The past few years have been marked by an unprecedented increase in the weight of populist parties. In many countries, they are now setting the tone of the debate. Not only are they shaping these countries’ domestic politics, they also have disruptive effects on the international order. This process has come like an avalanche. The tendency is global and, from a historian’s perspective, almost epochal.
With the increasing popularity of populist politics, the number of scientific attempts to explain them increased too, without, of course, providing fully satisfactory answers to the many people, who are so eagerly trying to understand the destructive force of the phenomenon.
Too often – and quite understandably – one was alternatively guided by singularities based on the charisma of a particular leader, phantasms of national special paths, a reduction to reactions of economically disadvantaged people (“deplorables”) or the fixation on ideologically oriented debates. All of these have often been accurate observations, which, however, neither help to explain the phenomenon in its entirety nor provide building blocks for a counterstrategy.
Nadia Urbinati’s “Me the People” stands out against this backdrop because her lucid work not only considers the complexity and interdependence of the phenomenon. Rather, the author tries to explain the current populist hype primarily from the shortcomings, rigidities, and genuine weaknesses of representative democracy. For too long, its problematic areas had not been addressed. The status quo, in a certain tradition of Francis Fukuyama, had been exalted as the final and ideal state.
This hubris obscured the dangers resulting from the dynamics of the political process in (western) democracies, specially at a time when in technologically highly developed market economies traditional party-democracy had increasingly transformed into audience democracy.
The former Austrian populist leader Jörg Haider may serve as a European prototype for the sudden appearance of the populists on our political stages. Suddenly he was there and swirled the seemingly static but self-satisfied political landscape. He managed to frame the issues of the debate, had continuously rising approval rates and became a fundamental threat to the established political world. The more people fought against him, the stronger became the movement he had started. Not even his accidental death put an end to the hauntings.
This phenomenon has existed for over three decades and has paralysed Austrian politics. All strategies were tried: combat and exclusion as well as tactical arrangement and appeasement.
Fighting populism needs updated democracies
Even the EU sanctions after Haider’s party entered a government coalition were unsuccessful. They even had an opposite effect and started serving as a textbook example for other right-wing populists in Europe. For populists, to exist against a smart-aleck outside enemy – like the EU in this case – has since been highly stylised into a common national rallying cry.
The Austrian example shows: Every counter strategy falls short when it only combats populist tendencies or when it even tries to make short-sighted tactical deals. Populism is not a foreign thing that comes from outside, it is rather a reflection of our democracies very own shortcomings.
Self-criticism is therefore appropriate. The whining epic of many political speeches distracts from the fact that current representative democracy is by no means an unchangeable construct. It was created under different historical, geographical, and cultural conditions, was fought against with fierce resistance and often remained inadequate because a lot of things could not be implemented.
Nadia Urbinati convincingly succeeds in placing the emergence of modern populist movements in this very broad context. She is not only familiar with their widely differing forms worldwide – from right to left – but she is also familiar with the state of the debate on democratic theory. In the thought tradition of Norberto Bobbio, she prefers a “proceduralist vision of democracy”. The focus on procedural rules is not only committed to guaranteeing individual freedom, but also enables a modulable framework that allows for the participation of individuals.
The starting point and root cause of all populist tendencies is the accusation of not being heard by the established representatives. This mood, which can be found worldwide, is certainly often justified, especially in the digital age, where the understanding of space and time has fundamentally shifted. To successfully stand up to populism, to prevent it from ultimately destroying democratic achievements – as tendencies can be seen in some Member States of the European Union – is to attack its roots. This book does not provide direct instructions for how to do this. But it shows that there is only one way to do this: to expand the democratic space in terms of the principle of discourse and to update the rules on which it is based.
There were many problems even before the Corona crisis: social inequality, gender discrimination, racism, global imbalances, and resource depletion. But the problem is more acute now: we should not leave it up to the populists to shape the reflection on the profound experiences that people all over the world are going through during these weeks.