In Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People, political theorist Nadia Urbinati defends democracy not from its critics, but from those who claim to be its champions. “The societies in which we live,” she writes, “are democratic not only because they have free elections and more than one political party competing but also because they promise to allow for effective political competition and debate among diverse and competing views.” The disfigurations of the body politic she identifies are not changes to the essential form of government, but instead alarming mutations to the functioning of government by means of opinion. One of those disfigurations, populism, is a political power grab masquerading as a movement of the people, and it’s one that plays an ever-growing role in the arena of democracy. In the post below, Urbinati diagnoses the disfiguring force of populism at work today.
Today many countries witness waning confidence in core democratic institutions such as parties, parliaments, and elections. Shrinking party membership and increasing estrangement between politicians and voters testify to disillusionment with representative democracy. Politicians are regularly accused—not unjustifiably—of having lost touch with ordinary people’s concerns and made politics into an insipid mainstreamism that chooses to neglect society’s most grave needs and concerns. This anti-political practice is primed to damage democracy, as recognizable proposals are needed that encourage citizens to participate.
There is some truth in the general complaint that politics has become a strategy via which a narrow self-referential elite consolidates its power in part by discouraging people’s participation. Populism follows a cycle of electoral abstention and apathy. These are the side effects of mainstreamism, which is at the origin of citizens’ mistrust in party politics, the growth of anti-party sentiments, and the attraction of the populist rebuff of “practical democracy.” A complex category hard to synthetize in a clear-cut definition, populism can emerge from this malaise. When elected politicians and citizens become two separate groups, when people witness gross violations of social equality in the general indifference of their representatives while the most powerful have more voice in politics, it may very well happen that people distrust politics.
It’s critical to understand populism as a symptom, rather than a cure. It is context sensitive, to be sure. In the United States, where the term was coined in the late nineteenth century, populism developed along with political democratization and was never followed by a regime change—this explains why it was met positively, and is still regarded as such by historians and political theorists. In Latin America populism emerged in the age of social modernization, yet it won the support of the people both in opinion and on the ballot when the people enjoyed already universal suffrage and were de jure democratic although de facto on the verge of a dictatorial change or facing the prospect of being ruled by an economic oligarchy. In Western Europe, finally, it merged with nationalism, justified xenophobic ideologies, and promoted Fascist regimes based on mass propaganda and Caesaristic leadership.
The complexity of this phenomenon suggests we distinguish between populism as a movement of opinion and populism as a ruling power. This twin condition mirrors the diarchic character of democracy, or citizens’ equal right to participate both in the informal power of opinion-making and in the formal designation of lawmakers. Consent through opinion and consent through voting are the coordinates for judging populism in its meaning, functions and possible consequences. This means that it is incorrect to treat populism as the same as “popular movements,” movements of protest, or “the popular.”
We may say that there is populist rhetoric but not yet populist power within the state when the polarizing and anti-representative discourse is made up of a social movement that wants to be a constituency independent of elected officials, wants to resist becoming an elected entity, does not have nor want representative leaders who unify its several claims, and wants to keep elected officials or the government under the scrutiny of the public. This was the case, for instance, of popular movements of contestation and protest like the Girotondi in Italy in 2002, Occupy Wall Street in the Unites States in 2011, and the Indignados in Spain in 2013. Without an organizing narrative, the aspiration to win seats in the Parliament or the Congress and a leadership claiming its people to be the true expression of the people as a whole, a popular movement remains very much what it is: a sacrosanct democratic movement of opinion, protest, and contestation against a trend in society that betrays some basic principles, which society itself has promised to respect and fulfill (political equality in particular).
On the other hand, there is populist rhetoric and populist power when a movement does not want to be a constituency independent of the elected officials but wants instead to conquer the representative institutions and win a majority in order to model society on its own ideology of the people. This is for instance the case of Hungary’s Fidesz party that won a supermajority of the seats in Parliament and used it since 2012 to scrap the old democratic Constitution by amending it continuously, entrenching its own political vision at the expense of opposition parties and an independent judiciary.
When populism seeks the power to implement its agenda we can better see its hazardous nature. Its hostility towards the principles of constitutional democracy and the division of powers, its reaction against party-democracy, its impatience with the tension between pluralism of social interests and unity of the polity that electoral representation triggers and channels are better visible when populism gets into power. Based also on historical experience, a populist movement that succeeds in securing an electoral majority of a democratic society tends to move toward institutional forms that change, and even shatter, constitutional democracy for the sake of a further, more intense majority.
The populist conundrum may thus be rendered as follows: while we cannot deny that populism is democratic or a form of democratic politics because it does not question the golden rule of democracy and is actually a radical affirmation of it, populism and democracy are in tension and do not offer the same form of government by the people. Yet it is not populism as a movement that is the problem, but populism that through a party, a leader, or both aspires to become and can succeed in becoming a ruling force. Thus state power and constitutional democracy is the horizon within which we should evaluate populism, its challenge to party legitimacy, its cross-class representation of the people that masks social inequality, and its usage of ideological polarization in order to sponsor a highly exclusionary meaning of the nation that must hold for the whole.