The surge of what is often called “populism” in many Western democracies, in Europe and the United States, represents a deep threat to democracy.
Contemporary right populism succeeds by weaving together two forces. On the one hand, a sense of identity threat among majorities directed against ethnic, cultural or religious minorities, or immigrants in general; a threat which plays to attitudes that often lie dormant beneath appeals for tolerance and openness. On the other, a sense of grievance at growing inequality, or a loss of status, income, or security in relation to the recent past.
Populism flourishes where its leaders manage to bind together the grievance against elites among-non-elites with the latter’s sense of identity threat. The discourse runs: not only have the economic and political elites scandalously neglected you, but they favour the minorities (or immigrants) over you; perhaps because they benefit from cheap immigrant labour; or just out of “political correctness”. Where this appeal succeeds, populism grows at the expense of parties of the political Left.
But the forces operating here go beyond identity threat and felt neglect. Populism also thrives on a sense amongst the general public of citizen inefficacy — the citizen’s inability to contribute to and effect change.
In the period right after the Second World War, many workers and other non-elite citizens had a sense that they could act effectively in the political arena to meet their needs. The instruments of choice were the parties of the Left, Labour in the United Kingdom, social democrats in many European countries. For a variety of reasons, these parties have lost their ability, or will, to act effectively. As a result, many have lost their members and broader public support. The result has been a collapse in felt citizen efficacy throughout Western democratic societies.
This is a third crucial factor powering populist campaigns. Where real levers of change are unavailable, it is tempting to respond to magic appeals, like Trump’s promise to “make America great again”.
Where real levers of change are unavailable, it is tempting to respond to magic appeals.
The decline of confidence in our representative system is reflected in a drop in voter participation over the last four decades. This has set in motion various vicious circles of decline. It is helpful to enumerate the salient ones:
First, the fall in voter participation, mainly on the part of non-elites, increases the influence of the better off, and also that of money in politics. Some of this is still (legally) above board, but today’s condition approaches what the North-West sneeringly calls “corruption”, or “crony capitalism”, when it appears in the East and Global South.
This has been worsened by a second dynamic of decline: the rise in inequality.
The gap between rich and poor, which declined between the Gilded Age and the post-war period, has drawn apart again at an ever accelerating rate. This has been due to globalization -the lowering of trade barriers, and the attendant flight of manufacturing from high- to low-wage sites, as well as the accelerating automation of many functions. The effects of these forces in richer democracies have been aggravated by the blind ideological trust on the part of governments, even of the Left, in neo-liberalism: the basic proposition that, if markets are free, the benefits of growth will always trickle down, and a sharp turn away from public provision and investment and towards deregulation and privatization.
Inadequate attempts were made to counteract the effects of globalization and automation through different combinations of education, job retraining, welfare provision, stimulus packages, and so on. This increases the sense among non-elites that they have no real say in the system, and hence lowers the vote further.
Then the third dynamic: frustration takes the form of action altogether outside the representative system, through protest and other social movements. These are often without effect, precisely because they have no impact on the vote (one thinks of Occupy Wall Street); or they propose to step outside the system altogether (for example the 5-star movement in Italy).
Then the fourth dynamic of decline — the seeming incapacity of social-democratic parties to rectify the economic and employment condition of non-elites opens the way for a new definition of the drive towards the telos or objective of democracy; in which the “people” is now defined culturally or religiously, and its target is the “other”, but its political enemies are the liberal and “multicultural” elites. This we see virtually everywhere today in Western democracies. Of course, this is the basis of another downward spiral, because the programmes of these “populist” movements can do nothing to remedy poverty and unemployment. They can only divide the demos, defined as the ensemble of disadvantaged non, mostly white, elites.
Then, on top of these four spirals, there seems to be a “dumbing down” of electorates, in the sense that the grasp of the issues, and of what is related to what, declines among great swathes of the population. Am I wrong, dreaming of a past that never existed, when I say that previous cohorts of US voters in the post-War period would have laughed off the idea that stimulus packages won’t increase employment, or (even crazier) that reducing taxes on the super-rich will automatically increase employment? (The “voodoo economics”, introduced by Reagan, and echoed by Bush W., and Trump).
This is paradoxical, because electorates in the West are by formal criteria better educated than ever before. But perhaps this “dumbing down” is an inevitable consequence of disengagement from the representative political system; what doesn’t seem to work is not worth following closely. But even for those who don’t turn away from the system, who would very much like to engage, but can’t see how they can have an impact, the frustrating opacity of the system can make them vulnerable to saviour figures who promise to restore (how is never specified) a better past.
Even for those who don’t turn away from the system, who would very much like to engage, but can’t see how they can have an impact, the frustrating opacity of the system can make them vulnerable to saviour figures who promise to restore a better past.
I don’t think that disengagement from the political system is the only cause here; but to the extent that disengagement plays a part, it is both cause and effect of “dumbing down”; hence we have a fifth spiral. And of course, the beneficiary of this dumbing down in many Western societies is the surrender of mainstream political debate to the mythologies of neo-liberalism which of course further diminishes the ability of the system to help non-elites.
For example: the Bill Clinton era “end of welfare as we have known it.” I don’t know the statistics on this, but I would bet that the “beneficiaries” (there ought to be a word “maleficiaries” for this situation) vote rarely. Why drain energy away from the daily struggle against eviction, when it could never help?
All of these spirals have created a crisis for our Western democracies, of which “populism” is a symptom, but certainly not a cure.
What we urgently need is a recreation of the effective politics of post-War social democracy. But we can’t just return to the past. The work that parties did in that era has to be secured through a synergy of parties, social movements, grass-roots protests, local community organizations, among other instruments.
Restoring efficacy, the felt sense amongst citizens that they can effect change in the body politic, is our most urgent need.