The Populist Challenge to Élitist Democracy in Europe
By the mid- 1990s it has become fashionable to point to the emergence in Europe of populism, with or without a nationalist motive force. This usually takes the form of a passing reference, in the context of discussions of the loss of impetus in the movement towards closer integration in the post-Maastricht period. Whether it is attributed to primarily postcommunist contextual reasons, as in most of Eastern Europe, or to the 'democratic deficit' afflicting the political-administrative institutions of the European Union, or the persistent economic recession and mass unemployment that has spread a profound sense of dissatisfaction with public decision-making, or the widespread discredit of public decision- makers in local and national politics and of prominent businessmen owing to the corruption exposed by investigative journalists and judges, there is a pervasive perception that the élites cannot be trusted to act in the public interest and have lost any claim they might have had to public deference. However, this populist phenomenon has seldom been subjected to close scrutiny. Consequently, it tends generally to be castigated, sometimes to be championed, but infrequently analysed. As it is not a wholly new phenomenon and has both in the past and at present assumed a variety of forms, it deserves a prior attempt at clarification and explanation, rather than a simplistic and expeditious judgement. Otherwise, one is liable to succumb to the tendency to stigmatize populism in the selfsame way that it itself frequently reduces complex reality to a demonological dichotomy.
Because populism lays claim not merely to being democratic but to embodying the most authentic version of democracy, it is necessary to