[I am an occasional contributor to the roundtables in the magazine The International Economy. This month’s topic was “Why is populism on the rise?” My answer is below. While the format of the roundtables doesn’t really allow for citations, I should say here that Corey Robin has made the same point about Trump.]
As a political category, populism is uniquely slippery. Far from describing any consistent doctrine, program or form of organization, it is applied to Die Linke and Alternative for Germany, Geert Wilders and Elizabeth Warren, Podemos and Le Pen, Bernie Sanders and Jair Bolsonaro – to people and organizations whose substantive programs and bases of support are diametrically opposed on every point.
A cynic might say the word simply refers to democratic outcomes of which the speaker doesn’t approve. Even more cynically, but more precisely, one might see it as an attempt to discredit the left by linking it with the far right, via a portmanteau political category that somehow includes both outright fascists and anyone to the left of today’s established social-democratic parties.
A more charitable reading would be that populism describes the elevation of popular support over other criteria of legitimacy, such as law or business support or professional expertise. This is a reasonably clear definition that fits most common uses of the term. But does it fit developments in the real world?
It seems to me that if populism means something like illiberal democracy, then the central feature of today’s political moment is not populism but its opposite.
In the US, Trump is widely seen as populist. Certainly in his public persona he rejects established norms and expert opinion. But it’s important to remember that he lost the popular vote by a wide margin, and became president only thanks to the electoral college – one of a number of anti-democratic features of the US constitution that exist precisely to limit the power of popular majorities. To the extent Trump has advanced a policy agenda, it has been essentially the same as an establishment Republican would have. And it has been enacted into law only thanks to the non-majoritarian character of the Senate. His most lasting impact may well come through his Supreme Court appointments — which have been made in strict accordance with law and will be consequential precisely because of the Court’s power to overrule popular majorities.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro did win the popular vote — but only after the previous president was removed from office in what was effectively a soft coup, and the country’s most popular politician was banned from running by the courts. This judicial preemption of democracy is the opposite of what is usually meant by populism.
In Europe, the rise of anti-establishment parties, mainly on the right, would seem to give a stronger basis for fears of populism. It is certainly true that many countries have seen a rise in new parties, thanks to the discrediting of the established ones by a decade of economic crisis. But consider Italy. Yes, the governing League and Five Star Movement show up on many lists of populist political parties. But the real novelty in Italian politics today isn’t the election of politicians claiming a mandate from the people — which don’t? — but the fact that their proposed budget was overruled by the European Commission. The right to approve budgets has been the fundamental right of legislatures since the origin of the modern state, so its surrender is a political watershed. The projected deficits that justified the Commission’s intervention are not even exceptional by European standards; France, for instance, has had larger deficits every year for the past decade. So it’s hard to see this as anything but a shift in the center of political authority. And the new authority, framed in terms of a mathematical formula, is based on exactly the anti-populist grounds of expertise and impersonal rules.
The recent history of the EU is a series of such victories of liberalism over democracy. The takeover of Greece by the “troika” of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF was the most dramatic example, but it was simply a continuation of the ECB’s strategy of using financial crises on the periphery to push through an agenda of deregulation, privatization and liberalization that democratically-accountable governments could not enact on their own. When the ECB intervened to stabilize the market for Spanish bonds in 2011, it was only after imposing a long list of conditions, including labor market reforms far outside the normal remit of a central bank, and even a demand that the government take “exceptional action” to hold down private sector wage growth. Other governments under bond-market pressure were subject to similar demands. What’s striking in this context is not the occasional victory of anti-European political parties, but how consistently — so far at least — they have backed down in confrontations with the European authorities.
All this may change. But for the moment concerns about “populism” seem like an evasion of the actual political realities — perhaps a sign of bad conscience by an elite whose authority, more than in many years, lacks a basis in popular consent.