Populism versus liberal democracy

Can liberal democracy fight off the challenges of populism and wedge politics? Should it?

The article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

Brookings Institute:  The populist challenge to liberal democracy

For those who believe in liberal democracy, it is sobering to review the events of the past quarter-century. Twenty-five years ago, liberal democracy was on the march. The Berlin Wall had fallen; the Soviet Union had collapsed; new democracies were emerging throughout Europe, and Russia seemed to be in transition as well. South Africa’s apartheid regime was tottering. Even though China’s government had brutally repressed a democracy movement, it was possible to believe that a more educated and prosperous Chinese middle class would eventually (and irresistibly) demand democratic reforms. Liberal democracy had triumphed, it seemed, not only in practice but also in principle. It was the only legitimate form of government. There was no alternative.

Today, the global scene is very different. Liberal democracy faces multiple external challenges—from ethnonational autocracies, from regimes claiming to be based on God’s word rather than the will of the people, from the success of strong-handed meritocracy in places such as Singapore, and, not least, from the astonishing economic accomplishments of China’s market-Leninist system.

But there is also an internal challenge to liberal democracy—a challenge from populists who seek to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism. Liberal norms and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people. Thus, liberal institutions that prevent the people from acting democratically in their own interest should be set aside. It is this challenge on which I wish to focus.

Across Europe and North America, long-established political arrangements are facing a revolt.

I think at this stage it is closer to various political arrangements facing significant challenges rather than revolt.

Its milestones have included:

  • the Brexit vote;
  • the 2016 U.S. election;
  • the doubling of support for France’s National Front;
  • the rise of the antiestablishment Five Star Movement in Italy;
  • the entrance of the far-right Alternative for Germany into the Bundestag;
  • moves by traditional right-leaning parties toward the policies of the far-right in order to secure victories in the March 2017 Dutch and October 2017 Austrian parliamentary elections;
  • the outright victory of the populist ANO party in the Czech Republic’s October 2017 parliamentary elections;
  • and most troubling, the entrenchment in Hungary of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s self-styled “illiberal democracy,” which seems to be emerging as a template for Poland’s governing Law and Justice party and—some scholars believe—for insurgent parties in Western Europe as well.

This revolt threatens the assumptions that shaped liberal democracy’s forward march in the 1990s and that continue to guide mainstream politicians and policy makers of the center-left and center-right.

Are these all part of a singular attempt at revolt? Or are they largely concurrent re-evaluations of political norms (if there is such a thing) established over the last thirty years?

What has precipitated these challenges? Deficiencies in liberal democracy? The Global Financial Crisis? Are these part  of the same thing?

New generations coming up through political ranks?

The challenges of and to climate change?

The rapid rise of female participation in work forces?

Increasing pressure on gender equality, income equality?

The rapid change to communications and news distribution via the Internet?

The waxing and waning of stability versus chaos?

Sophisticated manipulation of news and debate and elections?

All of the above?

The world is a complex place, with two hundred countries and seven billion people. Rapidly advancing technology and rapidly evolving societies are bound to lead to political change and at times upheaval.

The article is long. I’ll skip to the conclusion.

AGENCY WITHIN HISTORY

Liberals are anti-tribal, cherishing particular identities while subordinating them to broader conceptions of civic and even human solidarity. But citizens often crave more unity and solidarity than liberal life typically offers, and community can be a satisfying alternative to the burdens of individual responsibility.

Preferring those who are most like us goes with the grain of our sentiments more than does a wider, more abstract concept of equal citizenship or humanity. So does the tendency to impute good motives to our friends and malign intent to our foes. Antipathy has its satisfactions, and conflict, like love, can make us feel more fully alive.

The appeal of populism—with its embrace of tribalism, its Manichean outlook, and the constant conflict it entails—is deeply rooted in the enduring incompleteness of life in liberal societies. This vulnerability helps explain why, in just twenty-five years, the partisans of liberal democracy have moved from triumphalism to near despair. But neither sentiment is warranted. Liberal democracy is not the end of history; nothing is. Everything human beings make is subject to erosion and contingency.

Liberal democracy is fragile, constantly threatened, always in need of repair.

And in need of modifying? In which case should it be given a different label?

But liberal democracy is also strong, because, to a greater extent than any other political form, it harbors the power of self-correction. Not only do liberal-democratic institutions protect citizens against tyrannical concentrations of power, they also provide mechanisms for channelling the public’s grievances and unmet needs into effective reforms.

To be sure, the power of self-correction is not always enough to prevent liberal democracies from crumbling.

Today’s economic ills pale in comparison to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and today’s autocratic regimes lack the ideological attraction that fascism and communism held at their peak.

Perhaps, for now. The Global Financial Crisis was a significant disruption, even if, for now, financial markets have returned to where they were more or less – but the political repercussions continue to be seen, and could be growing.

The current ills of liberal democracy are deep and pervasive. Surmounting them will require intellectual clarity and political leaders who are willing to take risks to serve the long-term interests of their countries. Human choice, not historical inevitability, will determine liberal democracy’s fate.

For now, democratic publics want policy changes that give them hope for a better future. Left unmet, their demands could evolve into pressure for regime change. The partisans of liberal democracy must do all they can to prevent this from happening.

There are already pressures for major change. One of Trump’s promises that helped get him into power was ‘drain the swamp’ – in other words, the throwing out of US political norms. He has barely had any success, yet.

UK exiting the European Union is pressuring wider change across the many countries that make up Europe.

Is liberal democracy worth fighting for?

Is populism good or bad? Surely popular change is what democracies should be acting on. The problem is that ‘populism’ at the moment at least does not generally have popular (majority) support. It is often policies promoted by a small part of the population.

Can we do anything except ride the waves that are getting a bit stormier than usual?

In New Zealand all we can really worry about is our own wee part of the world, remote but able to be affected by what happens elsewhere.

If we get the political and social balances closer to being right for the modern world we could show the way perhaps. But that mightn’t be what the world’s conspirators want.

43 Comments

  1. David

     /  July 24, 2018

    Thankfully we had 9 years of centrist Key rather than the elitism extremes of Obama/Blair and most European leaders and the EU. The imposition from the left of everyone having to belong to a group and have a proscribed way of thinking and attitudes is getting a backlash.
    The elites are having a big sook because most people dont agree with them and they just cant get their heads around it because all the people they know agree with them. They see this as the end of democracy but in reality most people are patriotic, believe in the individual, tolerate people with different views and attitudes and just want to get on with making their lives better for themselves, their families and their communities.
    Brexit is seizing back democratic control from a very unpopular and elitist EU, one needs to be able to look ones law maker in the eye and or vote them out. Its a myth its a racist movement unless you believe 52% of people in the UK fit that category.

    • Griff

       /  July 24, 2018

      The imposition from the left of everyone having to belong to a group and have a proscribed way of thinking and attitudes is getting a backlash.

      Anyone care to point out how vacant this comment is?
      I can not be bothered its so blindingly obvious.

      • David

         /  July 24, 2018

        Try having a different opinion on gay marriage, immigration, trans issues, #metoo and brace yourself for the backlash. Try being a conservative wanting a job in Hollywood, try expressing a conservative opinion or being a conservative speaker at say Berkley or Evergreen.
        For the left a gay accountant belongs to the gay group and needs special treatment for the rest of us they are someone who wears a suit to work and cooks the books and who cares about the rest. We see people as individuals rather than part of a labelled group deserving of some different treatment or deference.

        • Griff

           /  July 24, 2018

          Even more

          Gay peploe ?
          Who fucken cares what consenting adults do in private?
          Conservatives because gays dont belong to the group conservative heterosexual white males.
          Gay marriage is only allowing two peploe who love each other to marry who dont belong to your proscribed group.
          Your rant was orwellian in its double speak.

          • sorethumb

             /  July 24, 2018

            I’m not against gay marriage although I baulked at them adopting: “you’ve got two Daddies?”
            I’m pro abortion (make every child a wanted child).

        • Gezza

           /  July 24, 2018

          Proscribed means forbidden by law / or officially banned.

          Prescribed means stipulated, specified, stated authoritatively or as a rule.

          I find that quote puzzling & wonder if they used the wrong word.

          • David

             /  July 24, 2018

            Sorry Gezza typo

          • Griff

             /  July 24, 2018

            Yip .
            Typo spell check error whatever.
            Wo cears ya cand stiil underasnbd wrttins dat dent comferm tos abritery englshd spellon conventins.
            Focusing on errors that we can all read though is pointless distraction.

          • Gezza

             /  July 24, 2018

            Either worked worked, but put a different construction on it. It’s ok, yaw won of those peploe I don’t expect two no that, Griff.

            • Griff

               /  July 24, 2018

              The point is you know what I mean in the context of the comment.
              I dont see indervidual letters when I read and can not spell to help myself. That is why you often see typos in my comments.
              It takes more effort than it is worth to slow down reading to a speed where I do see each letter. We dont have a edit function so what ya see is what ya get.

            • Gezza

               /  July 24, 2018

              Yes, I understand that about you, Griff. That’s why I don’t tease you about your spelling, & I find your constant use of peploe instead of people actually quite endearing. I like the word.

              On this feckin iPad, with it’s slowness of response, & irritating difficulty inserting & correcting words & cut & copy pasting, & proof-reading long comments, I’m actually probably the Typo King here these days.

              As I have noted though, in this cae I had to stop & ponder whether David used the wrong word or not there because both words worked, but gave different messages.

              Most other times I just enjoy playing with words & typos, sometimes, where their ambiguity or alternative meanings give me an amusing picture.

              Your typos are usually perfectly understandable, Griff, but I do tend to skip a lot of your posts now because you seem to so often display the social finesse of a hydrophobic pit bull.

            • Griff

               /  July 24, 2018

              Yeah the stupid spell checker picks up when I repeatedly misspell a word and adds the error to its data base.
              That is not the only one I repeat often .

              social finesse
              Well you know the reason for that.

              The same reason means I find illogical gibbering extremely annoying.
              Like Dave claiming liberals are intent on placing peploe / people in groups when he is really complaining that liberals recognize peploe / people that are not in his group .

            • David

               /  July 24, 2018

              Griff kinda makes my point, instead of thinking OK that is one point of view and here is mine he just goes straight into abuse and shouting and total lack of civility.
              So if I think differently to him I probably vote differently and therefore I must be..insert offensive label here..wrong so therefore I vote incorrectly hence democracy is in decline.
              His level of abuse will never persuade anyone anywhere of anything except people may wonder given the level of passion he has why does he have no point to make with it.

            • Griff

               /  July 24, 2018

              Starts with
              The imposition from the left of everyone having to belong to a group and have a proscribed way of thinking and attitudes is getting a backlash.
              The elites are having a big sook because most people dont agree with them and they just cant get their heads around it because all the people they know agree with them.
              Follows with
              Try having a different opinion on gay marriage, immigration, trans issues, #metoo and brace yourself for the backlash.

              Why do you have a different opinion on gay marriage?
              Because gays should not be the same as you, a white heterosexual male and have the right to get married.

              Trans have an issue with being accepted same reason not white heterosexual males so have no right to be treated equally.

              Immigrant …any reading of this blog will find comments when the group “Muslims” are treated as having different rights to immigration as a group.

              #metoo is about woman refusing to be treated as object for sexual pleasure by heterosexual males who have power over them .

              Thats four times you named those who are different as a group so dont have the same rights according to conservatives often demonstrated opinion .

              You accused the liberal elites of having a big sook.
              As a member of the “liberal elites” I find that insulting.
              “because most people dont agree with them”
              Have a look at voting there is no “most peploe” sharing your world view.
              Conservatives are a small minority in this country.

              Projection.
              You insulted my world view first then go all snowflake when I give it to you back.

              In fact snowflake is more often applicable to Conservative thinking than to liberals.
              Conservatives go all snowflake when you take away there right to treat people based on an arbitrary group the have been placed in because they dont confirm to the Conservative norm.

              Liberal all are equal and have the same rights.
              Conservative you have the right to be like us only.

      • Grimm

         /  July 24, 2018

        “Anyone care to point out how vacant this comment is?”

        Nope, he’s nailed it.

        He didn’t even have to roll on the floor or Google spam a definition.

    • sorethumb

       /  July 24, 2018

      Key stoked the economy on immigration. New New Zealanders come with ready made identities weakening the national identity for “old” New Zealanders. The benefits of immigration are concentrated and the costs dispersed.
      NZ Firsts message is pretty much Lauren Southerns message (and we know what the media thinks of that)?

  2. PartisanZ

     /  July 24, 2018

    If it was ‘liberal democracy’ that brought down the Soviet Union and turned Russia into a mafioso-style, Corporate-Capitalist, or Corruptorate*-Capitalist Plutocracy then ….

    Let’s just run with ‘populism’ shall we?

    There’s no point clinging to mythological systems …

    Reagan … and Thatcher … who shafted Gorbachev and installed Yeltsin … They represented ‘liberal democracy’? …. Oh please … The other one’s got bells on!

    * # 165

    • Gezza

       /  July 24, 2018

      All they mean is that liberal democracy – one in which people have freedom of speech & association & free elections & can change both their representatives & their government – ended up ousting the old repressive & dictatorial one party system of communism.

      • PartisanZ

         /  July 24, 2018

        Wolin, myself and others might phrase it differently …

        All they mean is that ‘managed democracy’ – one in which people incorrectly believe they have freedom of speech, association, free elections & can change their representatives and their government – where they cannot change the overall direction of government prescribed by Corruptorate-Capitalist Elites – or in other words the new regression, indoctrination & persuasive influence “one system party” – ended up ousting the old repressive & dictatorial one party system of Totalitarian Central Command-Capitalism …

        • Gezza

           /  July 24, 2018

          What they means is Soviet Communism crapped out.

  3. IMHO today’s conflicts are much about making mountains out of molehills. America has been close to fascism when the government used lethal force against its own people, as in its attempts to subdue labor unions and subdue the protests against the Vietnam war. That is not happening in the USA…yet. The perception of anarchy gives birth to fascism.

  4. Blazer

     /  July 24, 2018

    American politicians have been bought and paid for,for decades.
    We’re luck in NZ ,people give large donations to political parties just because they…’like’ them,and expect nothing in ..return..cue Ripley’s…

  5. sorethumb

     /  July 24, 2018

    On the night trump was elected I followed the feed on Brietbart. It said “as ___ said .For Brietbarts 30 million readers it was always about one thing: they want someone to control the border”

    • Gezza

       /  July 24, 2018

      I agree. We’ve got Oz & the Ditch keeping them at bay. Ship jumpers are a rare thing of the past & they were mainly poms. If our borders leaked like America’s were doing lots more folk here would be up in arms about it too.

      • sorethumb

         /  July 24, 2018

        We have bipartisanship (including the Media Party) plus corporate NZ who see an advantage in “divide and rule”.

  6. sorethumb

     /  July 24, 2018

    Is populism good or bad? Surely popular change is what democracies should be acting on. The problem is that ‘populism’ at the moment at least does not generally have popular (majority) support. It is often policies promoted by a small part of the population.
    …………
    Populism needs intellectuals. These things get rocket fuel when writers take up the cause. Does NZ First have one intellectual? Intellectuals need high IQ. High IQ translates to High Income. High income is out enjoying life and moves nieghbourhood.
    and I forgot 40% of Auckland born overseas. If people had had referenda on immigration only available to people who had been here 10 years…?

    • Gezza

       /  July 24, 2018

      Populism needs intellectuals.
      Bullshit. Explain Trump & Hitler.

      • sorethumb

         /  July 24, 2018

        Bulshit to your Bullshit Gezza. I have lost the webpage but there was one about a group of Westcoast intellectuals (Steve Sailer, Victor Davis Hansen, …)
        http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-authors-for-trump-20161108-story.html
        http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/04/steve-sailer-invented-identity-politics-for-the-alt-right.html

        Hitler lived in different times.

        • Gezza

           /  July 24, 2018

          Hugo Chavez?
          Nigel Farrage?
          Katie Sausage Bottom?
          Geert Wilders?
          Tommy Robinson?
          Stefan Molyneux?

          All populists. Not an intellectual among them.

          • Gezza

             /  July 24, 2018

            *Kate Hopkins. (Couldn’t remember the surname)

          • sorethumb

             /  July 24, 2018

            maybe we should distinguish articulate from intellectual, but both are degrees of intellectualism [as an aside many of our opinion writers appear to be average thinkers wrapped in flowery langauge – MA English Literature]

            Intellectual
            Steven Pinker: The Blank Slate: people are not empty skulls able to be programmed to suit social engineering (“celebrate diversity”). He doesn’y draw that inference but it follows.
            Evolutionary Psychology generally confirms what Robert Putnam discovered that diversity is the inverse of social cohesion. When I was a kid we didn’t lock the door.
            Any economist who argues for a steady state economy Or that “hey.! there just might be a population sweet spot and it may not be 15m (as argued by NZIER for a client). Could be 2m?”
            Johnathon Haidt
            The intellectual Dark web
            The heterodox Academy
            Have to sort out the garage and shed so my wife can get her car in it.
            ……………..
            Racism versus Ethnocentrism?
            Gad Saad
            gad.saad@concordia.ca
            jul, 21 at 8:02
            Thank you for your suggested topic. I’ll keep it in mind but no promises.
            GS

    • sorethumb

       /  July 24, 2018

      That’s why they want to keep out Molyneaux and Southern and stop “hate speech”.

  7. sorethumb

     /  July 24, 2018

    The Liberal Machine has charged on like someone who keeps walking until his feet have no skin on them (due to a rare disease that cuts off sensation to the foot)
    Liberals have self selected themselves to power; corporates love to divide and rule as they are big enough to span borders.
    The liberal phenomena is only happening in the West.

    • Griff

       /  July 24, 2018

      The liberal phenomena is only happening in the West.
      You dont think that our society owns its position to this?

      Enlightenment philosophers are given credit for shaping liberal ideas. These ideas were first drawn together and systematized as a distinct ideology by the English philosopher John Locke, generally regarded as the father of modern liberalism.

      The Enlightenment gave us our systemic examination of the world around us, secularism separating thought from the church . liberal democracy and many other benefits that make western liberal democracy debatable the most successful civilization advance in human history.
      Reject it at your peril.
      Feel free to immigrate to a society that doesn’t have liberal democracy at its core .

      • sorethumb

         /  July 24, 2018

        The flaw in Griffs argument about Western Liberal society is that many migrants don’t share the same ideology and as Ha-Joon Chang argues, the lifestyles for the vast majority in the West depend on draconian border control (Catch22)

  8. Zedd

     /  July 24, 2018

    It sounds like some believe MrT is actually ‘the alternative to the mainstream’.. but so were Adolph H & Joe Stalin (in their day).. populism is really just appealing to the ‘lowest common denominator’ & ‘mob rule’ mentality.. regardless of the possible outcomes ? 😦 😦

    • Zedd

       /  July 24, 2018

      just look at 9 looooong years of ‘team Key & co’; rule by whatever the polls say.. forget any real policy ideas !

    • sorethumb

       /  July 24, 2018

      It sounds like some believe MrT is actually ‘the alternative to the mainstream’.. but so were Adolph H & Joe Stalin (in their day)
      [False equivalence fallacy. The fact that T and H and S shared a characteristic does not prove they share all characteristics.]

      . populism is really just appealing to the ‘lowest common denominator’ & ‘mob rule’ mentality.. regardless of the possible outcomes ?

      [Elites don’t share the consequences of the Utopian dream. There is dissproportionate influence for those at the top of society]

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  July 24, 2018

        In what sense is Trump a populist that Obama was not? Seems to me the significant differences are merely style and target audiences.

  9. sorethumb

     /  July 24, 2018

    Having just read that through and thinking about their definition of liberal democracy. I’m left thinking that Governments violated the principles of liberal democracy when they relied on their own “good sense” over the will of the people.

    But liberal democracy is also strong, because, to a greater extent than any other political form, it harbors the power of self-correction. Not only do liberal-democratic institutions protect citizens against tyrannical concentrations of power, they also provide mechanisms for channelling the public’s grievances and unmet needs into effective reforms.

    Not when we have an illiberal newsmedia. E.g Supporting compulsory Te Reo is compulsory. If you don’t want to because you value a society which is simple and bound by common language and don’t buy post colonial rhetoric then it is open season (Funded by NZ on Air).

  1. Populism versus liberal democracy — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition