We the people: Democracy in the age of populism

Political populism has an even more sinister meaning.

May 28, 2019 11:48
3 minute read.
The Plenary Hall during the election night for European elections at the European Parliament

A general view of the Plenary Hall during the election night for European elections at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, May 27, 2019. (photo credit: FRANCOIS LENOIR / REUTERS)


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The term "populism" – the Cambridge Dictionary "word of the year" for 2017 – means different things to different people. For example, it is sometimes used to describe political platforms that stress short-term gains (e.g., low gas prices) and take no account of long-term costs (e.g., climate change), provide simplistic explanations and solutions for complex problems, and play on emotions and group identity rather than on evidence-based or rational reasoning. These political platforms present a growing challenge to the quality of democratic decision-making, especially in an environment of post-truth, where twitter messages need to be condensed into 280 characters, and the average time of viewing online content is now 8 seconds per webpage.

Political populism has an even more sinister meaning. By endorsing the view that political authority derives its legitimacy only from the will of people, and that any other source of decision making authority is illegitimate, populism presents a growing ideological challenge to democracy in multiple countries around the world. Populist movements are therefore critical of institutions such as courts, that often protect minority interests against the will of the majority; international bodies that speak on behalf of broad global or regional communities, and expertise-based ‘gatekeeper’ agencies, such as financial regulators, that take decisions on the basis of objective factors, rather than on the basis of majority preferences. By calling into question the authority of such decision-makers, political populism challenges the liberal democracy model, since the latter is based on political representatives having power that is subject to checks and balances, and shared with non-elected officials. This challenge was explicitly articulated by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who called his new model of government a form of ‘illiberal democracy’.

The current threat posed by political populism to liberal democracy is compounded by three factors:  First, political populism has been successful in harnessing identity politics towards its goal of eroding the power of opposing political bodies, by juxtaposing the ‘authentic people’ against migrants, minorities, “condescending elites” and progressive civil society groups, which allegedly promote cosmopolitan values and serve foreign agendas. In this context, some courts have been branded, as ‘enemies of the people’, certain NGOs - as the long arm of George Soros, and a constitutional text defined the State as belonging only to one dominant ethnic group.

Second, politics in an age of populism is more and more about expressing popular sentiments, and less and less about doing the right thing for the country. Gone are the days of Ben Gurion’s, “I don’t know what the people want, but I know what the people need”, and with them - the ability of politics to deliver sustainable long-term solutions to complex structural problems (such as immigration, or the situation in Gaza). Democracy’s failure to deliver solutions further exacerbates the distrust in it as a system of governance, paving the way for more autocratic alternatives.

Finally, in a world far removed in time from the pre-1945 historical experience, and flooded with simplistic and demagogic digital messages, it is becoming more and more difficult to explain the nuanced and long-term benefits of key norms and institutions of liberal democracy to the masses. The effectiveness of the populist rhetoric, linking together the future of liberal democracy and the future of a resented political elite (be it the “Washington Beltway” or “judges from Rehavia”) is fast eroding support for key elements of the liberal democracy project.

While the battle against political populism is still being fought, and is certainly not yet lost, for liberal democracy to prevail, new political strategies need to be developed: Broad and inclusive alliances must  be formed in order to present a viable political alternative to exclusive ethnic or religion-based definitions of ‘we the people;’ universal values must  be defended and embedded into local culture and belief systems, and significant efforts should be invested in promoting effective education, and political re-affirmation and widespread dissemination of the shared values underlying liberal democracy.

Prof. Yuval Shany is vice president for research of the Israel Democracy Institute and a fellow of its Center for Democratic Values and Institutions.

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