6.3.2.5 Populism

Democratic politicians need people’s votes to gain or retain power.  This pressure on them affects their interactions with the public, sometimes leading to dishonest manoeuvrings to win easy popularity as described later (6.4.2); the short-term calculations they make can be seen as an inherent weakness of democracy.  The political system should be self-correcting against irresponsibility though, because an untruthful or imprudent government can be replaced at the next election.

Competition between political parties is healthy – but some politicians seek to undermine the political establishment, in a ‘populist’ appeal to the voters.  Cas Mudde defined populism 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 his supporters, Marjorie Taylor Greene, posted 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.

In this recent American example, democracy ultimately triumphed: the election result was upheld, and the political system started to recover.  There have been instances, though, of populism leading to a retreat from democracy into a form of authoritarianism.  The following diagram illustrates the different directions that it 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 – but either kind of populism can lead to a collapse of democracy and an authoritarian form of government.

Left-wing populists offer socialist solutions (6.2.3.2), based on a Marxist view that capitalism is the enemy of the people.  This approach is rarely popular, possibly because of anti-communist sentiment in many western democracies.  Communism is seen as a failed system that lost the Cold War.  The following recent examples illustrate different left-wing outcomes:

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), but a few can now more accurately be described as partially authoritarian (6.3.1.1).

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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/edition03/6325d.htm