The Anti-Democratic Heart of Populism


Andres Velasco in Project Syndicate:

Many of the men and women who turned out for the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in early October were saying something like this: “Imagine if the Republicans had nominated someone with the same anti-trade views as Trump, minus the insults and the sexual harassment. A populist protectionist would be headed to the White House.”

The underlying view is that rising populism on the right and the left, both in the United States and in Europe, is a straightforward consequence of globalization and its unwanted effects: lost jobs and stagnant middle-class incomes. Davos men and women hate this conclusion, but they have embraced it with all the fervor of new converts.

Yet there is an alternative – and more persuasive – view: while economic stagnation helps push upset voters into the populist camp, bad economics is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for bad politics. On the contrary, argues Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller in his new book: populism is a “permanent shadow” on representative democracy.

Populism is not about taxation (or jobs or income inequality). It is about representation – who gets to speak for the people and how.

Advocates of democracy make some exalted claims on its behalf. As Abraham Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, it is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” But modern representative democracy – or any democracy, for that matter – inevitably falls short of these claims. Voting in an election every four years for candidates chosen by party machines is not exactly what Lincoln’s lofty words call to mind.

What populists offer, Mueller says, is to fulfill what the Italian democratic theorist Norberto Bobbio calls the broken promises of democracy. Populists speak and act, claims Mueller, “as if the people could develop a singular judgment,…as if the people were one,…as if the people, if only they empowered the right representatives, could fully master their fates.”

Populism rests on a toxic triad: denial of complexity, anti-pluralism, and a crooked version of representation.

More here.