How to defend democracy? Let’s start by kicking out the Trojan Horse of “Populism”

The democracy community is deeply unsure and confused about how to deal with populism – both, as a concept and in its real-world manifestations in terms of parties, candidates and movements. This is what DRI’s Dr Finn Heinrich learned from attending the recent conference on Representation in the Age of Populism? Ideas for Global Action organized by the who’s who in international democracy support. The participants dedicated much time to discussing the definition and the various forms of populism. At first glance this is not a surprise as the concept made it into the conference title and as the rise of populist actors everywhere across the Western world seems to rattle the democratic community to the core.

However, reflecting on the conference debates, one couldn’t help but notice a lack of analytical or practical advances made when discussing populism. Participants agreed that populism could be constructive as well as destructive, comes in left and right-leaning incarnations, as techno-populism (mentioned by former Ecuadorian President Correa in his speech) or ethno-populism, and that what matters more are the ideologies it is coupled with, be it nativism, socialism or neo-liberalism. Finn Heinrich therefore reiterated DRI’s position that populism might not a helpful term from a democracy standpoint and that we should maybe “forget about it”.

To be sure, DRI considers academic definitions of populism, put forward by scholars such as Cas Mudde or Jan-Werner Müller, which narrowly focuses on its anti-pluralist and therefore also implicitly anti-democratic tendency, to be conceptually sound. Yet, as the conference showed, the pedestrian use of populism in public debate, media and punditry does not stick to this definition and encompasses an extremely disparate set of emerging political forces which are anti-mainstream in one form or another, ranging from President Macron’s En Marche Movement, right-wing populists such as the Front National or German AfD, authoritarian leaders such as Hungarian President Orban, to Italy’s rag-tag 5 Star movement, the American progressive movement in the late 19th century and Peronism in post-World War II Argentina.

This “conceptual stretching” of the populism term and its mis-use is not only unhelpful from an analytical perspective, but actually dangerous for democracy. First, if used to widely it can be accused of being a trick of established parties that seek to smear new challengers.  Second, the new trend of calling upon democratic political parties to “copy from the populist playbook” is equally worrisome, as it reinforces the populists’ self-framing as innovators of popular-democratic reforms and effective leaders who can do away with the cumbersome checks and balances of a democratic system to “get things done”.

Third, and most importantly, by referring to political forces which seek to attack and ultimately dismantle democracy simply as populists, we do them a huge favour. Anti-democrats such as Victor Orban, Kacyzinski’s PiS party or Tayyip Erdogan wear the populist tag happily – as for many citizens it by now has positive connotations – , while continuing their attacks against democracy itself: the independent judiciary, civil society organisations and the free media. In all our confusion and worry about what is happening to liberal democracy as we know it, we don’t seem to understand that, in more and more places, populism has become a Trojan horse of anti-democratic attacks.

At the end of the conference, eight major proposals were identified and put to a vote by participants. And, lo and behold, “stop using populism” made it onto the list, together with such grand strategies as civic education and rejuvenating political parties. (It even came in 5th place beating critically needed approaches such as digital literacy, political inclusion and regulating the online public sphere). Still, while it seems that the democracy support community might have awoken to the problems of the populism discourse, it could well be that the populists already won this PR battle as the term, which after all became Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2017, just is too shiny and enticing to be rejected – just as the Trojans couldn’t resist the beautiful wooden horse left behind by the Greeks.

Find more information about the conference agenda here.

Photo by hrohmann on Pixabay

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