Twenty years ago, far right populism was little more than a fringe movement, receiving little popular support and largely condemned by mainstream parties on the left and right. Today, by contrast, around the world, far right populism is increasingly gaining political power, whether by bringing new issues into the policy debate, by allying with traditional conservative parties, or by winning elections outright.1 To discuss the meaning and implications of and solutions to the rising tide of populism, I joined other leading global experts in this space at the Israeli Democracy Institute, a leading Israeli think tank, earlier this month. Live-cast by the Jerusalem Post, the conference considered how populism might affect democracy, security and the economy.
First, is there a clear definition of populism? Conventional wisdom often holds that everyone angry with the political establishment or with elites is populist. But as Dr. Jan-Werner Müller opened the conference by arguing, criticizing elites poses no real threat to democracy on its own. What really distinguishes populism is its claim to have a monopoly on representing the views of a country’s “true people,” a group defined by the populist. What follows from this claim is that opposition to a populist is inherently illegitimate and that citizens who do not share a populist’s symbolic understanding of the “true people” aren’t part of a country’s people at all.
Dr. Yuli Tamir noted that the contemporary political moment is really defined by the reemergence of fear as the essential political faultline, which populist leaders are adept at exploiting. Across the political spectrum, people feel like their country is being taken away from them, whether it is by immigration or by the backlash to immigration. Rather than offering a positive vision of the future, populists garner support by playing on this fear.
If populism is a way of carving up the political space into the ‘true people’ and those who oppose them—essentially, a way of talking about politics as a moral conflict between good and evil—then is there really a single “populist policy” or a way of thinking about the policy effects of populism?
With this question in mind, I presented insights from our work over the past two years on what populist leaders and parties do while in power. A key insight of this work is that, while there may not be any single set of policies that populists implement, there is a populist way of governing that is quite different from how other leaders and parties govern in otherwise similar countries. We found, for instance, that populists stay in office twice as long as non-populists, that over 50 per cent of populists amend or rewrite their countries’ constitutions, and that populists frequently dismantle checks and balances on the executive branch.
This populist art of governing can translate into economic policy as well. Dr. Karnit Flug, the Vice President of the Israeli Democracy Institute and the former governor of the Bank of Israel, noted that populists make big economic promises and rely on a denial of budgetary constraints. Beyond this, I argued, populists are more likely to overturn existing policies and inject instability and unpredictability into the political system. This instability can deter long-term investments because there is an incentive to wait things out until political questions that shape economic policy are settled. In this sense, populism is not a set of specific policies, but it is also not just empty rhetoric designed to give parties a political upper hand in elections.
Finally, what can moderate political leaders do to turn the tide on populism? Dr. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser explained how populism in power can reshape the state into an instrument of political loyalty and exert long-run political and economic damage. So how can we increase the “supply” of positive politics on offer and decrease the “demand” for populist politicians? The first step is to recognise that populist leaders and their supporters are not a homogenous group. Both Dr. Rovira Kaltwasser and Dr. Müller emphasized that it is essential that we do not jump from the recognition that a particular politician is deploying populist arguments and strategies to the conclusion that all of that leader’s supporters are themselves populists or share all of their views. Citizens can vote for different parties for a great many reasons and have real grievances that need to be addressed by governments.
Dr. Rovira Kaltwasser offered a long-term roadmap for those committed to liberal democracy and the health of our future economies:
- reflect deeply on the shortcomings of modern liberal democracies and propose meaningful political reforms that can rebuild citizens’ trust in democratic institutions;
- massively expand civic education not just about how democratic processes and institutions work but also about the “liberal” part of liberal democracy; and
- construct political narratives that are not negative campaigns against populism but offer a positive vision of a progressive future where there is simply no room for exclusion. In other words, do not fight fire with fire. Fight fire with a positive vision of the future.