathy for the plan – having seen her own son descend into ice addiction – she has since made it clear she will not support the measure unless, first, politicians agree to random drug and alcohol testing, and second, there are adequate rehabilitation facilities on the ground.
Ministers have raised no objections to being drug-tested, but rolling out enough beds for an estimated half-a-million Australians with drug-dependency issues (many of whom would not be on welfare it must be noted) is no small thing, especially as Lambie has said she wants the beds in place before she supports the testing.
Lambie’s abrasive style is such that predicting her attitude to legislation is not straightforward. This is because it is a mixture of working-class battler politics (not unlike traditional Labor values), tinged with a resentful outsider populism that tends to be more right-leaning.
Overlaid on that is Lambie’s adoption of Harradine’s successful Tasmania-first model.
Her emergence as a swing vote in the Senate puts her in a direct contest with Pauline Hanson, who already owns the populist right.
Either woman can potentially hold the whip hand on government legislation depending on the issue, but Lambie has more room to move.
For the government, that means treading carefully, keeping the lines of communication open, copping the odd spray, and hoping for no dramatic changes of opinion. This is never easy with Hanson, and even less predictable with Lambie.
Politics is often derided as show business for ugly people. Lambie seems intent on making it real business for real people – but with a touch of show business for good measure.
This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.
Populism is driven by the view that everyday people are suffering economic hardship as the corporate and political elites prosper. A sense of rising inequality and injustice is the foundation stone of populist rhetoric.
In Australia, the financial services royal commission has lent credence to these concerns across a large part of the Australian community. Its hearings and reports give weight to the view that Australia’s middle and working classes have been systematically ripped off by their financial service providers.
What is of concern for us here in Australia is not so much the lightning rod that has been the findings of the royal commission, but the prospect of much harder economic times ahead.
Australia is not used to tough economic times. It has been 27 years since our last major recession. In the past 26 years, the annual average unemployment rate has climbed on only five occasions. It has been steady or fallen in 21 of the past 26 years.
The economic tide could well turn against us over the next three years. This, as much as anything, will give vigour to the kinds of populist voices that are wreaking so much havoc in other Western societies right now.
Populism is toxic to democratic societies. It preys on people’s worst fears and appeals to their darker instincts. Populism brings poor policy decisions and entrenches political dysfunction.
We are already seeing the effects that growing discontent with the major parties has on our political system. A surge of support for populist candidates and parties will magnify these problems.
Defining the concerns of populism is a tricky business. The most common is that economic and political elites benefit at the expense of the public, whether that be because the system is rigged against them or because those elites break social convention and even the laws to extract from the rest.
An extension of this perennial theme is that the elites, particularly in the business world, get away with it. The authorities do not pursue them and they are rarely held to account by the law.
Populism tends to be cultivated in an environment of poor economic performance and is exacerbated by growing inequality, real or perceived.
Australia’s democracy has a long history of stable centrist parties dominating the parliament and public policy. Since our Federation in 1901, the two or three major parties at the time of each federal election have averaged about 90% of the primary vote.
These moderate tendencies are regarded as a hallmark of our nation, and key to the resilience of Australia as a society. But, as the accompanying chart shows, there have been periods when voters have drifted away from the major parties with considerable enthusiasm.
For the first 30 years of our federal parliament, minor parties and independent candidates captured just 5% of the vote on average. The peripheral candidates were just that; peripheral and insignificant. That all changed in the 1931 election with the onset of The Great Depression and lasted right through to the second world war.
We experienced another extended period of major party dominance in the 1950s and the 1960s. In the 1970s a rising share of the vote started going outside the major parties and this has continued to this day. We now are in a situation where minor party and independent support is near the levels seen at the height of the Great Depression.
There also appears to be a greater polarisation within the major parties, particularly when they are in government. Not a single prime minister elected in the past decade has survived his or her first term of office – an unattractive milestone for a relatively young democracy.
Populism is always lurking below the surface of Australian society. It rears its head from time to time, but the broader community is pretty good at resisting its urges. A strong economy and low unemployment are critical ingredients in this success.
It could be argued that Australia is less susceptible to populism than other Western democracies. Just look at the contrast between what has happened here in the past ten years and the experiences of the United States or Europe.
Sure, the minor party vote has increased and some of that has been to candidates pushing a populist agenda. But these forces have largely operated at the margins of Australia’s policy agenda.
Complacency is dangerous
The once-in-a-century commodity boom supported our economy through both the global financial crisis and its destructive aftermath. It was a luxury not afforded the US or Europe.
The end of the mining boom was greeted by a residential construction boom. That too looks like concluding. The forces of weak income growth, high debt levels and sluggish economic activity are upon us.
Income and output growth are going to be much harder to come by in Australia in the years ahead. We cannot assume that just because we have avoided a significant recession for 27 years, we will avoid another one.
The last thing the Australian economy needs in this environment is greater political discord.
The major parties’ share of the vote is already at post-war lows. A new wave of populism that takes the vote of “others” to further heights could have serious consequences for effective management of our economy.
We have an open economy heavily burdened with debt and reliant on immigration and trade to provide a healthy underpinning to future economic growth. We don’t know how our economy would cope with a reversal of these key pillars of our modern prosperity.
Curtailing populist anger is a priority
Whether we like it or not, the evidence of misconduct in the financial services industry has become a flashpoint for popular discontent within Australia.
The financial services industry most certainly is not the root of all economic evil in our society, but that is irrelevant to the public mood and those who seek to take advantage of it.
The fact that the royal commission has laid bare such widespread abuse of market power means that right now the banking industry is the prime example of elites taking advantage of everyday people. Its extraordinary revelations have left Australians in a state of shock.
The broader community wants action, not just to prevent what was uncovered happening again, but to make sure that the people responsible are held accountable for the damage done.
Real or imagined, a lack of genuine accountability will mean people lose faith in the capacity of mainstream political forces and institutions to serve the broader community.
What is to be done?
If the moderate forces that operate in our parliament and government institutions are not seen to be delivering for the broader community, people will justifiably look elsewhere.
The immediate priority is to act following the final report from the royal commission. Commissioner Kenneth Hayne has made it perfectly clear that it is the role of the regulators, specifically the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.
There is every likelihood that more dangerous economic waters lie ahead. Policymakers will need to be both decisive and agile to deal with the malaise, whatever form it takes.
We are not facing a new financial crisis, at least we hope we are not. We don’t need to throw the kitchen sink at the economy right now. But the government we elect will have to work closely with the parliament and our key economic institutions to guide the country through new and uncertain economic times.
An effective parliament will be more important than ever.
No doubt thanks to Donald Trump, Brexit, and a string of anti-establishment leaders and parties in Europe, Latin America and Asia, everyone seems to be talking about populism.
But populism is nothing new. It’s long accompanied democratic politics, and its activity and success has experienced peaks and troughs. Right now we’re in a bit of a heyday for populism, and this is impacting the nature of politics in general. So it’s important we know what it means and how to recognise it.
Even among academics, populism has been difficult to define. This is partly because it has manifested in different ways during different times. While currently its most well-known cases are right-wing parties, leaders and movements, it can also be left-wing.
There’s academic debate on how to categorise the concept: is it an ideology, a style, a discourse, or a strategy? But across these debates, researchers tend to agree populism has two core principles:
it must claim to speak on behalf of ordinary people
these ordinary people must stand in opposition to an elite establishment which stops them from fulfilling their political preferences.
These two core principles are combined in different ways with different populist parties, leaders and movements. For example, left-wing populists’ conceptions of “the people” and “the elite” generally coalesce around socioeconomic grievances, whereas right-wing populists’ conceptions of those groups generally tend to focus on socio-cultural issues such as immigration.
The ambiguity of the terms “the people” and “the elite” mean the core principles of people-centrism and anti-elitism can be used for very different ends.
How can appealing to ordinary people be a bad thing?
Populism gets a bad name for a couple of reasons.
First, because many of the most prominent cases of populism have recently appeared on the radical right, it has often been conflated with authoritarianism and anti-immigration ideas. But these features are more to do with the ideology of the radical right than they are to do with populism itself.
Second, populists are disruptive. They position themselves as outsiders who are radically different and separate from the existing order. So they frequently advocate for a change to the status quo and may champion the need for urgent structural change, whether that is economic or cultural. They often do this by promoting a sense of crisis (whether true or not), and presenting themselves as having the solution to the crisis.
A current example of this process is Trump’s southern border wall, where he’s characterised the issue of illegal crossings on the southern border as a national emergency, despite, for example, more terrorist-related border crossings occurring on the northern, Canadian border and by air.
The fact populists often want to transform the status quo, ostensibly in the name of the people, means they can appear threatening to the democratic norms and societal customs many people value.
And the very construction of “the people” plays a large part in populists being perceived as “bad”, because it ostracises portions of society that don’t fit in with this group.
What are some examples of populist leaders and policies?
The most famous contemporary example of a populist leader is the president of the United States, Donald Trump, and the renewed interest in populism is partly due to his 2016 electoral success. One way researchers measure populism, and consequently determine whether a leader or party is populist, is through measuring language.
Research has found Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign was highly populist. He targeted political elites, drawing on the core populist feature of anti-elitism and frequently used people-centric language, with a strong use of collective pronouns of “our” and “we”.
He combined this populist language with his radical right ideology, putting forward policies such as “America First” foreign policy, his proposed wall between the US and Mexico, and protectionist and anti-globalisation economic policies.
The combination of populism and such policies allowed him to draw a distinction between “the people” and those outside that group (Muslims, Mexicans), emphasising the superiority of the former.
These policies also allow for the critiquing of the elite establishment’s preference for globalisation, free trade and more liberal immigration policies. His use of the “drain the swamp” slogan – where he’s claiming he’ll rid Washington of elites who are out of touch with regular Americans – also reflects this.
Along with Trump, Brexit has also come to exemplify contemporary populism, because of its European Union-centred anti-elitism and the very nature of the referendum acting as an expression of “the people’s” will.
In South America, populism has been most associated with the left. The late Hugo Chavez, former president of Venezuela, was also highly populist in his rhetoric, and is perhaps the most famous example of a left-wing populist leader.
Chavez’s populism was centred around socioeconomic issues. Even while governing, he positioned himself as an anti-establishment politician, channelling the country’s oil revenues into social programs with the aim of distributing wealth among the Venezuelan people, relieving poverty and promoting food security.
The current Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and the Bolivian president, Evo Morales are also considered left-wing populist leaders.
But left-wing populism is not just confined to South America. In Europe, contemporary examples of left-wing populist parties include the Spanish Podemos and the Greek Syriza. These parties enjoyed success in the aftermath of the Great Recession. They questioned the legitimacy of unregulated capitalism and advocated structural economic changes to alleviate the consequences of the recession on their people.
It doesn’t look like populism is going anywhere. So it’s important to know how to recognise it, and to understand how its presence can shape our democracies, for better or worse.
Many commentators have been alarmed at the electoral wins of ultra conservative leaders around the world, as well as policy decisions such as Brexit made by a popular referendum. They see these as signs of a rising populism.
In its benign forms, populism can simply mean ordinary citizens’ desire to see their interests and preferences better reflected in policy making. It may also mean greater direct involvement in government by the people themselves.
But in its more dangerous manifestations, populism can mean a reckless, extreme distrust in governmental expertise. It can be under-informed, and divide communities between “us” and “them”. And – in its impatience to see change – it can tear down useful democratic values and institutions such as inclusivity and a neutral judiciary, which safeguard our rights in a democracy.
There is at least one way we could harness the populist trend and turn it in a more useful direction: deliberative democracy.
As the name suggests, deliberative democracy aims to promote not only democratic majority rule, but also deliberation. This means well-informed, inclusive and reflective decision-making. While populism gives a greater role to ordinary citizens in the affairs of government, deliberative democracy models can improve this by ensuring citizen input is robustly inclusive, reflective and well-informed.
So far, deliberative democracy is the best answer we have to the challenge of populism.
Deliberative democracy at work
One form of deliberative democracy is to enlist ordinary citizens in deliberation, such as in the case of citizens’ juries. Here, randomly-picked groups of citizens are invited to attend a series of organised sessions, where they become well-informed on a specific policy matter before advising governments on the best way forward.
This model has been used hundreds of times around the world, including in the ACT (on matters such as housing) and South Australia (on nuclear waste).
To many, such an approach seems fanciful. Their cynicism is based on the assumption members of the public couldn’t possibly deliberate about public matters thoughtfully. But many studies show that creative approaches to democracy, such as citizens’ juries, can increase how well ordinary citizens deliberate about the matters put to them. Citizens’ juries can be informed, inclusive, thoughtful, fair and intellectually supple.
Citizens’ juries have a particular kind of democratic legitimacy. Since they are randomly-selected, and often demographically representative of the larger population, the public tends to see jury members as “just like me”, which creates more trust in the process.
But citizens’ juries have limitations. One is that the process has so far only included a handful of citizens at one time. And some critics will insist that only a vote in which all eligible voters can participate confers democratic legitimacy. This is where the referendum can be used as part of the deliberative democracy model.
Referendums can provide a neutral, democratically robust input into matters of public interest that politicians cannot resolve themselves. They can, for example, spur governments to act where a clear majority of the population has a considered view, but the government is divided and therefore powerless to act on that view.
Think of climate change mitigation, as well as other environmental matters such as coal seam gas mining and fracking.
But when a policy matter is put to a referendum or plebiscite – in which all eligible citizens could vote – it is a hard task to bring most of the people up to speed. It is far easier to inform people on a citizens’ jury, which might include just 50 people.
The conundrum is therefore that the citizens’ jury is deliberative but (according to some) democratically insufficient, while a referendum or plebiscite is more democratically robust but not always deliberative. But we can take useful steps toward making referendums or plebiscites more deliberative.
Around the world a number of academics, including the author, have proposed the “deliberative referendum”. Those who doubt referendums can be deliberative may prefer the term “informed referendum”.
The deliberative/informed referendum
Reforming a referendum or plebscite to make it more deliberative can be done through several methods – some already common. They include:
Voting online or at computer voting stations, which is already in use in many places. This can permit more interactive voting than a mere yes/no vote. In a new approach, before they could cast their votes, voters are asked to interact with a 15-minute tutorial informing them of the relevant issues. For instance, a vote on a local housing development plan would canvass environmental, economic and social arguments for and against greater urban density.
Multi-option voting would depart from the traditional yes/no vote, presenting voters with several options and avoiding the artificial reduction of complex matters into a binary choice. Preferential voting could still allow a single option to emerge with majority support.
Value-based voting could take place, meaning one set of ballot options put to voters would concern not just final choices, such as urban density levels adopted in a city plan, but also the values underlying them. Voters could rank values such as environmental sustainability and economic development. This would encourage voters to think more thoroughly about their final choices.
Citizens’ juries should be held in the lead up to a referendum. This has happened in many cases, such as in the recent Irish abortion referendum. A citizens’ jury could help to inform the broader public about the issues at stake. As a neutral body, the jury would write the questions on the ballot and the content of the information tutorials.
An optional measure would be a political misinformation law enacted to prevent politicians and others from uttering false statements likely to mislead voters. This method has been common, most of all, in Australia. Granted, around the world it has been subject to challenges under constitutional free speech and communication guarantees. But in Australia political misinformation laws were upheld by judges who cited the value of accurate information for voters.
Robust anti-misinformation laws would have been useful in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, which had a number of whoppers. For instance, campaigners greatly overstated the costs to the UK of both staying in and leaving the EU.
Referendums on Australia becoming a republic, and on Brexit (again), may be on the horizon. Other cases, such as the urban density example, are perennially unresolved matters in localities around Australia – in part because governments cannot decide whether to favour homeowners, developers, environmentalists or other groups. Even societies experiencing war often turn to referendums to try to jolt them out of their entrenched cycles of violence.
Referendums and plebiscites can be democratic circuit-breakers in a system of government that is in theory dedicated to serving the public, but that in many cases falls short.
Of course, there is still a risk the circuit-break may end up merely giving greater voice to a coarse populism, which knows it wants to tear down elitism and expertise, but not what to replace them with. However, work on deliberative referendum design suggests we needn’t be quite so fearful of populism. At least sometimes, and to some degree, populism can be remade so the public can have a more deliberative input into government decision-making.
During the past year, The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network, a global partnership of researchers, journalists, activists, policymakers and citizens concerned with the future of democracy, have published a lengthy series of scholarly reflections on the causes and consequences of populism.
The following remarks aim to summarise the contributions, to tease out their insights, and to draw some conclusions about the vexed relationship between populism and democracy.
Many people are today asking questions about the worldwide upsurge of populism. Does burgeoning talk of “the people”, and action by governments in their name, offer fresh hopes for democrats in these darkening times? Can populism rescue us from the corruption and decay of the ideals and institutions of monitory democracy, now under attack from a potent variety of corrosive and contradictory forces?
Are Nigel Farage and other peddlers of populism basically right when colourfully they call upon a “people’s army” to take back “their country” by sparking a “political tsunami” in support of “democracy” against a corrupted “political class”?
The spirit of populism
In a sign of our times, the two dozen contributors to this series on populism, and democrats everywhere, are divided deeply in their replies to such questions, and about what can and should be done to deal with the upsurge of populism.
Without doubt, most democratically minded scholars, journalists and commentators find the new populism fascinating. For several years, hypnotised by its “simple, headline-grabbing, dramatic message” (Benjamin Moffitt), populism has been their favourite topic of discussion.
Some are genuinely unsure about what to think, or what to do. They prevaricate: sit on the fence or, as Simon Tormey proposes in his interpretation of populism as the pharmákon of democracy, keep their minds open to the perplexing dialectics and potentially surprising, if unintended, practical effects of populist politics.
These abreactions are understandable, not least because populism is a political phenomenon marked by democratic qualities. What could be more democratic than public attacks on financial and governing oligarchs, “unrepresentative plutocracies” (Christine Milne), in the name of a sovereign people? Isn’t democracy after all a way of life founded on the authority of “the people”?
And what about the populist account of the pathologies of contemporary parliamentary democracy? When measured in terms of political “theatrics” (Mark Chou), populism is “a spectre of things to come: of political performance in an age of projection rather than representation” (Stephen Coleman).
Jan Zielonka notes that within today’s so-called democracies far too many governments regard themselves as “a kind of enlightened administration on behalf of an ignorant public”. Ulrike Guérot says that in an age when “nobody seems to care” and “opportunity remains a fiction for many people”, we should not be surprised by the global upsurge of populism.
In effect, all contributors to this series ask: isn’t the populist mobilisation of public hope, its insistence that things can be different and that people should expect better, consonant with the spirit of democracy and its equality principle?
The Life and Death of Democracy, my contribution to rethinking the history of democracy’s spirit, language and institutions, replies to these questions by analysing populism as a recurrent autoimmune disease of democracy.
That’s to say populism is not just a symptom of the failure of democratic institutions to respond effectively to anti-democratic challenges such as the “growing influence of unelected bodies” (Cristóbal Kaltwasser), rising inequality and the dark money poisoning of elections; populism is itself a problematic and perverted response that inflames and damages the cells, tissues and organs of democratic institutions.
The point should be obvious, but it’s often ignored: populism is a pseudo-democratic style of politics. In the name of an imagined “people” defined as if it were a demiurge, something akin to a metaphysical gift to earthlings from the gods, populism is a style of politics whose “inner logic” or “spirit” (Montesquieu) destroys power-sharing democracy committed to the principle of equality.
Yes, populism can have positive unintended consequences, as history shows. By publicly exposing the Trump-style crudeness and potential brutality of unbridled state power exercised in the name of “the people”, populism can spark long-lasting democratic reforms. But everywhere, at all times, the inner logic of populist politics and its “folksy slogans” (Takashi Inoguchi) are anything but folksy: their practical effect is to rob life from power-sharing democracy.
Populism “always tends towards extreme forms of plebeianism”, observes our Chinese contributor Yu Keping. He is right. Populism necessitates demagogic leadership. It encourages attacks on independent media, expertise, rule-of-law judiciaries and other power-monitoring institutions.
Populism “denies the pluralism of contemporary societies” (Jan-Werner Müller). It promotes hostility to “enemies” and flirts with violence. It is generally gripped by a territorial mentality that prioritises borders and nation states against “foreigners” and “foreign” influences, including multilateral institutions and so-called “globalisation”.
My line of interpretation may seem harsh, or one-sided, but its feet are planted firmly on the ground. Not only does it pay attention to the inner dynamics (let’s call them) or functional imperatives of populism, it also taps evidence from many recorded cases of populism, past and present.
The interpretation notes that populism is a recurrent feature of the history of democracy, and it pinpoints the efforts by past democrats to cure the democratic disease of populism.
In the age of assembly democracy, for instance, citizens of Athens and other city-based democracies dealt with demagogues by voting to send them into prolonged exile, a practice known as ostrakismos .
During the early modern age of representative democracy, by contrast, periodic elections, multi-party systems and parliamentary government in constitutional form were designed to check and restrain populist outbursts (“the people”, noted John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, “may desire to oppress a part of their number” so that “precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power”).
Our post-1945 age of monitory democracy was born of efforts to apply much tougher political restrictions to (fascist and other totalitarian) abuses of power in the name of a fictive people.
Public integrity bodies, human rights commissions, activist courts, participatory budgeting, teach-ins, digital media gate watching, global whistle-blowing, bio-regional assemblies: these and scores of other innovations were designed to check populists bent on self-aggrandisement in the name of “the people”.
Current events show that this old problem of populism is making a comeback, and that populism is indeed an autoimmune disease of monitory democracy. Populism picks fights with key monitory institutions, such as the courts, “experts”, “fake news” platforms and other media “presstitutes” (Modi). The new populism wants to turn back the clock to simpler times when (it imagines) democracy meant “the people” were in charge of those who ruled over them.
Political dynamics in Hungary, the US, Poland, Thailand and elsewhere show that the aim of the new populism is to amass a fund of power for itself and its influential supporters. That’s why it is bent on destroying as many power-monitoring, power-restraining mechanisms as it can, in quick time, all in the name of a people that is never carefully defined, a phantom people that is simultaneously present and absent, everything and nothing.
How serious is the populist threat to monitory democracy?
More than a few democrats, especially those with a strong sense of history, suppose that the current epidemic of populism will abate. They think along the lines sketched by the American historian Richard Hofstadter, who once likened populism to a stinging bee. After causing annoyance and inflicting pain in the backside of the political establishment, populism, on this view, typically dies a slow death, especially after it reaches elected office.
Hofstadter was principally concerned with the American case, where during the late 19th-century populist parties such as the Workingmen’s Party of California and the Populist Party were outflanked using democratic means, cleverly and constructively transformed by their elected opponents into catalysts of long-lasting democratic reforms.
As Michael Kazin and others have noted, the dialectics of populism produced surprising results. While at first populist bigotry prevailed (“The Chinese Must Go!” campaign in California, for instance), populist politics, in spite of its exclusionary impulses, helped trigger such inclusive democratic reforms as the full enfranchisement of women (1920), a directly elected Senate (1913), municipal socialism, new laws covering income tax and corporate regulation and the eight-hour working day for all wage earners in the country.
More than a few analysts and defenders of democracy are today tempted to think in this way about the tactical outflanking of populism.
Earlier this year, for instance, American political scientist Larry Diamond told the BBC that “mainstream politicians” will need to concede ground, stepping back from their previous “liberal” commitments to open-door immigration and global trade. The overriding aim must be to defeat populist “authoritarianism” by absorbing its concerns into mainstream “liberal democratic” politics.
Diamond cited the example of Geert Wilders, whose populist PVV (Party for Freedom) in the Netherlands did worse than expected in recent elections exactly because Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte grasped what was happening and reacted by making “significant policy adjustments”.
It’s worth noting that among these concessions was Rutte’s public announcement that the Dutch experiment with “multiculturalism” was over. Many Dutch citizens were shocked, not just by the indignity inflicted verbally on various minorities, but by the realisation that Rutte hadn’t prevailed over the populist right, but joined its ranks.
Making political concessions to populists is risky business. It can result in co-optation and end in charges of hypocrisy, outright political humiliation and defeat. That is why, historians remind us, the power ambitions of populism were sometimes blocked by their opponents using more drastic means, as in late 19th-century Russia. There its public appeal was snuffed out anti-democratically, killed by armed force.
Elected populist governments also tasted forcible overthrow by coup d’état. This was the fate of El Conductor, Juan Domingo Perón. The former Argentine lieutenant-general and twice-elected president was forced from office into exile (in September 1955), hunted by hostile allegations of demagogic corruption and dictatorship. These were charges designed to erase forever memories of his massive support by millions of Argentine citizens, his many descamisados (“shirtless”) followers rapt by his efforts to dignify labour and eradicate poverty.
Inspired by the example of Perón, the Belgian scholar Chantal Mouffe is sure there’s another way of meeting the challenge of Trump- and Wilders-style populism: a new, true politics that can get us out from under the rubble of collapsing “liberal democratic” institutions.
Known globally for her thinking and writing on politics and popular sovereignty, Mouffe calls for a new brand of “left-wing populism”.
During the past year, and in an earlier contribution to this series, she has launched spirited attacks on what she calls the “anti-populist hysteria” of our time.
She’s also sided publicly with populist leaders like Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He’s the politician who in June stood on the steps of the Assemblée Nationale, together with his newly elected La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) MPs, fists clenched, laced with shouts of “Resistance!” and his talk of their collective “service of the people”.
Mouffe’s political thinking is symptomatic of a rise of aesthetic and political fascination among disaffected left-of-centre intellectuals with populism.
The attraction is understandable. It has a positive side. It embraces the “wisdoms” of contemporary populism: for instance, the ways in which contemporary populists have exposed the “deep tension between democracy and capitalism” (Thamy Pogrebinschi), turned their backs on corrupted middle-of-the-road cartel parties, denounced rising social inequality, poured scorn on the deadening breaking news “churnalism” of mainstream media platforms and raised expectations among millions of people that things can and must be better.
Mouffe echoes these points, but her principal contention, in opposition to “neoliberalism”, is that the political right enjoys no monopoly on populism. A left-wing populism is possible and is needed urgently in these anti-democratic times. She concludes that “the only way to counter right-wing populism is through left-wing populism”.
The argument is expressed in simple binary terms. But what exactly does she mean, in theory and practice?
Mouffe’s reply runs thus: the imperative is to defend and extend “democracy”, understood as a political form that draws strength from “the power of the people”.
So understood, democracy is “ultimately irreconcilable” with, and superior to, “political liberalism” and its mantras of the rule of law, the separation of powers, free markets and the defence of the individual. A commitment to democracy implies opposition to “post-politics”, the liberal and neoliberal “blurring of [the] frontier” between the right and the left.
Mouffe explains the recommendation at greater length in On the Political and deploys it in her latest pleas for more democracy and support for Mélenchon. The “principles of popular sovereignty and equality”, she writes, “are constitutive of democratic politics”. So what is now needed, and what she predicts will have to be born, is left-wing populism, an “agonistic populism” that breaks with exhausted “social democracy”.
The point is to stop philosophising and to begin drawing lines by means of a new politics (the language is obviously drawn from Marx and Engels and Gramsci) that “divides society into two camps” by engaging in a “war of position”, in support of the “underdog” against “those in power”.
How are we to assess these large claims? Her thesis certainly invites historical objections.
I have noted elsewhere that Mouffe’s reliance on Carl Schmitt’s attack on liberalism misleads her into saying that “the origin of parliamentary democracy”, the watering down of democracy by liberal representative government, resulted from the 19th-century marriage of convenience of “political liberalism” and “democracy”.
In her own defence, Mouffe cites my doctoral supervisor, C.B. Macpherson, but this was not exactly his argument (his vision of future democracy preserved plenty of liberal themes, for instance).
Besides, as The Life and Death of Democracy shows in some detail, parliamentary representation has pre-liberal medieval roots, while the republican melding of the languages and institutions of representation and democracy happened during the last quarter of the 18th century, not in the century that followed.
These are fripperies over which historians and political thinkers bicker and tussle. They needn’t detain us. The real trouble is with Mouffe’s case for “left-wing populism”.
My discomfort stems not only from its poor sense of the history of democracy, her wilful ignorance about monitory democracy and her unjustified nostalgia for an unadulterated “sovereign people” principle.
Or from the fact that her rhetorical style is Bolshevik, a species of “redemptive” political thinking that preaches the need for “agonistic” (pain-in-the-backside) populism and the use of “democratic means” to “fight” with “passions” against “an adversary” (which passions? which adversary?, she doesn’t say).
Or discomfort triggered by the suspicion that her commitment to “democratic Hobbesian” axioms is worse than oxymoronic, but actually self-contradictory.
Mouffe reduces democracy to a mere tactical weapon. It is a means for dealing agonistically with enemies.
In her view, democracy courts violent power conflicts, in accordance with the old Hobbes principle of homo homini lupus (man a wolf to men), the precept that warns that politics is about the danger that the world can lurch towards an unruly “state of nature”, in which (so much for the sovereign people principle!) actual human life becomes solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
It’s true there are fleeting moments when Mouffe’s vision of left-wing populism admits of the dangers of “authoritarian populism”. The “antagonistic populism” of the French Revolution is the example she gives, by means of a half-hearted anachronism (the terms populist and populism were coined only in the mid-19th century).
That doesn’t really rescue her overall argument from association with the politically damaging pathologies typically found within every type of populism. These pathologies blindside her whole argument.
What’s more, they are normally ignored in treatments of populism as a “thin-centred ideology” (Cas Mudde) bent on separating any given society into two homogeneous but antagonistic groups: “the corrupt elite” and “the pure people”, whose volonté générale (general will) should be the measure of all things political.
“Depending on its electoral power and the context in which it arises, populism can work as either a threat to or a corrective for democracy,” Mudde and his co-author Cristóbal Kaltwasser write. “This means that populism per se is neither good nor bad for the democratic system.”
In this SDN-commissioned series, Thamy Pogrebinschi echoes the point. She says that since “populism is not an ideology”, it “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.”
This content-centred approach, a way of understanding populism as a “thin-centred ideology”, addressing only a limited set of issues and open to variations as different as “nationalism” and “socialism”, is evidently mistaken. It fails to spot the pathologies inherent within all forms of populism.
The most obvious formal pathology is the inner dependence of populism upon political bosses. “It is not a question of ending representative democracy,” says Mouffe, “but of strengthening the institutions that give voice to the people.”
Fine words but, to put things bluntly, this precept wilfully ignores the way populism functionally requires big-mouthed demagogy, a devil’s pact with leaders who pretend to be the earthly avatars of “the people”.
Chavez, Wilders, Fujimori, Trump, Kaczynski and other demagogues are neither incidental nor accidental features of populist politics: metaphysical talk of a people necessitates the personalisation of power.
When seen in populist terms, emancipation of a people can never be the work of The People itself; populism and substitutionism are twins.
Ecuador’s most famous populist Jose Maria Velasco, who was elected president five times but deposed by the army four times, understood this well. “Give me a balcony, and I will become president,” he liked to say.
Sometimes, as Irfan Ahmad points out in his contribution to this series, Big Leader populists claim they have the support of the heavens. Vox princeps, vox populi, vox dei. This is the way Modi interpreted his 2014 electoral victory: as the victory of “the will of the people” blessed by the Hindu god Lord Krishna (janata jan janārdan).
“Left populism” dispenses with talk of deities, but it similarly demands the materialised embodiment of “the people” in a leader capable of mobilising sections of “the people” to confirm who they are: The People.
Populism is demolatry. Populism is ventriloquism. Through acts of concealed representation, it incites and excites Big Leaders who are above the common herd, The Ones who attract a coterie of lesser, loyal people, citizens who are encouraged to follow because they are offered spoils, calculated gifts designed to produce followership from leadership.
Populism so interpreted is a strangely anti-democratic throwback, a 21st-century and secularised version of the old king’s “two bodies” doctrine, which supposed the body of the crowned ruler is the spiritual and visceral manifestation of the body of the people.
In contrast to the “two bodies” doctrine, however, today’s populism has no seamless solution to the succession problem when the Great Leader dies, or is felled, as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Nicolás Maduro have both been forced to recognise.
The earthly worship of the mortal political boss helps explain other pathologies lurking within Mouffe’s call for a left-wing populism. In this series and in his book, What Is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller notes the simple-minded mentality of populism, its hostility to ambivalence, complexity and pluralism.
The point needs toughening: the drive to build followers by big boss leaders fuels their hostility to institutions that stand in their way. Populists have little or no taste for institutional give-and-take politics. Unchecked ambition is their thing; so is tactical manoeuvring to deconstruct and simplify organisations and their rules. Populism loves monism.
Gripped by an inner urge to destroy checks, balances and mechanisms for publicly scrutinising and restraining power, populist leaders and parties reveal their true colours in action. It’s a myth that election to office slakes their thirst for power.
In Alberto Fujimori’s Peru, democracia plena (as he called it) meant hostility to the palabrería (excessive, idle talk) of the political class and its established media. Declaring an end to oligarchy, government secrecy and silence, it proceeded to contradict itself by bribing and browbeating legislators, judges, bureaucrats and corporate executives.
Theresa May nowadays dreams of transforming the Westminster parliament into a poodle of executive power, in the name of a fictional “British people”. Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta rails against courts run by “thugs” paid by “foreigners and other fools” who rule “against the will of the people”.
In Hungary, the government of Viktor Orbán has collared mainstream media, the judiciary and the police, and now breathes fire down the necks of the universities and civil society organisations. “We are committed to using all legal means at our disposal to stop pseudo-civil society spy groups such as the ones funded by George Soros,” says Human Capacities Minister Zoltán Balog.
Trump meanwhile seems to be locked in a low-level, permanent war with Congress, so-called fake news media, the judiciary and intelligence services, even the Boy Scouts of America. He hankers after trust in family ties, and demands loyalty from his followers, egged on by their talk of the need to “bring everything crashing down” through deep budget cuts, centralisation of federal decision-making and refusing to fill empty leadership positions.
Trump thinks of himself as a lollapalooza leader who never ever loses. He is thus for government by nepotism: not bureaucracies, but personal channels, self-styled machismo against foes at home and abroad.
None of this clientelismo is accidental, or random: populism yearns for a type of politics that resembles a permanent coup d’état in slow motion. Populism is “not an ideology”, replies Mouffe. “It is a way of doing politics” guided by “the construction of a demos that is constitutive of democracy”.
The reply is tautological, and it begs important questions that lie at the heart of a genuinely democratic politics: in the process of constituting “popular sovereignty”, who decides who gets what, when and how? Who does the politics? Who establishes the “chains of equivalence” to decide who is the demos? Who determines what counts as “democracy”, and how do its champions deal with differences and disagreements about means and ends? Are the champions of “the people” themselves subject to legitimate institutional restraints?
Mouffe provides no clear answers to these political questions. The hush is revealing of her populist understanding of politics as the uncompromising battle to win friends and to monopolise state power over followers persuaded they are the promised People.
The definition of politics is narrowly Hobbesian. Seen as the struggle to win over allies and to crush opponents, populism is a strange and self-harming form of politics.
For tactical reasons, to protect its flanks, populist governments usually forge alliances with friends in high places. For all its talk of empowerment of “the people”, populism embraces the ancient political rule that governments need allies whose loyalty requires that they be treated well.
Populism practises “in-grouping”. Rudiger Dornbusch and other scholars, including James Loxton in this series, have shown that although populism can foster economic growth and redistribute wealth and income in favour of formerly marginalised groups – as in the Bolivia of Eva Morales, the great champion of natural gas-funded public works projects and social programs to fight poverty – it typically has the effect of privileging new sets of elites.
It is well known that Trump’s campaign talk of “draining swamps” is actually filling them with millionaires and billionaires, but left-wing populism doesn’t escape the same rule.
In the name of “the people”, it practically does what all populism does: it creates a wealthy stratum of oligarchs, like Venezuela’s boliburguesía, whose appetite for chartered flights, real estate and luxury cars has been whetted by kickbacks linked to state contracts showered on pro-government corporate executives and former military officials.
The logic of in-grouping inherent in all forms of populism contradicts Mouffe’s claim that left-wing populism is straightforwardly pitted against oligarchy. It confirms the suspicions of ancient Greek democrats, who used a (now obsolete) verb dēmokrateo to describe how demagogues ruling the people in their own name typically team up with rich and powerful aristoi to snuff out democracy.
There’s another self-contradiction that plagues populism. In practice, populism not only cultivates new oligarchs; its struggles in the name of “the people” force it to pick political fights with those it defines as deviants, dissenters and protagonists of disagreement and difference.
Populism champions the tactic of “out-grouping”. That’s why it comes as no surprise that Mouffe’s call for “left-wing populism” is hand-in-glove with Schmitt’s definition of politics as all about “friend-enemy” alliances. We could speak of Mouffe’s Law: “There is no ‘we’ without a ‘they’.”.
At no point does she say who would be excluded from her brand of populism: big business, super-rich bankers, government bureaucrats, confessed neoliberals, surely. But who else, pray tell, would be on her hit list? Knowing perhaps that a detailed list would scare off potential supporters, she doesn’t say.
Still it’s clear that her avowed commitment to “democracy” is contradicted by her dalliance with a politics of exclusion. The contradiction runs deep through populism: in its drive to amass a fund of power, confronted by opponents, populists typically hit hard against those they define as Other.
In the past, the designated enemies were monarchs, aristocrats, railroad magnates, bankers, Chinese immigrants. Today, populists like Wilders rail against Muslims and their “palaces of hatred” and Moroccan youth “street terrorists”. They spit at “liberals” and “foreigners”, unpatriotic people from nowhere, ethnic minorities and environmental activists.
Local politics always defines who exactly is under the gun, but the outcast marginalia of The People are deemed people who are “not even people”.
Writing in this series, Jan-Werner Müller quotes a passing but similarly revealing campaign rally remark by Donald Trump:
The only thing that matters is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.
This way of thinking helps us understand why it is no accident that populists are frequently fascinated by violence, or urge violence, or speak of it as a feature of “human nature”. Some present arms.
Yogi Adityanath, the priest-politician recently appointed as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest
state, says protection of the “rashtra” (nation) is the “dharma” (religion) of his government. Among his favourite personal possessions are a revolver, a rifle and two luxury SUVs, plus a reputation as a much-feared activist who arrives quickly with his supporters at trouble spots, to cause trouble.
By 2014, the pending criminal cases against Adityanath included promoting enmity, attempted murder, defiling a place of worship, trespassing on a burial site and rioting.
Admittedly, this is populism in its most extreme form. But the important thing to see is that the populist commitment to wilful out-grouping of people judged as worthless trash necessarily results in a dalliance with violence. Trump’s advice to police officers, not to be “too nice” when handling suspects, is no exception, no idiosyncrasy.
The dark energy of violence was present at every Trump campaign rally; “knock the crap out of ’em”, “punch ’em in the face” and “carry ’em out on a stretcher” were among his favourite fighting phrases.
Mouffe’s aesthetic fascination with violence fits the same pattern. In a little-known passage, she puts things plainly, in the language of Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt. “The same movement that brings human beings together in their common desire for the same objects,” she writes, “is also at the origin of their antagonisms. Far from being the exterior of exchange, rivalry and violence are therefore its ever-present possibility … violence is ineradicable.”
That conviction is consistent as well with the propensity of Mouffe and other populists to think in territorial terms. They are attached to bounded territorial states. They like borders, stricter visa and immigration rules and talk of “national sovereignty”.
There are times when Mouffe appears to dissent on this point. She says she favours more “democracy” at the European level, but it turns out that her “progressive left-wing populism” comes wrapped within a territorial mentality.
It echoes Mélenchon’s speeches, interviews and policy program, L’Avenir en Commun (A Common Future). This speaks of a “democratic reconstruction” of European treaties and France’s withdrawal from the European Union’s Stability Pact, NATO and the World Bank.
The program also calls for closer ties with Russia and respect for Brexit, without “punishing” the UK for its decision to leave the EU, except for withdrawal from the Le Touquet accord, which allows British border controls to operate inside France.
What’s to be done?
The contributors to this series, for different reasons, are mostly united in their opposition to populism in its various local forms.
Among the exceptions is Adele Webb, whose diagnosis of the public ambivalence produced by dysfunctional democracies sets out mainly to understand the populism of Duterte and Trump, to help us grasp that their popularity stems in no small measure from their “appeal to people’s desire not to be fixed into pre-determined standards of how to think and behave”.
Cristóbal Kaltwasser similarly calls for engaging populists “in honest dialogue” and proposing “solutions to the problems they seek to politicise”. Laurence Whitehead recommends “respectful engagement and genuine dialogue” about the “darker” but potentially “emancipatory” potential of the new populism. Mick Chisnall is interested in interpreting populism as a form of politics based on people’s “identification with a common form of enjoyment-in-transgression”.
Simon Tormey similarly reserves judgement about its political merits. “We have become populists in the sense of seeing elites as disconnected or uncoupled from the people,” he writes.
Populism is symptomatic of the breakdown of representative democracy; but he’s unsure whether populism “will ‘work’ and make life better”, or if “there is life after representative democracy”, or whether the best cure for the dysfunctions of contemporary democracy is a “non- or post-representative strategy that will reduce, if not eliminate, the distance between the people and political power”, for instance through the nurturing of “liquid democracy” and “deliberative assemblies”.
Other contributors, understandably, for good reasons, are more doubtful about the democratic potential of populism; several express open disdain for its pathological, anti-democratic effects.
The anthropologist Irfan Ahmad reminds readers that the Western literature on contemporary populism suffers a secular bias. The case of India shows why the bias is misleading, and why the BJP government led by Modi is spreading a religious form of populism with murderous consequences for Muslims and other non-Hindu citizens.
Henrik Bang, citing Jürgen Habermas, similarly worries about the anti-democratic potential of populism. He reminds us of the political importance of everyday makers, “laypeople who can act spontaneously, emotionally, personally and communicatively as interconnected ‘fire alarms’, ‘experimenters’ and ‘innovators’”.
Bang calls for a new democratic politics that values “mutual acceptance and recognition of difference at all levels, from the personal to the global”, a politics of everyday making that can “push against populism by reminding political authorities that the only exceptional leaders we need today are the ones who help us to govern and take care of ourselves”.
Bang is surely right in questioning the mistaken Mouffe-style presumption that all politics is populist politics.
Along similar lines, using a different language, Nicole Curato and Lucy Parry consider “the democratic virtues of mini-publics” to be a vital antidote to the pathologies of populism.
Populists are said to be the foes of “intellectual rigour”, “evidence” and public-spirited “deliberative reason”. They peddle “base instincts” and “prejudices and misconceptions”. What is needed is more “deliberative democracy”, randomly selected public forums guided by “the virtues of participation governed by reason”.
Their call to rejuvenate the spirit of democracy is laudable. But the proposed vision of “deliberative democracy” suffers a rationalist bias; the means of achieving it are equally questionable.
There is certainly a pressing need in our times for what I have called “a new democratic enlightenment” in which democracy “dreams of itself again”. But the vision of “deliberative democracy” is no match for populism and its pathologies.
Supposing that the “essence of democracy” is “deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even self-government” (John S. Dryzek’s opening words in Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations), democracy is reduced to “authentic deliberation”, or “the requirement that communication induce reflection upon preferences in a non-coercive fashion”.
This way of thinking about democracy by deliberative democrats suffers multiple weaknesses. Their self-understanding of their own historicity, and the age of monitory democracy to which they belong, is weak. Their penchant for small-scale, face-to-face deliberative forums begs difficult tactical questions about scalability, including whether micro-level schemes can be replicated at the national, regional and global levels.
Deliberative democrats are prone to understate such strategic challenges as the “artificiality” of pilot scheme experiments (where indefatigable citizen deliberators are expected to behave as if they are rational communicators in a scholarly seminar).
The bullish veto power of power-hungry vested interests is also underestimated. The contested meanings of the word “reason” don’t feature. The propensity of calm “reasonable” talk to dissolve bigoted opinions, of the kind expressed by hardcore populists in “civic dialogues” hosted by Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland to tap rising anxiety about immigration, is exaggerated.
In sum, we could say that the whole vision of “deliberative democracy” suffers from nostalgia. Inspired originally by the work of Habermas (as my Public Life and Late Capitalism emphasised), deliberative democrats are secretly Greek.
Convinced that democracy is quintessentially assembly democracy, or “participatory democracy”, they downplay the strategic and normative importance of courts, media platforms and other power-monitoring institutions and generally seem blind to the ubiquity and importance of elections and other forms of representation within political life.
So where do these analyses leave us? No doubt, critical consideration of the pathologies of populism, the weaknesses of “deliberative democracy” and the pitfalls of “left-wing populism” should force democrats of all persuasions to ask truly basic political questions, in support of viable democratic alternatives.
The historic task before us is not only to imagine new forms of democratic politics that aren’t infected with the spirit of populism. The goal must be to outflank populism politically by enabling democracy to dream of itself again, in other words, to strengthen monitory democracy by inventing adventurous new forms of democratic politics that don’t fall prey to big boss Leaders and their blarney and blather about “the people”.
At a minimum, this means not just more citizen involvement in public life but also inventing new forms of monitory democracy.
That calls for mechanisms with teeth capable of politically rolling back unaccountable corporate and state power, building non-carbon energy regimes and fostering greater social equality among participating citizens who value free and fair elections, welcome media diversity and feel utterly comfortable in the company of different others who are not treated as “enemies”, but as partners, strangers, colleagues and friends.
Democratic politics is a politics that democratises the sovereign people principle. It feels no urge to bow down and worship an imaginary fictional body called “The People”.
Democratic politics has regard for flesh-and-blood people in all their lived heterogeneity. It thus refuses the urge to smash up power-monitoring institutions, to label whole groups as out-groups and threaten them with violence and expulsion beyond “sovereign” borders that are deemed sacred.
What’s needed is much more monitory democracy, radically new ways of humbling and equitably redistributing power, wealth and life chances that expose populism for what it is: a form of counterfeit democracy.
Once upon a time, in the early years after 1945, such political redistribution went by the names of “progressivism”, “socialism”, “liberalism” and the “welfare state”.
In the harder times that are coming, what ecumenical name should we give to this new radical politics? Why don’t we simply call it “democracy”?
It is impossible to follow the news without catching reference to the rise of populism. A once little-used term that denoted a handful of parties in otherwise unconnected political contexts, populism now seems almost definitive of a political moment in time.
It also elicits a wide range of responses from specialists. The most common reaction is a negative recoil against the emergence of forces that seem to threaten democracy. The emergence of far left and far right political forces seems redolent of the 1930s, and look where that left us.
On the other hand, there are influential figures who argue that there is nothing to be afraid of in populism. Far from it: populism represents an appeal to The People, and on this basis is not just consonant with democracy, but with any kind of politics that seeks universal appeal.
Since political parties seek power, broad, if not universal, appeal is what they crave. Populism on this account is nothing more than “the logic of politics”, assuming politics to be what is of public or collective concern. A non-populist politics is doomed to fail, or to be the preserve of groups or identities who set their face against the demos.
So populism can be defined as something menacing and threatening to democracy, but also as something redemptive, celebratory and expressive of democracy. The question is, which of these two senses is the right one? Which gets closer to the “truth” about populism?
Populism as democracy’s pharmakon
In a famous essay on Plato’s Phaedus, Jacques Derrida explores the concept of “pharmakon” as an example of a term with apparently self-contradictory meanings.
Pharmakon, from which we derive the terms pharmacology and pharmacy, denotes a toxic substance used to make someone better, but which might also kill them.
Pharmakon is in this sense both poison and cure. It cannot be one or the other; it is both. Whether it is one or the other depends on dosage, context, receptivity of the body to the toxin, and so forth. In short, pharmakon expresses contingency and possibility, both life and death.
Now think back to what we have just been discussing in relation to populism. Do we really want to say that populism is always and everywhere a threat to democracy, something to be opposed or fearful of? Are there not moments or contexts where an appeal to the people versus corrupt or decadent elites might make sense in terms of saving democracy – from itself?
By contrast, are we really convinced that the appeal to the people is a necessary and constructive feature of politics, indeed something that we cannot avoid? Don’t we want to say, rather, that whether this appeal to the people versus the elites is to be celebrated or not depends on the position of the individual observer or participant in a vortex of political choices?
The emergence of a populist discourse in Spain accompanied a near-complete collapse in faith in the political elites. Millions of people flooded the streets in 2011 to protest against those who were inflicting austerity from the luxury of the presidential palace.
It was a manoeuvre pitched in the midst of well-documented examples of corruption, clientelism and cronyism – not to mention the extraordinary waste of public money on useless megaprojects that seemed to rub the noses of ordinary people in the dirt of their own powerlessness.
So the emergence of the populist Podemos and its potent message of “yes we [the people] can” chimed. However, it sounded a false note for others: fear of “charisma”, of leader-centred politics, and thus of the snuffing out and rendering irrelevant of the street protesters and micro-initiatives that had fostered the conditions for its creation in the first place.
The celebration of populism “from below” is mixed with an anticipation of problems to come – not least the cutting off of “the below” itself in a fanfare of triumphant, mediatised politics.
Consider too the emergence of France’s Emmanuel Macron, centrist saviour of the European project. Through clever semantics he countered the populist charge of Marine Le Pen with a neat populist manoeuvre.
Le Pen was the “parasite” living off the system she criticised, not he. He was the political outsider who had given up on the elites; she was the product of the elites – or least one part of it.
Macron was the figure untainted by association with the failed political order, while Le Pen reeked of stale battles and a lost France. He embodied France’s future, she its dark and gloomy past. Not a battle royale but a bataille Republican of Pharmaka.
But isn’t all this talk of outsiders and elites a little iffy stemming from someone who made millions as a banker with Rothschild? How long before this outsider rhetoric collides with the reality of budget cuts and labour market reforms?
Will it work?
Accepting the ambivalence of populism and pharmakon, so what? Why does it matter what kind of spin we put on the term?
Contemporary politics has by and large become a politics of reconstituting democracy after the collapse of the narrative of representation under which we have been living for at least two centuries. We have become less inclined to believe in the benign intentions of our representatives, of politicians.
We have become populists in the sense of seeing elites as disconnected or uncoupled from the people, and thus ourselves.
We seem inclined to believe those who set themselves up as defenders of the people against the elites, no matter how preposterous a gesture that is, and there are few gestures more preposterous than that of a billionaire property developer setting himself up as defender of the people against the elites.
We’re not sure if the cure, the exuberant outsider, will “work” and make life better, make America “great”, or whether it will kill politics stone dead.
We’re not sure if there is life after representative democracy, or whether some alternative model will work better or fail, leaving our world in tatters. But we are inclined to experimentation as the certainties that have sustained our politics for the past two centuries wither.
We watch the toxin descend with an admixture of hope and fear – populism: democracy’s pharmakon.
This piece is republished with permission from Perils of Populism, the 57th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis of the rise of populism across the world.
“I know it makes you sick to think of that word fairness,” Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, told the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2013. But he went on to tell the heads of Washington’s most influential right-wing think-tanks, who were still shocked by Barack Obama’s continuing appeal, that Americans “universally believe it’s right to help the vulnerable”.
If you want to win, start fighting for people! Lead with vulnerable people. Lead with fairness … telling stories matters. By telling stories we can soften people.
New Yorker investigative journalist Jane Mayer paraphrased Brooks’ message in her magisterial book Dark Money. If the 1% wanted to win control of America, they needed to rebrand themselves as champions of the other 99%.
Donald Trump may not have been the 1%’s preferred candidate – his ego, ignorance and lack of discipline were well known – but he embodied the message. In the words of the Hannah Arendt scholar Roger Berkowitz, Trump:
… appeals to the need for constant distraction, destruction and entertainment.
It is tempting to think that this appeal, and its authoritarian consequences, is innate – a default setting of human societies across history and geography. But the swift counter-reaction to Trump at home, and subsequent elections in Europe, challenge this presumption.
Nonetheless, there is a long list of authoritarian leaders across the globe ready to deride the rule of law, circumvent checks and balances, undermine institutions, cultivate ignorance and encourage fear.
As Mayer painstakingly demonstrates, making self-interest seem normal and a commitment to fairness an elite aberration has been a long-term project.
Upending this commitment – expressed most simply in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four freedoms (of speech and religion, from want and fear) that were ultimately embodied in national and global institutions created at the end of the second world war – is not something that has happened by chance. It has been the result of a deliberate, well-funded, long-term strategy that has touched us all, whether we are aware of it or not.
As Mayer writes:
During the 1970s, a handful of the nation’s wealthiest corporate captains felt overtaxed and over-regulated and decided to fight back. Disenchanted with the direction of modern America, they launched an ambitious, privately financed war of ideas to radically change the country. They didn’t want to merely win elections; they wanted to change how Americans thought.
These well-lubricated ideas quickly spread through the world due to American global dominance.
It didn’t take long before institutions were accused of failing, experts gained the prefix “so-called”, and “elites” ceased to be the mega rich or those born with silver spoons, but were redefined as educated people who questioned the self-interest orthodoxy.
The globe was being groomed for a profoundly different settlement than the one that grew out of the conflagration of war, one that ignored complexity, challenged the rule of law, bred oligarchs, and undermined fairness.
Millions of words have been written in an attempt to make sense of the recent global political disruptions that are conveniently grouped under the banner of “populism”.
Although newspaper sales are at their lowest since 1945, the hunger for news, information and analysis, and the expectation that it can be found, remains. Explanations are sought in personal experience, in nostalgia, or by slicing and dicing the data from opinion polls and voting patterns.
Professor Pippa Norris of Harvard University calculates that the populist vote (both left and right) in Europe has doubled since the 1960s to reach double digits.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has demonstrated with remarkable effectiveness a broader global trend: the ability of a relatively small voting bloc to catalyse a response from political parties that do not share their same extreme values.
Old class-based accounts are no longer sufficient to explain political behaviour, as was sharply demonstrated in the recent UK and French elections. The emerging consensus among political scientists is that cultural factors provide a better predictor of electoral behaviour – particularly education, age, gender, religiosity and attitudes to diversity.
These values can find expression on the left and the right. But they tend to appeal mostly to an older cohort who feel they have lost power and influence, whose worlds have been upended by economic and social change. But, to put it crudely, their days are numbered.
The “war of ideas” has encouraged mistrust of experts and cynicism about institutions, undermined faith in a shared humanity irrespective of ethnicity or religion, and discouraged questioning of the neoliberal economic orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, the quiet post-materialist revolution that started in the 1970s has produced generations of people who are more open-minded, tolerant, trusting and accepting of diversity. The numbers suggest they are on the ascendancy.
It is not really surprising that education – rather than income, gender or class – is the strongest marker of populist appeal.
This is not simply because you learn stuff at school, college or university, but because education provides the tools for dealing with complexity, for weighing and evaluating arguments, for seeking and testing information, learning from history and those who went before.
It also embodies a social contract, valuing expertise, teasing out right and wrong, tolerating difference and learning respect.
The populist public sphere is a degraded, distracted place where might is right and simplicity and “common sense” the answer to complex, multifaceted questions; where little is learnt from history, and respect is in short supply.
do not pre-emptively obey but be calm, patriotic and courageous.
In the “war of ideas” over the past few decades, incalculable amounts of money have been spent to undermine these hard-won values and undermine both institutions and checks and balances that, while not perfect, have produced unprecedented opportunities.
As those who turn up in large numbers to reclaim public spaces after terrorist attacks show, and those who demonstrate to demand equality illustrate, the appeal of authoritarianism is not necessarily innate, but is always ready to be challenged.
You can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.
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