At first, pundits ignored the populist insurgency: Now they claim it's a threat to democracy

After Trump, Brexit and Italy's Five Star, political experts scramble to decode the supposed dangers of "populism"

By Conor Lynch
Published April 14, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)
Five-Star Movement (M5S)  party founder Beppe Grillo and candidate premier, Luigi Di Maio attend their party's final rally in Rome, March 2, 2018. (AP/Andrew Medichini)
Five-Star Movement (M5S) party founder Beppe Grillo and candidate premier, Luigi Di Maio attend their party's final rally in Rome, March 2, 2018. (AP/Andrew Medichini)

Since the shocking presidential election of 2016, there have been many attempts to explain the populist explosion across the Western world. This trend continued to surprise political elites last month when Italy's Five Star Movement (M5S) — a populist party that does not clearly fit on either the left or right of the political spectrum — won a plurality of votes in the national election, making it the largest political party in the country.

As in other countries where populism has flourished in recent years, establishment figures in Italy have been baffled and alarmed by the success of M5S. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for example, has labeled the party “a dangerous sect,” while Matteo Renzi, the erstwhile leader of the center-left Democratic Party, has described the movement as a “Noah's ark of money launderers, fraudsters and scroungers.”

Though these and other criticisms of M5S are not without some merit (the party was founded by a clownish provocateur and lacks any core principles), they also display how feeble and out of touch establishment politicians have often appeared in their response to populism. This was also the case in the United States during the 2016 election, when establishment politicians frequently reacted to populist challengers by belittling them and hurling epithets at their supporters, rather than trying to understand what was driving the populist revolt.

Only after Donald Trump was elected president did mainstream critics in America really start taking populism seriously. (Even after Trump became the Republican nominee, his success was widely seen as a fluke event, and few people believed he could actually win.) Amusingly, some observers have now gone from sneering at populism to warning that it spells the beginning of the end of our democracy.

Of all the recent analyses of populism, one of the more nuanced has come from Harvard lecturer and writer Yascha Mounk, whose new book, “The People vs. Democracy,” was published last month. “There can no longer be any doubt that we are going through a populist moment,” wrote Mounk in a recent article for the Guardian. “The question is whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age – and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt.”

Populism’s threat to democracy has been a common theme with critics, and Mounk is no different here, positing that the populist movements that have emerged over the past decade “do not just provide ideological alternatives within the democratic system,” but “challenge key rules and norms of the system itself.” Populists pose a unique threat to liberal democracy and its institutions, Mounk argues, even as they claim to represent the will of the people. One of the main reasons for their recent electoral success, he contends, has been a general decline of faith in democracy among the populace. According to Mounk, this trend is especially prevalent among young people, who are more likely to support populist candidates — as was evident last month in Italy, where millennials backed the Five Star Movement over other parties.

In making the case that millennials are rejecting democracy, Mounk states that “less than a third of younger Americans” now say that it is essential to live in a democracy — which, if true, would be very worrying indeed. But Mounk’s claim is misleading at best and has been previously disputed. To provide some background, the World Values Survey from which his data comes asked respondents to place themselves on a 10-point scale, with 10 meaning it was “absolutely important” to live in a democracy and 1 meaning it was “not at all important.” The “less than a third” Mounk cites are those who ranked themselves at 10 on the scale, while everyone else — those who rated themselves at 9 or 1 or anything in between — are all counted as not considering it essential to live in a democracy. This is highly misleading at best, since the vast majority of respondents answered 7 or above, and hardly anyone picked a rating below 5.

While this does not lend credibility to Mounk’s argument, his next claim — that “the attraction of the young to political extremes has grown over time” — seems more accurate. The simple fact that the white supremacist "alt-right" movement is dominated by young white men — and, to a lesser degree, young white women — shows that many millennials are indeed embracing extreme and authoritarian ideologies. At the same time, however, it is clear that young people are far more likely to support left-wing populism over right-wing populism (which makes sense, considering they are the most progressive generation). This is displayed by the overwhelming millennial support for Bernie Sanders in America and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. To claim that these progressive movements represent anti-democratic sentiments is obviously wrong.

Nevertheless, Mounk runs with the idea that millennials are giving up on democracy and attempts to explain this apparent trend: “One possible explanation for why a lot of young people have grown disenchanted with democracy is that they have little conception of what it would mean to live in a different political system,” he writes. “People born in the 1930s and 40s experienced the threat of fascism as children or were raised by people who actively fought it. They spent their formative years during the cold war, when fears of Soviet expansionism drove the reality of communism home to them in a very real way.”

This may be a plausible explanation for some of the millennials who have fallen for fascism in recent years. But Mounk’s critique is flawed by what seems to be a underlying supposition that all populist alternatives are inherently undemocratic and authoritarian.

Another recent analysis provides some valuable insight into why so many young people have been receptive to populism and why the status quo is being so widely rejected. This is Thomas Piketty’s new essay, "Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right," in which the author of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” documents how the party systems have evolved in the United States, Britain and France over the past 50 years, from “class-based” party systems to “multiple-elite” party systems, “whereby each of the two governing coalitions alternating in power tends to reflect the views and interests of a different elite (intellectual elite vs business elite).” Here he elaborates further:

In the 1950s-1960s, the vote for "left-wing" (socialist-labour-democratic) parties was associated with lower education and lower income voters. This corresponds to what one might label a "class-based" party system: lower class voters from the different dimensions (lower education voters, lower income voters, etc.) tend to vote for the same party or coalition, while upper and middle class voters from the different dimensions tend to vote for the other party or coalition.

Starting in the 1970s and '80s, Piketty goes on, the “multiple-elite” party systems began to form as the “left-wing” vote became increasingly associated with higher education voters (i.e., intellectual and cultural elites), while high-income and high-wealth voters continued voting for the right-wing party (or coalition). This transformation, Piketty argues, helps explain “rising inequality and the lack of democratic response to it, as well as the rise of ‘populism’ (as low education, low income voters might feel abandoned).

Regarding future prospects, Piketty presents three possibilities: the stabilization of the “multiple-elite” system, which is currently experiencing a populist revolt; a return to a class-based system; or a “complete realignment of the party system along a ‘globalists’ (high-education, high-income) vs ‘nativists’ (low-education, low-income) cleavage.” Piketty concludes his essay by observing that “unequal access to political finance, medias and influence can contribute to keep electoral politics under the control of elites,” and that “without a strong and convincing egalitarian-internationalist platform, it is inherently difficult to unite low-education, low-income voters from all origins within the same party.”

This final remark supports what many progressives have been saying for the past several years: Without a return to class politics, the left will struggle to counter the rise of right-wing populism and fascism. The multi-elite system is proving to be as unstable as it is undemocratic, and right-wing nativists are taking advantage of the real problems that exist within the current system by scapegoating minorities, immigrants and anyone who appears different or "other." In order to quell the rise of reactionary populism, then, the left must offer its own populist alternative to the multi-elite system and the neoliberal order.

Piketty’s paper reveals just how undemocratic Western “liberal democracies” have become, which has led many younger people to reject the status quo and embrace populism -- but not because they are abandoning the idea of democracy, as some insist. To be fair to Mounk, he readily acknowledges — unlike many other pundits — that democracy has eroded in the West (and elsewhere) and that “the rich and powerful really have had a worrying degree of influence over public policy for a very long time.” With this in mind, he concludes that “we will only be able to contain the rise of populism if we ensure that the political system overcomes the very real shortcomings that have fueled it.”

Interestingly, many of Mounk’s suggested reforms sound a lot like the policies championed by left-wing populists like Sanders and Corbyn, whether that means curbing the influence of money in politics or ensuring that “the fruits of globalisation and free trade are distributed much more equally.” The fundamental difference between liberal critics like Mounk and left-wingers seems to be that the former seek to stabilize what Piketty calls the multi-elite system, while the latter would like to overthrow the status quo and return to class-based politics.

Over the past several years, it has become clear that young people are embracing political and economic alternatives to the status quo, but this hardly means they are rejecting democracy. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that they are rejecting capitalism, as recent polls have indicated. (One recent survey found that more millennials now support socialism over capitalism). There is no doubt that we are living in a populist moment, as Mounk put it above, and it seems likely that we are headed into a populist age. The task for the left, then, is to shape this populist age by offering a credible and convincing alternative to the defeated and ineffective neoliberal agenda.

Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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