6.3.2.7 Mitigating the Impact of Populism in Democracies

As described above, politicians in democracies may be tempted to offer anti-establishment populist policies in order to win an election by appealing to voters who are discontented – offering to solve all their problems (6.3.2.5).  In practice, such politicians rarely make people’s lives better and they can risk undermining a democratic political system.  An especially dangerous, and increasingly common, tactic is to encourage to make people feel better with a divisive form of nationalism known as ‘authoritarian populism’ (6.3.2.6).

It is difficult to counter any kind of populism with facts or arguments because populists construct their narratives to align with what people want to hear.  The voices of ‘experts’ are discounted or ignored, as was the case with Britain’s vote to leave the EU – which is described in more depth later in this chapter (6.6.5.8).  Experts always run the risk of sounding condescending, of appearing to think that they know what is good for the population without really understanding people’s concerns.  Governments tend to be ignored because, rightly or wrongly, people tend to regard those in power as responsible for every problem.

The safest solution is to remedy much of the discontent that leads to populism, with a coherent political response to the problems of rapid social and economic change.  This is one of the major political issues of the 21st century and is discussed later in this chapter (6.7.8).

The problems of populism can also be mitigated by institutional checks and balances:

  • Boris Johnson was prevented from circumventing Parliament to override Britain’s unwritten Constitution (5.2.3).
  • Elections are a safeguard against politicians who don’t keep their promises. Donald Trump won power but lost the next election, so he was unable to subvert America’s democracy in 2020.  Authoritarian populist movements have also been defeated in elections in France and Germany, among others in Europe, so those democracies have also survived.
  • A political party wants to retain power for prolonged periods; its desire to maintain a reputation for reliability is an incentive for it not to be irresponsible.  It can withdraw support from populist individuals who appear to threaten its long-term interests.  Liz Cheney and others have issued a call to fellow Republicans to reject Donald Trump and his lies, returning to their core values: The GOP has lost its way. Fellow Americans, join our new alliance.
  • Some democratic systems have mature institutions which are independent from the government, such as central banks which manage inflation (3.3.8.3) and which take a long-term view.
  • Stephanie Flanders explained why Britain instituted an Office of Budget Responsibility: to check the budget forecasts used by politicians, making them more politically accountable.
  • It is necessary to expose populists who mislead the population to gain, or retain, power. Some measures to ensure that politicians behave responsibly are described later in this chapter (6.8.5).

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This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6327c.htm