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HomeDemocracy in DecayWhy populism can't mend a broken political system

Why populism can’t mend a broken political system

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THE past few years have seen the steady rise of populist, anti-establishment politics across a broad swathe of the West. In the mouths of its defenders, populism is liberation from the yoke of global domination. In the mouths of its critics, it is cheap demagoguery and the greatest threat to rule of law we have seen in generations. A true diagnosis requires a form of analysis that digs beneath the slogans of both populists and their critics.

Let’s start with a simple definition of populism: it could be understood, broadly speaking, as a style of politics whose leaders, instead of simply criticising the policies of political adversaries, align themselves, at least in their rhetoric, with the interests of the ‘real people’ against an allegedly corrupt, arrogant and out-of-touch political establishment.

Populist leaders, whether Trump, Milei, Farage, Le Pen, Orban or Meloni, claim a new kind of moral high ground: whereas traditional politicians promise better policy outcomes, using rhetorical strategies that seem to assume something like ‘politics as usual’, populists, tapping into a growing wave of voter discontent, rail against the ‘system’ and its cronies and are not afraid to paint themselves as political saviours who will restore the integrity of a corrupt system (this promotional video of Trump, laced with messianic tropes, is an extreme example).

Two Rival Perspectives on Populism

One generally encounters two rival perspectives on the significance of populism for Western democracy: first, that of populists themselves, who view populism as a long overdue ‘shock treatment’ designed to oust arrogant political elites and bring politics back in touch with ‘the people’; second, that of critics of populism, who view populist movements as menacing the values of liberal democracy, undermining rule of law, and peddling exclusionary and simplistic narratives of national identity.

Both of these viewpoints are partially correct, but neither grasps the true depth of the political crisis now confronting most Western democracies.

Critics of populism are right to condemn certain elements of populism, such as its tendency to advance exclusionary narratives of national identity, which artificially screen out the fact that many Western nations, like it or not, are now constituted by an amalgam of diverse cultures, religions and ethnicities. However, in condemning populism as a looming threat to liberal democracy, anti-populists seem to assume that what is under threat – our democratic institutions – are otherwise more or less in good shape, that is, more or less participatory, inclusive and responsive to the public interest.

Chronic dysfunctionality

But this is a breathtakingly optimistic assessment. Populists, though their political solutions often leave a lot to be desired, are right to point out the chronic dysfunctions of our technocratic political institutions, which seem to operate quite aloof from ordinary citizens’ interests on a range of issues, from hate speech laws and transgender ideology to climate policy and immigration.

It is hard to deny that the European Union suffers from a deep-seated democratic deficit, and that ‘party discipline’ in many Western democracies is a euphemism for the blind subservience of career politicians to party bosses. And it is painfully obvious that a lot of mainstream parties are losing touch with their voter base, as evidenced by increasing defection by Western voters from party-endorsed candidates, the disillusionment of many Americans with their two-party system, and the steady consolidation of support for anti-establishment parties across Europe.

Indeed, representative democracy in most parts of the world today would be more accurately described as a centralised oligarchy – the rule of a few, ruling on many matters in the interests of a few – rubber-stamped by periodic elections. Most Western democracies delegate power to highly centralised institutions, where it is easily captured and manipulated by elite actors, be they government ministers, legislators, corporate lobbyists or party bosses.

This situation is not remedied by periodic elections of representatives, which give most citizens very little say over the content of legislation, public spending and government priorities. Not to mention the fact that government policy is often executed through large-scale bureaucracies with limited legislative oversight and little or no genuine democratic accountability. The predicament we find ourselves in is not just caused by bad or irresponsible actors. It is also the fruit of political systems that are not fit for purpose.

Even if political elites wished to address citizens’ problems, their hands would frequently be tied for at least two reasons.

First, highly centralised governments, insofar as they rely on generalised rules and policies, cannot effectively adapt themselves to the intricate needs of large-scale, complex and rapidly evolving societies and economies. For example, centralised governance of healthcare seems unable to tackle the challenges of ageing populations and the conspicuous dysfunctions of national healthcare systems.

Second, national governments are not their own masters. On the contrary, they are deeply dependent on international sources of public finance and monetary regulation, such as the Federal Reserve in the United States and the European Central Bank in Europe. In Europe, national sovereignty is subordinated on many issues to European laws and regulatory frameworks. In the US, state autonomy has been steadily eroded by the ever-expanding prerogatives of the national Congress and federal government.

Addressing pathologies

Thus modern polities as currently constituted, apart from facilitating the concentration of power in the hands of a few privileged citizens, are disabled by their clumsy scale and their chronic dependency on external actors like international financiers and central banks from competently and effectively discharging their conventional governmental and welfare-providing functions.

Until such pathologies are addressed, we can expect the cycle of voter frustration and popular discontent to continue, whether it takes the form of populist styles of politics, strikes, protests, online and offline abuse of elected officials, or confrontations between citizens and police officers on the ground.

The problem is, even if populists rise to power, as we have seen in the US under Trump and Italy under Meloni, this is no guarantee of sustainable institutional reform. In the short term, a populist victory might limit some of the damages of unaccountable centralised governance. But it also risks replacing the pathology of centralised technocracy with damaging forms of demagoguery, holding out the unrealistic promise that a quasi-messianic leader will cut through all the red tape and fix our problems with the wave of a magic wand.

Even if populism suffers political setbacks or makes limited gains in some places, the appetite for anti-system or anti-establishment politics has been gaining momentum in many Western countries and is unlikely to subside any time soon. For the basic problem we confront is not a handful of troublesome politicians, but a political system that is no longer fit for purpose.

Quite possibly, the type of reform Western democracies require is more radical than anything either populists or their critics are willing to contemplate. What is required is far-reaching decentralising reforms that anchor political and economic power not in a centralised state, but in a federal pact among municipal and regional governments and grassroots institutions such as local citizen assemblies, professional associations and worker co-operatives. Under such reforms, the old national political establishment would lost much of its power. But so would national populist leaders and movements.

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David Thunder
David Thunder
David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain.

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