The Anti-Democratic Heart of Populism

SANTIAGO – Many of the men and women who turned out for the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in early October were saying something like this: “Imagine if the Republicans had nominated someone with the same anti-trade views as Trump, minus the insults and the sexual harassment. A populist protectionist would be headed to the White House.”

The underlying view is that rising populism on the right and the left, both in the United States and in Europe, is a straightforward consequence of globalization and its unwanted effects: lost jobs and stagnant middle-class incomes. Davos men and women hate this conclusion, but they have embraced it with all the fervor of new converts.

Yet there is an alternative – and more persuasive – view: while economic stagnation helps push upset voters into the populist camp, bad economics is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for bad politics. On the contrary, argues Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller in his new book: populism is a “permanent shadow” on representative democracy.

Populism is not about taxation (or jobs or income inequality). It is about representation – who gets to speak for the people and how.

Advocates of democracy make some exalted claims on its behalf. As Abraham Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, it is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” But modern representative democracy – or any democracy, for that matter – inevitably falls short of these claims. Voting in an election every four years for candidates chosen by party machines is not exactly what Lincoln’s lofty words call to mind.

What populists offer, Mueller says, is to fulfill what the Italian democratic theorist Norberto Bobbio calls the broken promises of democracy. Populists speak and act, claims Mueller, “as if the people could develop a singular judgment,...as if the people were one,...as if the people, if only they empowered the right representatives, could fully master their fates.”

Populism rests on a toxic triad: denial of complexity, anti-pluralism, and a crooked version of representation.

Most of us believe that social choices (Build more schools or hospitals? Stimulate or discourage international trade? Liberalize or restrict abortion?) are complex, and that the existence of a plurality of views about what to do is both natural and legitimate. Populists deny this. As Ralf Dahrendorf once put it, populism is simple; democracy is complex. To populists, there is only one right view – that of the people.

If so, the complex mechanisms of liberal democracy, with its emphasis on delegation and representation, are all unnecessary. No need for parliaments endlessly debating: the unitary will of the people can easily be expressed in a single vote. Hence populists’ love affair with plebiscites and referenda. Brexit, anyone?

And not just anyone can represent the people. The claim is to exclusive representation. Remember Trump’s boast in his address to the Republican National Convention: “I alone can fix it.”

Politics is always about morality, Aristotle told us. But populists favor what Mueller calls a particular moralistic interpretation of politics. Those who hold the right view about the world are moral; the rest are immoral, lackeys of a corrupt elite. That was exactly the rhetoric of the late Venezuelan ruler Hugo Chávez. When that failed, and when Chávez’s sank his country’s economy, there was always US imperialism to blame. So populism is a kind of identity politics. It is always us against them.

Viewed in this light, populism is not a useful corrective to a democracy captured by technocrats and elites, as Marine Le Pen, Rafael Correa, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or assorted Western intellectuals want you to believe. On the contrary, it is profoundly anti-democratic, and hence a threat to democracy itself.

What is to be done? My take (the prescription is my own, not Mueller’s) is that democrats must (and can) beat populists at their own game. The toxic triad can become salutary.

First, acknowledge complexity. The only thing that upsets voters as much as being lied to is being treated like babies. People who lead challenging lives know that the world is complex. They do not mind being told that. They appreciate being spoken to as the grownups they are.

Second, do not treat diversity of views and identities as a problem calling for a technocratic solution. Rather, make respect for such diversity a profoundly moral feature of society. The fact that we are not all the same and we can still get along is a tremendous democratic achievement. Make the case for it. And do not fall for the tired cliché that reason is for democrats and emotion is for populists. Make the case for pluralistic democracy in a way that inspires and stirs emotion.

Third, defend – and update – representation. Leave delegation to complex technical matters. Take advantage of modern technologies to bring other choices – particularly those having to do with the fabric of daily life – closer to voters. Tighten campaign finance laws, regulate lobbying better, and enforce affirmative-action measures to ensure that representatives are of the people and work for the people.

These measures alone will not ensure that all of democracy’s broken promises are fulfilled. But we cannot expect a single set of simple actions to solve a complex problem. Nor can we believe that we alone can fix it.

If we believed that, we would be populists. For the sake of democracy, that is precisely what we should not be.