Zeman and Fico Samuel Kubani/Stringer

The Pitfalls of Strongman Populism

Growing anti-establishment sentiment in Western countries reflects an urgent need to compensate or assist those who have lost out economically. This is a painful lesson that post-communist countries learned the hard way during the 1990s, when the push for fast reforms created the conditions for autocratic leaders to take over.

LONDON – The year 2016 showed that the durability of liberal democracy can no longer be taken for granted, even in the West. In fact, Harvard University political scientist Yascha Mounk’s analysis of World Values Survey data shows that, in many Western countries, public confidence in democracy has been declining for quite some time.

What explains this trend? The political upheavals of 2016 suggest that many people are frustrated with democratic inaction. Slow income growth, unemployment, inequality, immigration, and terrorism are supposedly not being tackled decisively enough. Democratic countries’ political establishments seem to be in a permanent state of torpor, fueling voter demand for strong leaders who promise to smash through political gridlock and sweep away bureaucratic resistance to bold new policies.

These leaders – who assert that they alone can fix their countries’ problems – are often sought, and found, in the corporate world. Many people regard a successful CEO as someone who can deliver on well-defined objectives, so they conclude that a businessman can solve social problems that a politician cannot.

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