Populism vs Post-Democracy

By O'Sullivan, John | The Spectator, December 31, 2016 | Go to article overview

Populism vs Post-Democracy


O'Sullivan, John, The Spectator


Europeans are usually alarmed or sniffy about American concern for democracy's fate, but this time liberal opinion on both sides of the pond sings in unison: populism is a threat to democracy.

A recent issue of the Journal of Democracy (a sober publication published by America's National Endowment for Democracy) provided a handy compendium of all the parties, policies and histories that can be included in the vast cabin-trunk of populism. A lead article by Takis S. Pappas, a Greek political theorist living in Hungary, lists 22 different parties he cautiously calls 'challengers to liberal democracy'. He breaks them down into three categories: anti-democrats, nativists and populists. (All are commonly called populists in European and American media.) Of these, seven have held power in coalition, another four alone, and all but one of the anti-democrats are either 'isolated in opposition' or 'extinct' (the BNP).

Despite these successes, liberal democracy survives in the countries concerned. That may be because Pappas casts his net wide. Along with the socialist Pasok, which governed Greece for 22 years and left power still mutually scratching numerous backs when it handed over to Syriza (also included), he cites Ukip, Italy's main opposition party, and the present governing parties of Hungary and Poland as 'populists', when some of them look more like parties holding traditional conservative views.

He argues that populists may pose the greatest challenge to democracy because they support it, indeed maybe excessively, and so they win democratic-minded votes. Once elected, however, they may be tempted to override constitutional restraints on their power. He explains this as follows: 'Populist parties embrace democracy but not liberalism. Liberalism without democracy is not a combination found in real-life polities today.'

But the great undiscussed problem of modern democracy is that liberalism without democracy is the system of government towards which the West has been moving for a generation or more. There has been an increasing shift of power from elected and accountable bodies, such as Parliament, to semi-independent bureaucratic agencies that make their own laws (called regulations), to the courts, and in more recent years to European and other transnational bodies. …

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