Europeans are usually alarmed or sniffy about American concern for democracy’s fate, but this time liberal opinion on both sides of the pond sings in unison: populism is a threat to democracy.
A recent issue of the Journal of Democracy (a sober publication published by America’s National Endowment for Democracy) provided a handy compendium of all the parties, policies and histories that can be included in the vast cabin-trunk of populism. A lead article by Takis S. Pappas, a Greek political theorist living in Hungary, lists 22 different parties he cautiously calls ‘challengers to liberal democracy’. He breaks them down into three categories: anti-democrats, nativists and populists. (All are commonly called populists in European and American media.) Of these, seven have held power in coalition, another four alone, and all but one of the anti-democrats are either ‘isolated in opposition’ or ‘extinct’ (the BNP).
Despite these successes, liberal democracy survives in the countries concerned. That may be because Pappas casts his net wide. Along with the socialist Pasok, which governed Greece for 22 years and left power still mutually scratching numerous backs when it handed over to Syriza (also included), he cites Ukip, Italy’s main opposition party, and the present governing parties of Hungary and Poland as ‘populists’, when some of them look more like parties holding traditional conservative views.
He argues that populists may pose the greatest challenge to democracy because they support it, indeed maybe excessively, and so they win democratic-minded votes. Once elected, however, they may be tempted to override constitutional restraints on their power. He explains this as follows: ‘Populist parties embrace democracy but not liberalism. Liberalism without democracy is not a combination found in real-life polities today.’
But the great undiscussed problem of modern democracy is that liberalism without democracy is the system of government towards which the West has been moving for a generation or more. There has been an increasing shift of power from elected and accountable bodies, such as Parliament, to semi-independent bureaucratic agencies that make their own laws (called regulations), to the courts, and in more recent years to European and other transnational bodies.Liberal progressive elites at the top of mainstream political parties went along with this shift of power. It helped them to ignore the apparent wishes of the voters. They did so by the simple expedient of not discussing these wishes — by keeping them out of politics. Immigration and ‘Europe’ are examples. Over time, majorities ceased to be the dominant decision-makers and became merely one player in the system. Majoritarian democracy mutated into a system that the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte calls post-democracy, in which elites and the institutions they control increasingly exercise more power than the voters and their elected representatives.
Here’s my theory. At the left end of the spectrum place post-democracy; at the right, populism; in the centre lies majoritarian democracy. Liberal restraints on democratic majorities increase in number and importance as you move towards post-democracy; and decrease in number and importance as you move towards populism. But the more power has shifted to liberal institutions, and the weaker democratic majorities have become constitutionally, the more populism is likely to demand the removal of constitutional restraints on the will of the people.
On the other hand, the more that majority rule remains the driving force of democracy, the more that populism will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate and made subject to its conventions. ‘In short,’ as the Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, pointed out some years ago, ‘populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticises the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their repoliticisation.’ The populist upsurges in Europe are such a response. The answer is to discuss the issues at their heart.
Brexit has now been taken from the populists and placed in Parliament, with the request that it be achieved sensibly. That should now be done within the rules of liberal but majoritarian democracy. The cases challenging Brexit before the courts are almost picture-perfect examples of post-democracy, in which powerful elites use non-accountable institutions and (sometimes reasonable regulations) to overturn majority decisions.
John O’Sullivan is president of the Danube Institute and a former editor of National Review. He was a No. 10 speechwriter under Margaret Thatcher.