The rise and rise of populism (2)

I referred in my last post to immediate actions which can be taken to combat the rise of populism. In this post I look at what I described as the deeper crisis.

I’m taking Yascha Mounk’s book ‘The People versus Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save it’ as my starting-point and primary source. For Mounk the fundamental distinction is between what he describes as ‘illiberal democracy’ and ‘undemocratic liberalism’.

Looking first at illiberal democracy, Venezuela, Hungary and Turkey, and Poland and Brazil as might be, all come to mind. ‘While the form populism takes may initially be democratic, its long-term effect is to undermine not only liberalism but democracy as well … attacks by populists on independent institutions and the rule of law ultimately erode the conditions for free and fair elections …’ It is these independent institutions, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and a free press, which define liberal democracy. To this list I’d add representative multi-party government, based on regular elections and changes of administration and policy as the electorate dictates.

Illiberal democracy too readily turns into dictatorship.

But illiberal democracy, and the support it gathers to itself, doesn’t arise from nothing. It is popular dissatisfaction with existing systems and institutions, and a sense of exclusion, which have driven the rise of populism. Mounk and others have defined this as ‘undemocratic liberalism’.

Much of this is inevitable and unavoidable. The technocratic challenges of our time require bureaucratic agencies, independent banks, and international treaties and organisations, all of which put distance between the ordinary man and woman and the elites which have taken charge of these institutions. Independent agencies in the USA include the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). President Trump has the EPA and the Federal Reserve firmly in his sights. But perhaps, in Mounk’s view, the most powerful ‘independent agency’ in the world is the European Commission. The European parliament has little power, so career bureaucrats call the tune.

Following on from the demise of the Breton Woods currency controls in the early 1970s, banks have become ‘key institutions deciding on whether to focus on minimising inflation or unemployment’. The European Central Bank followed the example of the  Bundesbank in terms of independence from government. Donald Trump rails against Jerome Powell when the Federal Reserve pushes up interest rates.

The extension of judicial oversight ‘is another way in which important issues have been taken out of democratic contestation’. The power of Supreme Court judges in the USA is more than ever evident. The Supreme Court in the UK plays a much less overt role in political affairs but sections of the press have attempted to paint it as a creature of the elite.  The European Court of Justice has also been attacked, much more vociferously.

The nature of political campaigning, American hyper-capitalism, and illicit funding (think Arron Banks) in other countries, have put further distance between legislatures and the popular will. Wealth and education, and personal and professional experience, put legislators in a class apart from their constituents.

‘At a minimum, any democracy should have in place a set of effective institutional mechanisms for translating popular views into public policy. In many developed democracies these mechanisms have become significantly impaired over past decades …many supposed democracies resemble competitive oligarchies’.

The ‘popular views’ highlighted by Eatwell and Goodwin (see my previous post) are directly relevant here. (Social media should also be added to the mix.) ‘If these long-term drivers are not confronted in a concerted and intelligent manner the rise of populism is likely to continue.’

This would lend credence to the arguments of those who take a more root and branch approach – who see the very institutions of the modern state, and the captive professionals who work for them, as lying at the heart of the problem. For them ‘returning power to the people is both the obvious solution and a straightforward task’. Take on the independent banks, the bureaucratic and international agencies …

And yet, Mounk argues, they are fundamental to our continuing prosperity. (Though not money and its perversion of the electoral system).  Remember the origins of the European Union, rebuilding the continent after the Second World War. (The issue is not how to do away with the EU and the European Commission, but how to make them more accountable.)

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. Likewise international treaties such as the Paris Accord are fundamental to our futures.

Constitutional courts in many countries have a proud record.


In Mounk’s words, ‘undemocratic liberalism … is woefully under-theorised …a better understanding of its nature and its remedies [my italics] is of much more than academic interest’.

I’d argue this is a massive understatement. The rise of populism has brought issues which were systemic but held in the background to the fore, and we need to understand what is at stake – by ‘we’ I mean the wider public. Democracy is not enough of itself. It does not, as experience around the world have shown, have its own inbuilt survival mechanisms.

Liberal democracy provides that mechanism, ensures the balance of forces and the representation of all people and interests. Or so it should. Its failure to do so brings illiberal and ultimately undemocratic forces into play – to the detriment of all.




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