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.