6.3.2.5 Populism and the Need to Win the Next Election

Democratic leaders must receive votes to gain or retain power, so they have an incentive to veer towards populism: a word that can be used loosely, to describe striving for popularity without regard for prudence or truthfulness – as when politicians respond to short-term pressures by behaving irresponsibly (6.2.6.4).  Those who are articulate in describing problems, and who know how to resonate with people’s concerns, might not be the best at making improvements.  They might not have the people’s interests at heart (although people who deny that the problems exist aren’t going to fix them either).  A democracy should be self-correcting against such tactics, because an untruthful or imprudent government can be replaced at the next election, but that doesn’t always work in practice – as discussed later (6.3.2.7).

Cas Mudde defined populism more precisely, as representing “the pure people” in opposition to “the corrupt elite.”  Donald Trump, for example, promised to “drain the swamp” in the 2016 US presidential election.  One of Trump’s supporters, Marjorie Taylor Greene, was criticised for controversial remarks in 2021 and responded on Facebook that “I will never back down. I will never give up. Because I am one of you. And I will always represent you.”

Anti-establishment populism feeds on reactionary discontent with recent changes, as described earlier (6.2.4.5).  When people feel that they have nothing to lose, it is unsurprising that they are willing to overthrow the entire political system.  As described in an RSA article, Populism is growing because more people than you think want chaos.  This was vividly illustrated in the storming of the US Capitol building in Washington in January 2021, by supporters of Donald Trump wanting to overthrow the results of an election that they had just lost.  That was a moment when the future of America’s democracy seemed to be in the balance.

The Washington rioters thought that they were trying to save America’s democracy, against what they saw as a Democratic Party conspiracy to undermine Constitutional freedoms.  They were nationalists: Donald Trump supporters who had rallied round his campaign slogan, “make America great again”; it was an example of what is sometimes referred to as ‘right-wing populism’ or ‘authoritarian populism’.  The following diagram illustrates the different directions that populism can take:

The diagram shows that either left-wing or right-wing populism might simply result in a failure to win the next election, and a return to normal democratic politics, as was the case when the centrist Joe Biden won in 2020.  Either kind of populism can lead to a collapse of democracy, though, and an authoritarian form of government.

The following two examples illustrate different outcomes for left-wing populism, which is comparatively rare:

As Greg Grandin described, Hugo Chavez initially became popular in Venezuela by offering generous welfare benefits. These later became unaffordable, due to low oil prices and economic sanctions. He became repressive.  The Economist has referred to “the authoritarian regime of Nicolás Maduro” when describing his successor.

Syriza, a left-wing populist party in Greece, won an election by exploiting public resentment about austerity imposed by the EU – but it was voted out when it failed to deliver on its promises.

Right-wing authoritarian populism has become widespread in recent years, as described in the following sub-section (6.3.2.6).  The political parties concerned have not yet won power in most cases, so the democracies have survived there (although the threat remains).  Some countries, though, with popular right-wing leaders can now more realistically be described as authoritarian.

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This is a current page, rewritten since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6325b.htm