Taking the Populist Signal Serious

“The rise of populism should be seen for what it is: a powerful signal that people are disappointed with their representatives (“the corrupt elite”) but are still willing to participate in the system.”

“One person’s populist is another person’s democrat” is rapidly becoming the 21st century version of the 20th century’s “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” Both statements are based on a false opposition – one can be both a freedom fighter and a terrorist as well as both a populist and a democrat – but that is not the point. They aim to discredit the term populism (and terrorism), arguing that it is used too broadly and too subjectively. This, of course, is true, but should be a reason to use them more carefully, rather than not at all.

Given that almost all relevant populist politicians combine populism with another ideology, the so-called host ideology, their success cannot only be explained by their populism. Simply stated, left-wing populists in South America and Europe would not be so successful without high levels of economic inequality and dependence, while the electoral success of right-wing populists in North America and Europe is, first and foremost, a backlash against immigration and multiculturalism. But this does not mean that populism is irrelevant. In fact, its recent rise does not tell us something important about the state of (liberal) democracy in large parts of the world.

Populism is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite,’ and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. As such, it is democratic, in the sense that it supports popular sovereignty and majority rule, but not liberal democratic, in that it opposes liberal values like minority rights and separation of powers. The relatively recent rise of support for populist politicians from Austria to The Philippines, as well as the widely held populist attitudes in such diverse countries as Chile and the United States, provide important insights into the state of (liberal) democracy in the early 21st century.

It is crucial that we learn the right lessons, so that we can develop the correct responses, which not just weakens populism, but also strengthen liberal democracy. First and foremost, support for populist politicians is not an attack on the democratic system. In their correct perception, populist voters do not vote for an anti-democratic alternative – even though some populists have not just undermined liberal democracy, but democracy as such (think about what is happening in Venezuela today). Rather, a populist vote should be seen as an expression of dissatisfaction or, to put it more positively, as a cry for help.

Populist voters (still) believe in the democratic system, and its underlying values, but think it is not or no longer functioning as it should. Many feel betrayed by the established parties and politicians, which means that they initially supported them, or at least some of the key values for which these politicians stood. In many countries, this sense of betrayal is not without reason. Corruption and incompetence have dominated politics in most countries in South America and Europe, European integration and immigration have been kept of the political agenda in many North European countries, and democratic rights have been limited by military oversight in Thailand and Turkey. Any liberal democratic politician who wants to (re)gain credibility among populist voters must acknowledge this, rather than refer to some imaginary perfect pre-populist past.

That said, in some cases the sense of betrayal is based on an illiberal interpretation of democracy, such as the idea that a country should be monocultural, which informs many voters of populist radical right parties like the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) or the French National Front (FN). In those instances, liberal democracies must be open and honest, and stand up for their values, rather than pander to those of the nativists, as we currently see, for example, in Austria and the Netherlands.

The rise of populism should be seen for what it is: a powerful signal that people are disappointed with their representatives (“the corrupt elite”) but are still willing to participate in the system. The defeat of the populists, either by their own hand or by concerted “anti-populist” efforts by their opponents, will not win these people back. Worse, without new or old politicians offering an attractive alternative to the populists, and a comprehensive and convincing defense of the liberal democratic system, we run the risk of losing these people forever. And while non-voters might provide a lesser challenge to liberal democratic representatives than populist voters, they are an even bigger challenge to the functioning of the liberal democratic system.

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