Populism is also ordinary

Populism is something like an inevitable symptom of the innate limits that are constitutive of liberal democracies.

Maxine Molyneux Thomas Osborne
22 November 2016

5-Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo shows a poster in Italian reading "Out of the euro, 50,000 signatures already collected in a weekend", December 2014. Domenico Stinellis/Press Association. All rights reserved.In much current usage populism is seen as alien to, or as the antithesis of liberal democracy, a symptom of endemic crisis (Grahame Thompson, Brexit and the rise of populism openDemocracy, 21 July 2016). Yet liberal democratic political forms are inherently bound up with populisms of various kinds, and this is a normal state of affairs.  This is not to downplay populism or – in some, indeed many, cases – the threat it poses to the integrity of liberal democracy, but it must be seen as porously interwoven with liberal democratic political forms.  We need to understand how – empirically – democracy, liberalism and populism operate together and at times against each other.

What we are seeing today with Brexit, Trump and all the rest is not so much the growth of some kind of homogenous if amorphous wave of populism but a crisis of liberal democracy in which the populist side of democracy seems increasingly opposed to its liberal side. Democracy, of course, has always been torn in this respect. Political philosophers are used to the idea that liberalism and democracy represent an uneasy partnership. There is no particular reason for the demos to be liberal; on the contrary, the demos can be brutal, reactionary and exclusionary. Liberalism is merely the good conscience of democracy. Enlightenment political theory – Montesquieu, Hume – regarded the populace as intemperate and emotional; government was to provide moderation from these tendencies. Indeed moderation here meant not some kind of middle ground but something more like a system of counter-balances against enthusiasm or extremism, whether of peoples or princes.

Modern liberalism has inherited this idea in the form of representative government, the division of powers and the rule of law. The principle of representation is, however, perhaps the most crucial of liberal principles. It moderates power, limits the passions of the demos, prevents despotism. Yet, it is also about channelling the multiple wills of the populace, and so promoting democracy. As the philosopher Judith Shklar argued, liberalism and democracy are not necessarily joined at the hip, but they are at least in some kind of marriage of convenience.  And indeed one can far more easily imagine a democracy without liberalism than a liberalism without democracy. 

Public choice theorists have argued that there is no such thing as a popular will: democracies require elections and elections sort voting choices non-transitively: in other words, majorities on particular questions do not exist. Populism and liberalism at their extremes provide alternatives to this problem: populism by asserting that there is a popular will (albeit, more often than not, the will of quite a limited, often extremist, constituency) and liberalism by asserting that such a will must be created through representation. Some political theorists, such as Nadia Urbinati have claimed, quite plausibly, that representative democracy expresses popular sovereignty better than does the populist fantasy of direct democracy without mediation. If liberalism is procedure, populism is affect.

The conclusion to all this should not be, however, that the populist effect has no place in democratic politics. It is, rather, as Jan-Werner Muller has argued, an ever-present shadow. Political argument requires parties to focus debate, to reduce complexity on the wide array of issues that confront us in political life; they necessarily need to appeal to particular emotional as well as rational constituencies, indeed to particular constituencies – workers, the elderly, etc. – as opposed to others. Leadership requires popular appeal and the populace can critique and dismiss their representatives. The problem is that liberalism requires procedural norms that can conflict with such populist effects. If liberalism is procedure, populism is affect. Procedurally, liberalism refers to the rule of law, to equality of treatment, to norms of justice that are relatively deracinated from the claims of particular communities such that liberal politics can appear to be separated from those it aims to represent. Hence the populist mantra of elites that are separate from the people; even though not much trouble is generally taken to investigate the extent to which representatives really do constitute anything like an elite. For the populists, they are elites by virtue of the fact that they are part of the liberal system, the so-called establishment; it is not a serious or refutable sociological claim but a sine qua non of the populist position.

From the viewpoint of populism, liberal norms can be deeply frustrating. Invocation of ‘the establishment’ is common to just about all populisms but can be different things: in Trump’s case, for instance, it is not so much those who hold power in society but those who hold power in the US liberal order. It is the political establishment that is opposed, not the white, nativist establishment that wants to retain its hegemony over the increasing diversification of US society. In fact, Trump can be regarded precisely as a rear-guard attack of a white male elite diminishing in real power against the prevalence of broadly liberal norms in politics.

Yet populism is not always without reason in its scepticism about liberal political norms. Liberal argument tends to drift towards the centre-ground, and often it appears to remain more at the level of argument than of getting things done. The liberal political order is always condemned for mere idle talk, and for the rules of the game tending to pitch political argument only towards the centre at the expense of other ideas, other solutions.  This is not the least of the reasons that liberal democracies tend to be somewhat passionless environments.


Italian Premier Matteo Renzi answers reporters' questions during a press conference in Rome, May 2014 having beaten off a challenge by the anti-euro 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo. Alessandra Tarantino/Press Association. All rights reserved.Populism on the other hand engages its opponents with nothing so much as passion, in what seems more often than not to be a deliberate alternative to unimpassioned liberal argument. It is difficult to be passionate about liberal democracies. They are generically sub-optimal in terms of their outcomes; they always lead to disappointment if simply because all decisions are products of negotiation and compromise rather than being expressions of a popular will. Populism, therefore, is something like an inevitable symptom of the innate limits that are constitutive of liberal democracies.

Populism can be a problem

If populism is an inevitable and not necessarily an undesirable feature of political life in liberal democracies it does not mean that populism is not a problem. Populisms can be dangerous for democracies, unless moderated by other forces. They tend to a Manichean approach to political life, reducing the complexities of politics to an either/or dilemma; you are either with us or against us, part of the elite or in sympathy with the establishment. Solutions tend to be similarly stark: build a wall to keep out Mexicans, leave the EU. This is why the referendum is the perfect – and deeply anti-liberal – instrument for political populism. The Manicheanism of populism tends to make it both hyper-political and, in some ways, anti-political. It can be hyper-political in terms of enthusiasm, the generation of strong passions and commitments; and anti-political in the sense of a refusal of compromise, a resistance to engaging in the give-and-take of politics.  Merely to claim that populism is a form of ‘post-fact’ politics is in fact a little misleading in the sense that the facts are not what are at issue; it is not the facts that matter, but the manipulation of fear.

Manicheanism tends to be self-perpetuating; it leads to a spiralling rather than a regulation of fear. Of course, fear is a normal part of political life but populism makes fear, as it were, prior to reason; it builds makeshift reasons around its fears rather than basing its fears on reason. Populism in this sense is passion draped in ad hoc reasoning, rather than the proper impassioned reasoning of politics.  In fact, we need a much more nuanced understanding of how fear plays out in political life and how it is counter-posed to the liberal politics of caution. Merely to claim that populism is a form of ‘post-fact’ politics is in fact a little misleading in the sense that the facts are not what are at issue; it is not the facts that matter, but the manipulation of fear. When populists enunciate a fear then they have in their own terms told the truth.

Moreover, populist fear is typically unidirectional: the fear is generated by an extraneous other. It is a zero-sum game between the forces of good (the people, however defined) and bad (the elite, the establishment, ‘experts’). Liberalism has a more multi-faceted notion of fear; in cautioning against one danger, one always runs the risk of generating others. Liberalism, quite properly, is afraid of fear; in some ways it is the political reflexivity of fear, attempting to limit fear so far as possible in order to promote the values of autonomy. For instance, in fighting terrorism, one has to caution the public to be vigilant but such cautioning, if it descends to outright fear-mongering, becomes counter-productive; indeed it plays into the hands of the terrorists’ agenda, which is, precisely, to escalate fear.  

The protean character of populist movements and governments means that there is no such thing as pristine populism. This is even clearer when populisms come to power. They always have to adapt with regard to accession to office and accommodate with power. In Weber’s terms they become ‘routinized’ in the sense that the force of charisma tended to decline when exposed to the mundane rigours of office. But routinization is something that needs to be achieved: a transfer has to be made from the indulgencies of protest to the responsibilities or at least the challenges of power. What happens to populisms when they are in power is a critical issue for analysis.  What populists can do when in office has much to do with the presence or absence of a strong, balancing liberal tradition. 

What populists can do when in office has much to do with the presence or absence of a strong, balancing liberal tradition.  Populisms in office operate in the context of the relative presence or absence of liberal norms and institutions. The less liberalism the more scope for authoritarianism. On the other hand, if populists can adapt those institutions and norms themselves in directions favourable to their own ends, then they can to an extent displace the existing political culture. Silvio Berlusconi’s extensive control of the Italian media allowed him to ‘de-liberalise’ Italian political society, control the agenda for himself and change the rules of the game. Putin and Erdogan represent comparable examples. 

More generally, the trend works in the other direction; office tends to dilute rather than augment the effervescences of populism. Syriza would be an obvious case in point here. And in states with strong traditions of liberal democracy we might expect this sense of adaptation to be even more marked. This includes preparation for office, as well as actual succession. The Front National in France has under Marine le Pen obviously attempted to adapt in a more liberal direction; liberal in the sense of playing more within the rules of the game, not in the sense of an expansive tolerance, but in the interests of several steps forward.  In the case of Syriza in Greece, translation into power – after an initial honeymoon period – has occurred more or less entirely at the expense of the original populist effect. Syriza has had to conform to the rules of the game in the form of the EU’s apparatus of financial and by extension political regulation  and in the process lost most of its passionate oppositional effervescence; and something similar, one imagines, would have to happen to Corbynism were it ever to hope to accede to power.

A few remarks in conclusion. Liberal democracies are inherently paradoxical and sub-optimal; we cannot expect them to ‘sum out’ into an expressive unity. That indeed would be the populist aspiration. Populists want to merge those who govern and the governed into a unity; this is always a misguided, and usually a reactionary aspiration. So a final point is a simple one from the pages of Montesquieu, or perhaps from Michel Foucault. It is that we are all governed and subject to government; that government – in the wide sense – is not a transparent medium but at the very least a prism through which the values, norms and demands of the variety of peoples and individuals that make up our societies are channelled, accommodated and re-directed. Recognising that populism also has a face that  is ordinary is  to adopt a realist approach to the circumstances of liberal democracy.

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