Is Populism What’s Really Threatening Democracy?

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“Yellow vest” protesters in Marseille, France, December 2018. (AP / Claude Paris)

There is, many believe, a specter haunting the Euro-American world. It is not, as Marx and Engels once exulted, the specter of communism. Nor is it the specter of fascism, though some, including former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, have warned of this. Rather, it is the specter of what journalists, scholars, and other political observers now routinely call “populism.” To be sure, there are few, if any, self-described populist movements afoot: no “populist” parties seeking to mobilize voters and constituencies, no “populist international” attempting to harness discontent as it spreads across national borders. Nor is there any “populist” language, sustained “populist” critique of the status quo, or “populist” platform as there once was in the United States at the very end of the 19th century.

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“Populism” is instead a term meant to encapsulate the rage often found among white and native-born voters across Europe and other parts of the Western Hemisphere, who regard themselves as victimized by established political institutions, the corrupt practices of politicians, and the influx of migrants from afar. Indeed, these “populists” appear to be united both by shared grievances and by a disposition to place the blame not on the workings of the economic system or the excesses of economic elites (though anti-Semitic currents suggest some of this), but on the threats posed by immigrants to the national culture and economic well-being.

In the current parlance, that is to say, populism is less a movement than a menace. It seems to defy accepted political rules and norms, transgress recognized boundaries, and veer toward authoritarian solutions. Most of all, it threatens the institutions and practices associated with liberal democracy, long believed to be the foundation of American political culture and imagined, with the end of the Cold War, to have emerged triumphant over its rivals throughout the world. But what can this presumed struggle between populism and liberal democracy tell us about the making of our current political climate and the future to which it may give rise? What, in fact, do these accounts really tell us about populism and, for that matter, liberal democracy?

The presumed opposition between the two resides at the center of Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy, although the book is chiefly concerned with what Mounk calls liberal democracy’s “crisis” and “decomposition.” The causes of this troubling state of affairs should be familiar to anyone who has listened to or read political analysts—on any point of the political spectrum—over the past several years. They include the slowing rate of economic growth in much of the West since the mid-1970s; the corporate offensive against unions and other forms of working-class power; the insulation of political elites from popular pressure; the expanding power of the executive and judicial branches of government; the emergence of new forms of social media capable of disseminating extreme ideas; and the erosion of ethnic and cultural homogeneity owing to new patterns of migration. Taken together, Mounk argues, these developments have dramatically increased economic inequality, raised deep suspicions about the integrity and responsiveness of political institutions, and encouraged the rise of nationalist movements that place immigrants and other ethnic and religious minorities at the root of their predicament. They have also, Mounk continues, caused liberal democracy to unravel into two strands, “undemocratic liberalism” and “illiberal democracy”—the latter another term, in his view, for populism.

Although none of this will be news to many readers, more arresting is the supporting data that Mounk offers up here. Polling and related surveys, he argues, show not only the erosion of trust in political institutions and democratic norms but also a growing support for authoritarian leadership, including military rule. Indeed, according to Mounk, the data show this trend to be especially notable among young people in a remarkable array of countries: Britain, Chile, Germany, Italy, Norway, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, and Uruguay, as well as the United States. Scholars of political development have long argued that when a society achieves a stable form of liberal democracy, there is little chance of it backsliding. But if Mounk is right, then all bets are off. “Once upon a time,” he tells us, “liberal democracies could assure their citizens of very rapid increases in living standards,” while “political elites…could effectively exclude radical views from the public sphere,” and the “homogeneity of their citizens…held liberal democracies together.” Now, all of this has changed, leaving us on the slippery slope to authoritarianism.

Maybe yes, maybe no. As alarming as The People vs. Democracy is, some of the data that Mounk presents has been subject to serious criticism—by Cas Mudde, Jeff Guo, and Pippa Norris, among others—both for overstating the popular disenchantment with democracy and for understating a wide range of attitudes that may lend it support. As always, the salience of polling data depends on what questions were asked, what choice of answers was provided, and what we make of the responses. Also, there are reasons to doubt the extent and depth of the crisis that Mounk describes. Elections during the past three years suggest that millennials can be mobilized in large numbers for democratic purposes; and, if anything, they seem to be moving left rather than right—certainly in the United States, where socialism is now viewed by many of them as an appealing alternative.

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Whether or not Mounk’s data hold up, he is hardly alone in raising the warning flags for liberal democracy. Political theorist William Galston, a domestic-policy adviser to Bill Clinton during his presidency, does likewise in his concise and pointed Anti-Pluralism, which echoes many of Mounk’s arguments. During the past 25 years, Galston writes, partisans of liberal democracy have moved from “triumphalism to near despair,” as elites have grown skeptical of the need for popular consent and “populist movements” have erupted to express their opposition.

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Like Mounk, Galston attributes the present dangers to the faltering of economic growth and to the “waves” (this appears to be the metaphor of choice these days) of immigration that have washed over Europe and the United States. Like Mounk, he focuses on how liberal democracies can be “deformed” by demagoguery on the one side and elitism on the other, and he remains committed to resuscitating the liberal-democratic way. Yet Galston seems even more worried about the threat that populism represents, and he writes about it almost in the language of contagion. Populism, he insists, is tribal: It feeds on feelings of economic and cultural vulnerability and thrives on binary and simplistic portraits of the world (“us” versus “them,” the “people” versus the “elites”). It draws strength from the “incompleteness of life in liberal societies” and attacks vital norms, pluralism chief among them. An “antidote” must therefore be found, preferably in what Galston calls liberal democracy’s “capacity for reinvention.”

For all their fretting and concern, however, neither Galston nor Mounk offers a compelling definition of populism or explains why the term is a useful rubric for the political discontent that has grown so powerful in recent years. Nor does either give us much of a sense of where populism comes from, whether it has a meaningful history, or whether a deeper historical perspective would serve our understanding better.

For both writers, those designated as populists can be disposed to immigrant-bashing and to various forms of nationalism and anti-elitism; and the word “populism” seems most useful as a demeaning and uninterrogated epithet that Galston and Mounk have embraced to express their own hostility to liberal democracy’s apparent enemies. So far as they can see, both populism and the crisis of liberal democracy are of relatively recent vintage—products of the end of the post–World War II boom, or the end of the Cold War, or the rise of terrorism and terrorism-related warfare. It is a perspective that offers some comfort in these volatile and unpredictable times: The shallower and more peculiar the roots of this noxious growth, the fewer the obstacles to plucking them out.

The ambition and appeal of Barry Eichengreen’s The Populist Temptation are to be found in the historical framing that Mounk and Galston avoid. A distinguished economic historian, Eichengreen looks to Europe as well as the United States and takes us all the way back to the Luddites of early 19th-century Britain and the Greenback and Populist parties of late 19th-century America, who all mounted serious political projects or electoral challenges. Eichengreen’s net also catches the German Social Democrats of the 1870s and 1880s, the American Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and demagogues like Father Coughlin and Huey Long in the 1930s and Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Donald Trump more recently.

Eichengreen cautions that not all of these phenomena are necessarily examples of populism. Yet over the course of his book, virtually every movement or voice—whether of the left or the right—that pushes back against the dominant social and political system is lumped into a category of disruption whose toxicity, he argues, tends to be the product of economic insecurity and whose impact can best be limited or curbed by economic turnarounds and wise governance. The policies of Bismarck and Franklin Roosevelt, Eichengreen suggests, provide good illustrations of how the wind can be taken out of such movements.

Still, whatever is historically and analytically valuable in Eichengreen’s approach comes apart because his unbridled animus toward the populism of the current moment plays havoc with his apparent interest in contextualizing it. The “taproot of support” for the various expressions of populism today “is in each case fundamentally the same,” he writes, and for all intents and purposes this also appears to be true of the past.

Eichengreen is no less confusing than Mounk or Galston in attempting to characterize the populism and populist leaders of our day. Acknowledging that populism is difficult to define, he nonetheless echoes Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 take on pornography: “I know it when I see it.” But what is it that we see? According to Eichengreen, populism is marked by anti-elitism, authoritarianism, nativism, bellicose nationalism, demagoguery, and destruction. Populism is “corrosive” and brings out the “worst in [its] followers,” arraying the general public against the intelligentsia, natives against foreigners, and majority groups against minorities. Populists revel in flouting restraints and disregarding expert opinion, and although they are willing to have the government advance their agenda, it is not clear what their agenda is, beyond punishing their enemies.

Eichengreen’s intention here is to find the “wellspring” of populism by looking back at the dissident movements of the past. Yet he looks to the past mostly to confirm what he already believes or to identify direct links and lessons. Like Mounk and Galston, he circles the wagons around established institutions and firmly believes that populism must be combated and quelled—tellingly, the title of one of his chapters, “Containment,” evokes the US strategy toward the Soviet Union—and its grievances addressed. Otherwise, he warns, populism may descend into fascism.

Although Mounk, Galston, and Eichengreen recognize how liberal democracy and the international liberal (or neoliberal) order can be dismantled and reconfigured, none of them show an interest in mounting a critique of modern liberalism itself. Far from it: The gravity of the present crisis has made them feel all the more protective of liberal institutions, domestically and internationally, as though they were the last guards on a virtual Maginot Line for our civilization. It is a disposition shared by many liberal and left-of-center commentators, who have, of late, found new allies against the forces of populist darkness in the FBI, the CIA, and the national-security state. Small wonder, then, that one of the most thoughtful critics of the liberal project and its results steps forth from the right side of the political spectrum.

Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed isn’t a new take on the subject; readers acquainted with the work of Wendell Berry, Christopher Lasch, and Amitai Etzioni will find much that is familiar here. But in a measured and humane way, Deneen allows us to think more deeply about where we are and why, and about how we have become complicit in the making of developments that we claim to revile. “Liberalism,” Deneen writes, “created the conditions, and the tools, for the ascent of its own worst nightmare, yet it lacks the self-knowledge to understand its own culpability.” The current crisis of liberal democracy, in short, “is the culmination of the liberal order.”

Deneen is a political philosopher who decries what he sees as the long-term erosion of community standards, cultural life, and especially the means of self-governance. In his view, social bonds, shared commitments, a reverence for tradition, the cultivation of moral virtue, and the recognition of human limits have been steadily undermined by a hegemonic liberalism that regards the individual as the basic social unit and the state as the vehicle of progress. Denizens of liberal societies are instructed to act more selfishly, to hedge their commitments, and to regard relationships as flexible and fungible in pursuit of a liberty that, in the end, depends on the expansion of the state to secure its very prospects. Although “conservative” and “progressive” liberals may differ over how to use the state and the limits of such interventions, they share a commitment to the state as an essential means to achieve their ends, one designed to transcend the limitations of a particular local practice or norm. By celebrating personal emancipation from established authority and arbitrary cultural or religious traditions, liberalism creates its own forms of dependency, Deneen argues, forcing individuals to look increasingly toward an ever more distant and bureaucratic state that claims to advance their liberties while ultimately restricting them.

The practices and institutions of liberal democracy therefore obscure the disempowerment of those who try to register their political aspirations at the same time that globalization eviscerates popular control over the dynamics of economic life. Liberalism, Deneen contends, thrives on the flattening of culture and the reifying of technology; eventually, it undermines the relational webs that make for social and political cohesion. Thus, as liberal democracies lose legitimacy, they often “generate demotic demands for an illiberal autocrat who promises to protect the people against the vagaries of liberalism itself.”

As compelling as some features of this argument may be, Deneen also tends to resort to some rather tiresome critiques, especially of liberal learning and the universities. Joining many other conservative culture warriors since the 1980s, he rails against multiculturalism, the abandonment of the “great books” curriculum, and intellectual uniformity on campus, while longing for what he imagines are more traditional communities. For him, as for Wendell Berry, communities are the obverse of liberal estrangement: They sustain cultural bonds, self-governance, social humility, and spiritual nourishment. But neither Deneen nor Berry (or others who embrace this view) confronts the negative aspects that usually attend these communities: insularity, demands for conformity, hostility to outsiders, entrenched hierarchies organized around gender and race, and the infliction of so-called rough justice. Even so, Deneen does offer a useful counterpoint to the liberal-crisis theorists of our moment, who often miss how liberal democracy can undermine access to meaningful forms of power and, during times of stress, lurch toward some type of illiberalism.

The critical assessments and warnings that mark these works are accompanied by a raft of remedies designed to stave off the worst of what their authors see coming or to reverse the tendencies that pose the gravest threats. Deneen, despite his conservativism, doesn’t favor a return to a “preliberal age” and suggests that we acknowledge liberalism’s achievements. But the path forward that he offers seems fanciful at best: He urges us to “outgrow” our “age of ideology,” to nurture “practices of care, patience, humility, reverence, respect, and modesty,” and to transform our households into small economies (“household economics,” in his words).

Mounk, Galston, and Eichengreen are far more policy-oriented and offer more practical programs. To defeat populism, they insist, liberals must promote robust economic growth and focus on full employment and higher incomes for working people. They must shift tax burdens to the rich and invest in infrastructure, education, and health care. They must also encourage worker participation in corporate decision-making, confront the appeal of nationalism, and rethink the organization of both national and multilateral political institutions (like the European Union) so that influence is more widely distributed. It is an impressive and likely helpful to-do list. But the irony is that these are precisely the sorts of programs that liberal regimes have long resisted, and their achievement would require both a serious critique of modern liberalism and popular mobilizations that might well appear “populist” in character.

The literature of the current moment is a bit reminiscent of the immediate post–World War II era, when historians and political scientists began to construct an idea of the American liberal political tradition and heaped scorn on movements like late 19th-century populism, which they likened to fascism and blamed for the rise of McCarthyism in their own time. Populism, they argued, was backward-looking, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, prone to conspiracy theories, and a product of status anxieties and economic insecurity. Richard Hofstadter, one of the most distinguished historians of the period, not only wrote about populism in this way but also saw it as part of a wider “anti-intellectualism in American life” and a “paranoid style in American politics.” Fears of popular unrest abounded (tied to communism and socialism in particular), while the importance of the “vital center” was proclaimed. It wasn’t until new movements on the left emerged, especially those in pursuit of civil rights and against the Vietnam War, that a more sympathetic reassessment of 19th-century populism gained traction—and that reassessment was soon superseded by growing interest in a new populism of the right, beginning with George Wallace (who mostly goes unmentioned in the books under review, as in many others like them).

Still another meaningful historical perspective is, quite remarkably, ignored by liberal analysts and observers who associate the spread of populism with the recent “waves” of immigration: empire. It is true, of course, that the international circuits of migration causing much of the stress took shape well after decolonization and the Cold War. But it is a mistake to overlook the relationship between Western empire and the longer-term movement of people from colonies and former colonies that has been diversifying the populations of Britain, France, and the Mediterranean for decades. It is also a mistake to overlook how the movement of laborers and their families from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean to the United States has been produced, in part, by the US’s domineering presence in the Western Hemisphere during the 20th century and, in part, by its continental conquests during the 19th.

The term “globalization” quite simply obscures the power relations across continents and on the ground that have been producing massive inequalities of income and wealth, while the nationalist responses obscure the global vision and politics that will be necessary to create a more secure and equitable world, especially in the face of climate change. There is a need, that is, for a version of what Henry Wallace prescribed during the Second World War: not just an American New Deal but a global one.

No less sobering from a historical vantage point are the deeply laid traditions of illiberalism that have helped define our political culture since the time of the American Revolution. It has been commonplace for observers to assume that liberal democracy has characterized our politics across the last two and a half centuries and that illiberal impulses have erupted fairly recently and under unusual circumstances. But that simply ignores the powerful strains of anti-Catholicism that shaped American politics from the 18th century until at least the 1930s; the centrality of slavery and racism to organizing relations of political power locally and nationally; the violence that routinely accompanied electoral contests throughout the 19th century, even when political parties were robust and voter turnout very high; the community and associational harassments that denied outsiders and nonconformists, especially of a religious nature, their standing and rights; and the many efforts to disenfranchise working people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

In 1838, just at the time that Alexis de Tocqueville was publishing Democracy in America—long considered a basic statement of America’s liberal exceptionalism—a young Abraham Lincoln spoke to an audience in Springfield, Illinois, of an “ill-omen amongst us.” By this, he explained,

I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of the truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of our times. They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana…. Alike, they spring up among the pleasure hunting masters of southern slaves, and the order loving citizens of steady habits. Whatever then their cause may be, it is common to the whole country.

These Lincoln viewed as “dangers” to American institutions more than two decades before a rebellion of slaveholders, on his watch, nearly tore the country apart in one of the 19th century’s bloodiest conflicts.

The populist phenomena of the present day appear heir to these unsettling currents of illiberalism. But there has been resistance too, mounted mostly by those who have been the targets of illiberal attack, but also by movements that called themselves (and could reasonably be called) “populist”: movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and of the 1930s and ’40s, that did take on the inequalities of wealth and power in American society; that did mobilize constituencies which had been cast out and marginalized; and that did struggle to construct a more democratic future. Unless we come to terms with this complex history, with its burdens and inspirations, we are surely lost.