Marine Le Pen's Front National have become a major political player in France. PA images/Kamil Zihnioglu. All rights reserved.
Populism is becoming global. While in past decades populist forces were only associated with Latin America, from at the least 1990s onwards populist leaders have been gaining ground in both eastern and western Europe.
While it is true that populism still wins executive power in Europe only rarely, populist parties have been established at the parliamentary level throughout this region.
In fact, practically every country in the Old World has at least one populist force from the radical right, such as the National Front in France or the Law and Justice Party in Poland. All of these parties strongly oppose immigration, refugees, and multiculturalism. In turn, new populist forces of the left have recently gained strength on the European continent, with parties such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece demanding an end to fiscal austerity and greater regulation of financial institutions.
Meanwhile, radical left populists in Latin America have won control of the executive branch, the three most significant cases being Hugo Chavez (and later Nicolas Maduro) in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Can all these cases be treated as part of the same phenomenon? The answer is yes. A growing number of studies reveal that despite the very real differences among the populists around the world, they share a common worldview. This populist worldview can be defined as a particular discourse or ideology with two main features: the notion that society is divided between “corrupt elite” and a “pure people,” and the belief that politics must above all else respect the principle of popular sovereignty.
Seen this way, populism has two opposites: elitism and pluralism. Elitism reaffirms the existence of a moral division between “the people” and “the elite” but flips the normative evaluation of the two: elitists mistrust “the people”, which are seen as irrational and dangerous, while having absolute faith in the superiority of the elite (just think of technocracy).
In contrast, pluralism fails to believe in a division between “the people” and “the elite,” arguing instead that society is composed of individuals and groups with a diversity of views. Such diversity is a strength for pluralism, in that it facilitates the exchange of views and reinforces the need to reach compromises.
This brief conceptual exploration helps us understand why populism has a difficult relationship with democracy. While it is true that the defense of popular sovereignty is intrinsic to democracy, contemporary democratic regimes seek to protect minorities and rely on institutions that are independent of the opinion of both the current government and the citizenry (for example, central banks, constitutional courts, and countless international organizations).
Consequently, the populists are not necessarily against democracy per se, but rather the existence of constraints on popular sovereignty. It is no coincidence that both the populist right and left in Europe view the European Union with skepticism, because it severely limits the ability of governments to determine their economic and immigration policies.
How can we explain the emergence of populist forces in the electoral sphere? This question is not entirely simple, because populism is emerging in countries with both good and bad economic performance (e.g., Sweden and Greece) and in places where democracy scores both high and low on governance indices (e.g., Austria and Ecuador).
However, we offer a theory that helps us understand why different countries experience the electoral emergence of populist forces. As shown in the following diagram, there are four key elements raised by our theory.
First, studies reveal that the vast majority of individuals have populist attitudes; however, these are dormant, that is, they are a latent set of attitudes that are only activated in certain contexts. In other words, most of us have a Hugo Chávez inside of us, but he is hidden and does not define our everyday political preferences.
Second, certain contexts make it possible for our populist attitudes to become activated. For example, corruption scandals or policy convergence among traditional political parties makes it likely that ordinary citizens use the dichotomous normative categories inherent to populism: “a corrupt elite” versus “the pure people.” The less we feel represented by the existing political options and the more delegitimized these become, the more likely it is that “the Hugo Chávez” within us awakens.
Third, leaders play a key role in politicizing these problems and offering a populist interpretation of the situation. Thus, for example, in the face of the economic crisis that is affecting countries in Southern Europe, parties such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and the 5 Star Movement in Italy talk about the existence of a casta that has enriched itself at the expense of a people who has been defrauded and denigrated.
Finally, while it is true that leaders and populist parties emerge because of these three factors, it is important to stress that their electoral permanence and eventual ability to govern depend largely on their own strengths and weaknesses.
It is common for electorally successful populist parties to be led by charismatic leaders, who can provide essential unity to otherwise diverse movements.
However, these leaders often struggle to build organizations that can outlast them by preparing new political cadres and governing effectively. Consequently, populist forces are often transient phenomena, although they may leave important economic and political legacies.