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.


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.

Dunne to contest the next election?

Peter Dunne may have hinted that he intends contesting the election next year. When asked how long he will stay in politics he said “that decision’s ultimately not made by me but by my voters in Ohariu in the first instance, and that’s a decision that they will have the opportunity to refresh or reject next year”.

On United Future he said “we represent the flickering flame of liberal democracy in New Zealand”

And admitted “That does wax and wane from time to time”.

This was in an interview on Q+A this morning when Jessica Mutch asked Dunne about the future of UnitedFuture.

JESSICA Let’s talk about the future of United Future. How long will you stay in politics?

PETER I have no idea, because that decision’s ultimately not made by me but by my voters in Ohariu in the first instance, and that’s a decision that they will have the opportunity to refresh or reject next year.

JESSICA Your popularity in Ohariu has been going down. You got 1400 in the last election. Do you need to have a cup of tea with the prime minister?

PETER Well, my majority actually went up at the last election.

JESSICA 1400 isn’t a huge majority, though.

PETER No, it’s not, but it’s better than it was. And I’ve been there for nearly 30 years. I don’t need cups of tea with people. I think they know me pretty well and they can make a judgement.

JESSICA I mean a cup of tea with the prime minister.

PETER Yes, I know what you mean. I didn’t have one with the prime minister.

JESSICA Will you have one, or will you want one this time?

PETER Actually, I have a cup of tea with the prime minister quite frequently. It’s just that the public doesn’t see it. (LAUGHS)

JESSICA When you say ‘cup of tea’, will you ask for one with the prime minister this election?

PETER I’m not going into that at this stage because the election’s nearly 18 months away. What the lie of the political land is at that time is far too soon to speculate upon. What I will say is this – that United Future has been around for a long time. We represent the flickering flame of liberal democracy in New Zealand. That does wax and wane from time to time. There will always be people who will coalesce, if you like, around that point of view, and we’re here to represent those points of view.

JESSICA That’s a nice place to leave it. Thank you very much for your time this morning, Peter Dunne.

Video: Peter Dunne on the balance of power (9:48)