Anti-democratic populism?

What is it?  Where did it come from?  Why is it happening? Is it dangerous?  What does it mean to our everyday lives?

According to Steven Hahn in The Populists Specter (thenation.com January 28-February 4, 2019 issue), populism has become “…a term meant to encapsulate the rage often found among white and native-born voters across Europe and other parts of the Western Hemisphere, who regard themselves as victimized by established political institutions, the corrupt practices of politicians, and the influx of immigrants from afar.  …these ‘populists’ appear to be united by shared grievances and  by a disposition to place the blame not on the workings of the economic system or the excesses of economic elites (though anti-Semitic currents suggest some of this), but on the the threats posed by immigrants to the national culture and economic well being.”  He continues, Populism “…seems to defy accepted political rules and norms, transgress recognized boundaries, and veer toward authoritarian solutions.  Most of all, it threatens the institutions and practices associated with liberal democracy, long believed to be the foundation of American political culture….”

In The People vs Democracy, Yascha Mounk writes about the causes of  liberal democracy’s crisis and decomposition as follows.

  • slow rate of economic growth since the 70’s
  • corporate offense against unions
  • insulation of political elites from popular pressure
  • expanding power of the executive and judicial branches of government
  • social media disseminating extreme ideas
  • erosion of ethnic and cultural homogeneity

Mounk states “…these developments have dramatically increased economic inequality, raised deep suspicions about the integrity and responsiveness of political institutions, and encouraged the rise of nationalist movements that place immigrants and other ethnic and religious minorities at the root of their predicament.”  He continues, this has “…caused liberal democracy to unravel into two strands, ‘undemocratic liberalism’ and ‘illiberal democracy (populism)’.”  He argues, that polling and related surveys “…show not only the erosion of trust in political institutions and democratic norms but also a growing support of authoritarian leadership, including military rule.”

William Galston in Anti-Pluralism writes that “Populism is tribal.  It feeds on feelings of economic and cultural vulnerability and thrives on binary and simplistic portraits of the world (‘us’ versus ‘them,’ the ‘people’ versus the ‘elites’).  It draws strength from the ‘incompleteness of life in  liberal societies’ and attacks vital norms, pluralism chief among them.”

Barry Eichengreen (The Populist Temptation) suggests that “…populism is marked by anti-elitism, authoritarianism, nativism, bellicose nationalism, demagoguery, and destruction.  Populism is ‘corrosive’ and brings out the ‘ worst of [its] followers arraying the general public against the intelligentsia, natives against foreigners, and majority groups against minorities.  Populists revel in flouting restraints and disregarding expert opinion, and although they are willing to have the government advance their agenda, it is not clear what their agenda is beyond punishing their enemies.”

Populism is a response to the loss of economic security.  It strives to tear down what they think are the causes of this economic insecurity, liberal democracy and immigration.  The danger is that in destroying liberal democracy we are vulnerable to authoritarian rule which means giving up our role in a representative government.  I believe that our current system of government is unbalanced, but I don’t think tearing it completely down is the wise answer.  Rebalancing the three branches of government to ensure checks and balances is an imperative first step.  Campaign finance regulation to remove big money from government is another step.  Legislative regulation to protect all Americans from greed and investment in healthcare, education and infrastructure are essential to protect our democracy.  Let’s fix it, not destroy it.  Democracy is the foundation of America.

Trump reflects this populism with his authoritarian tendencies, despicable treatment of immigrants, binary thinking of us vs them, destruction of norms and disregard for expert opinion.  This is not America!  We are smart, welcoming, and civil!  The 2020 election is the opportunity to get us back on course.  Democracy will always be a work in progress just like each of us.  It is always changing and we can make it work for everyone.  Vote!