The Rise Populism And Its Threat Democratic


Democracy entitles people to present and represent their views. Democracy may take many forms, such as social or liberal democracy. However, it may face criticism of being flawed and ill-conceived. This paper will examine the characteristics of democracy running from ancient times to the modern period of liberal democracy. Populists are politicians who reportedly represent people’s voice and campaign against corrupt and conspiratorial elite, often condemning them as undemocratic and to an extent unpatriotic. Any democratic set up, whether liberal or traditional, is run by the dominant class comprising the elite and the rich. This paper will discuss certain behavioural elements of populists in the light of their rejection of democratic rules of games. It will discuss international political scenario that does not favour democratic system and is swayed by populist idea. This paper will present certain arguments to support that populism threatens democracy. Examples such as the rise of Donald Trump, the authoritarian model of China and Russia, far right parties such as British National Party and the French Front National; populist discourse adopted by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela; and exploitation of government organs, such as use of media by populists government among other examples will be discussed to support the argument.


Democracy and the forms it takes

In the fourth and the fifth centuries, the term democracy indicated that “the demos (people) were sovereign in the deliberations of state”. The existence of democracy also indicated existence of various institutions, for instance, a popular assembly, representative councils, or popular courts, which provided platforms for people to represent their views and interests. This, however, did not mean that Democracy had a popular appeal earlier. It was termed flawed and ill-conceived by the Greek philosophers as it did not present a balanced of monarchic, aristocratic and democratic elements. It also did not find favour with Roman observers. Ancient critics did not find reasons in transferring management of complex public administration to individuals who were poor and little-educated as against the elite who could perform a better job. History saw dilution of democracy, such as in the Roman cities and it also faced condemn from intellectuals of the French and American revolutions. It was not until the nineteenth century that it took a positive turn presenting a more positive picture to democracy (Robinson, 2004). In middle of these developments, there were ideals of freedom and equality that also developed. This could be seen in the form of Reforms of Cleisthenes of around 508 BC, the 1789 Declaration by the French Assembly and the 1776 American Declaration of Independence (Robinson, 2004). In a democracy, an elected government exercises its powers and functions within the term of its office with the goal of meeting the political interest of the system (Cooley, 2015 ).

Liberal democracy is a form of democracy, which may be viewed differently by scholars and may faced difficulty in providing a universal meaning (Diamond, 2015). If seen from British and French perspective in this regard, one of the vital elements of liberal democracy is pluralism. Pluralist approach focuses on people’s will by protecting minorities’ interests (Mudde, 2011). As such, the well-established principles of democracy concern provision of core civil and political rights, including freedom of speech and expression (Pedahzur & Weinberg, 2016). For instance, in the UK, protection of minorities’ rights and interest is seen in various measures, such as the Equality Act 2010 or the Race Relations Act 1976 (Favell, 2016). Protection of the civil and political rights is the most unique feature of a liberal democracy (Mukand & Rodrik, 2015). This is unlike the traditional democracy which follows a conservative approach towards policy and administration. A liberal state does not follow a conservative approach as could be seen in the British policy making and administration that imbibes multi-culturalism and plurality (Jones & Norton, 2014). Liberal democracy entails a dispersion of power, minority rights and restricted government power, whereas normal democracy does not (Pan, 2017). In Liberal democracy, decisions on matters rest with the individual, whereas in a traditional democracy, the power of decision making is assigned to majorities (Samet & Schmeidler, 2003). Democracy can take many forms. Nordic states comply with common social democratic idea (Calltorp & Chanz, 2009, p.222). The West follows Liberal democracy. North Korea also claims to be a democracy, which is a mockery in that Government allegedly uses elections to track location of constituents, and nominated candidates are puppets of the regime. People vote out of fear of democracy and to show their approval of the authority (The ViewsPaper, 2015).

Democracy is threatened by populist movements

It is claimed that a democratic set up, whether liberal or traditional, is run by the dominant class comprising the elite and the rich. The viewpoints of the elite are considered universal and their consents and investment are necessary for democracy to function (Taylor, 2014). This is supported by the fact that private corporations occupy high revenue generating units and they contribute significantly to the government treasury. This leads to abuse of the system and frustration of other classes of the society (Berry, 2015). In the current times, the world seems to have adopted a fundamental realignment, which brought extreme polarization between political parties. Such polarization has posed challenges against democracy. A new perception has evolved where countries like Venezuela, Turkey or Thailand considered foremost authority on democracy apparently see a decline in democracy. The international political scenario does not also seem to favour democratic system. Unlike two decades ago where power was concentrated in the US and the EU, which model of democracy was considered the yardstick, new powers like China and Russia that follow authoritarian model have come at the forefront indicating a recession of democracy. In this light, it is worth highlighting four behavioural warning signs that could determine characteristic of an authoritarian: i) rejection of democratic rules of games; ii denial of opponents’ legitimacy; iii tolerance or encouragement of violence; and iv) indication of willingness to curb opponents and media’s civil liberties. It is claimed that populists positively match these signs. Populists represent those politicians who reportedly represent people’s voice and campaign against corrupt and conspiratorial elite, often condemning them as undemocratic and to an extent unpatriotic. In the event such populists win election, they become a threat to the democratic institutions (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018).

Elaborating further with examples of British National Party and the French Front National, it could be stated that principles of both of these political organisation contradict liberal democracy principles and practices. They promote a racist and anti-immigration ideology that adopts far-right policies, which are divisive and exclusionary in nature and not at all inclusionary (Pedahzur & Weinberg, 2016). In support is the instance of Latin America that saw some of such populists such as Alberto Fujimori, Evo Morales, and Lucio Gutierrez who, after getting elected, weakened democratic institutions. Similar discourse took place in Venezuela during the presidency of Hugo Chavez where opponents condemned Chavez populist discourse, which even lived through the failed military coup and indefinite general strike in 2002 and the boycott of 2005 legislative elections. Chavez survived all these events and he brought authoritarianism through a populist discourse tagging rivals as being anti-democratic (Robinson, 2004). If one sees recent events, there are complications in political and economic events leading to remarkable decline in freedom globally. Even elected governments in a democratic set-up are adopting key elements of authoritarian states and setting up their own political regimes in the guise of democracy. In the name of security, private data are collected exposing individual liberties to risk (Jebb). This was seen with Edward Snowden case (Deudney & Ikenberry, 2009). Classified information leaked from US National Security Agency by Edward Snowden established violation of privacy by the agency. The globe faces challenges due to different camps following either liberal democracy or autocracy. It may however be pointed out that Russia and China, where there is some form of autocracies rule, apparently comply with the demands of capitalist’s success, which somehow fills weakness of a liberal democracy (Deudney & Ikenberry, 2009). But, this is not to forget that there cannot be a minimum standard of democracy that could be considered adequate to secure individual liberties. For instance, Russia has a non-democratic regime, which ironically was created through democratic means. Such regime demands giving up individual liberties in the name of security, thereby undervaluing democratic values (Kurlantzick, 2011).

It would be sensible to determine what drives resentment of populist masses in the wake of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, True Finns, Sweden’s Democrats, and many others. There are three mostly followed approaches. First is rejecting mainstream political parties and their discourses in response to exclusion and marginalization of unemployed working class groups, who are affected modernization and globalization. Second is around general view of populists of people as being homogeneous or uniform grouping in term of culture (Plattner, 2010. ). This is in response to outside challenges and threat, such as globalisation. Third is the strategic means adopted by populists in order to appeal to their constituents (Kaya, 2016). Contemporary populism is claimed to be a governing system that can translate popular preferences into public policy without attracting impediments that deterred liberal democracies from effectively tackling urgent problems (Galston, 2018). Populism has the understanding that the elite are corrupt and that people are uniformly virtuous, which gives the reasoning that people should govern themselves without institutional restraints. With this principle, it is the claim of the populists that they represent people and that they are the only legitimate force in society (Galston, 2018). As such, populism goes against the principle of modern democracy. Their assumption that people are uniformity and not diverse distort facts as well as put characteristics of some social groups above those of others. Democracy requires pluralism and recognition of fair terms between people to live as free, equal, as well as diverse citizens (Müller, 2016, p.3). However, in the current system that has the inability to address increasing problems, governments including those in the West are exposed to growing public ire. Such inability has shaken up public confidence and led to people demanding stronger leaders. As such, various rising political actors now question key liberal-democratic principles, such as freedom of the press, rule of law, and minority rights. Hence, it could be stated that populists clearly threaten minority rights and often the dispersion of power (Galston, 2018).

There are various examples that could demonstrate that populists threaten democracy. For instance, the use of media by political set up to answer to current problem is one example. Media occupies an important place necessary for the functioning of the government. However, the degree of its freedom has reduced or gotten complicated. For example in Snowden case, media was manipulated showing one sided of the story creating an imbalance in public life (Deudney & Ikenberry, 2009). In recent decades, media is used on behalf of a political set up to sell anti-democratic alternatives to current problems. Citizens are misinformed and are easy prey for populists. . Freedom of speech and expression is too restrictive creating desperate citizens who are easily swayed away towards anti-liberal democratic elements (Louw, 2005). The case of the rise of President Trump could be mentioned here. As could be seen in US politics, the most characteristic policy profile of U.S. populists is the openness to undemocratic alternatives, which was prevalent among voters, who blended economic liberalism and cultural conservatism. The result being that almost half the voters who stood behind Barack Obama in 2012, switched to Donald Trump in 2016. They favoured a strong and unencumbered leader and hence did not favour democracy as the best form of government (Galston, 2018). Together with this, the repeated use of the phrase “enemies of the people” by Donald Trump against the media represents aspects of populism, which is dismantling a pillar of the US democracy, as well as representing totalitarianism (Graham-Harrison, 2018). Similar instances of derogating organs of a democratic set up could also be seen in parts of the world. In the UK, the press attacked the judiciary for backing greater parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit. Daily Mail accused Lord Chief Justice and two senior judges “of declaring “war on democracy” after they ruled that the Government must get the approval of Parliament before triggering Article 50 – which formally starts the process to leave the European Union.” (Mortimer, 2016). Religious repression undermining basic religious liberty occurs in both Islamic and authoritarian regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, China, or Pakistan and European democracies, such as Hungary. Hungary saw significant erosion of basic liberties in the area of civil society, national democratic governance, independent media, and judicial independence. The Orban ministry also “curtailed freedom of speech through the adoption of new media legislation and intimidated the judiciary by summoning judges to parliamentary hearings on cases related to the riots of 2006” (Bandow, 2012). Very often, populist parties make certain promises but unfortunately do not deliver. Example is failure of Greece's populist experiment. One of the populist parties, SYRIZA won the 2012 election, but offered no solution. It failed to close a negotiation deal between the Greek government and its European creditors. This further damaged the Greek economy and killed the nascent recovery. Its 2015 referendum to reject Grexit with the hope of continues fiscal adjustment and structural reforms failed to strengthen the economy (Kalyvas, 2017).

Along with the argument that populists threaten democracy, one could also see arguments that populism has positive effects on democracy. Cas Mudde calls populism “an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism” (Krastev, 2016). Observers such as Mudde post the argument that elites take up important issues regarding economic, monetary, and regulatory policies to assign them to institutions free from public scrutiny and influence. As such, it invites popular revolt (Galston, 2018). However, all these arguments in favour of populism look feeble considering the amount of negative elements it is associated with. Populism often does not give importance to dominant ideas and values of the society. It erodes respect for political opponents and of minority groups, and deters culture of reasoned debates. It destroys free media; devalues independent institutions; and muzzles opposition. Populism cannot be the only alternative solution. The direct input of citizens could be advanced without projecting homogeneity (Enyedi, 2017). It is also observed that populism is a democratic pathology. It aims to create a political system without of the rule of law. Though it poses legitimate questions on and challenges the state of democracy, as is seen in Europe and the Americas, the solutions they propose often contribute to more controversial than being helpful (Kaltwasser, 2013).

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Democracy entails existence of various institutions, but may not have popular appeal. It entails inclusiveness and pluralism with key feature of dispersion of power. It also focuses on individual rights striking a balance with social and political aspects of a society. However, the dispersion of power and upliftment of individual rights and freedom often leads to negative effects. Populism could be stated to be one of such negative effect. Often is the case where the dominant class runs the system and their viewpoints placed at the forefront are ignoring the views of the masses. This is one of the grounds for growth of populism. The rise of populism could be seen in the case of China and Russia or US and the EU where democratic principles are undervalued. There is higher tolerance of violence, denial of opponents’ legitimacy, and curbing of civil liberties. These events shaken the core foundation of democracy and demonstrate the success of populism, as was seen in the case of Hugo Chavez’s presidency in Venezuela. Even though the questions raised by populist may be reasonable and logical, they often fail to provide the right solution and fail to deliver the promise. This may be because of flaws in the foundations of populist principle of presenting people as homogenous and ignoring the diversity. Thus, by derogating organs of a democratic set up and not following rule of law, its aims to create a political system and be the only alternative solution would fail.


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