The Confusing Interplay Between Populism and Democracy
As demagogues spring up across the world and England leaves the EU, the tyranny of the masses seems realer than ever before.
By Yasser Ali Nasser, University of Oxford
That’s what myself and about 48 percent of the United Kingdom thought a couple weeks ago when “Brexit” happened and the country was flung into its biggest political crisis in generations. Yes, the EU has some undemocratic features and yes, it is an elite organization, but it had a lot of good to it, and Britain benefited immensely from being a member. Most English residents had thought that there was little to no chance that people would actually vote to leave the European Union, but we were wrong.
The world was also wrong when it assumed several years ago that Mohamed Morsi, the then-newly elected President of Egypt, would reverse the authoritarianism of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and would work to create a thriving, multi-party democracy. We knew that he was a theocrat and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he had run on a campaign advocating for progressivism and appealing to the demands of the masses that had thrown Mubarak out of power. The populist force that had created democracy in a country that hadn’t seen it in decades—how could it go wrong?
Well, we know that Morsi quickly showed his true colors. He was eventually deposed, by more populist protests. And he was replaced by yet another generalissimo, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi three years ago. Even though Morsi was showing tyrannical strains, he was a democratically elected leader. And the fragile democratic institutions that he had crafted and that the people of Tahrir Square had protested on behalf of, quickly crumbled in the face of military rule.
Military rule that was spurred on by the very public that had opposed it just years before.
Closer to home, Brazil is currently ongoing a massive constitutional crisis. President Dilma Rousseff, as well as large numbers of her own party, The Workers’ Party, and her opposition, are all being accused of corruption and money laundering in what many suspect is actually a coup. Indeed, her replacement is also implicated in a corruption charge, and Rousseff’s supposed crimes are heavily disputed. Coup or not, though, the population of Brazil were the main driving force behind the call for Rousseff to step down and for the impeachment process to begin. Yet again, the political establishment was brought crumbling down by populist anger.
And in America itself, on both the left and right, populists have entirely disrupted the status quo. Donald Trump has flung the Republicans into an existential crisis, melding the xenophobic tendencies of the Tea Party and the anti-globalist elements of the left to create a strange, politically volatile cocktail. Moreover, this “Trump brand” is one that almost 40 percent of the country is finding at least somewhat alluring.
On the other side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders beat all expectations by making what was meant to be a coronation for Hillary Clinton into a relatively competitive race. And his ideals are now leaking into the Democratic Party’s platform.
There are countless other examples of populists upending the political establishment. Podemos in Spain—a populist leftist party—has, within two years, become the third largest party in the country, running on a stringently anti-austerity platform. In Italy, the Northern League and the Five Star Movement threaten the establishment with their secessionist, anti-EU rhetoric, and the Nordic countries each have a variety of troublingly far-right Euroskeptic parties that have completely shattered the image us Americans have of a utopian Scandinavia. All this has been the work of populist policies promising to end open immigration, dismantle the EU and, well, just provide something different from the norm.
The questions remains then. Why?
Why are populist parties and movements succeeding in their dismantling of the political establishment? Far-right parties in particular have been peddling absolute fiction, and their policies have been largely founded on nationalistic xenophobia. But that abhorrent ideology is managing to sway voters to their side. And it is looking bad for the stability of democracies.
In the UK, for instance, the political elite has been growing increasingly alarmed by the magnitude of the populist forces unleashed by the Brexit campaign, with several leaders resigning or coming close to losing power. And the people that seek to replace them are not exactly strict parliamentarians. They advocate very harsh, illiberal policies that go against the very nature of modern democratic institutions.
Throughout the world, from India to Hungary to the United States, it seems like populist leaders with streaks of authoritarianism are either very popular or elected. So is populism the death knell of democracy? The masses who put Mr. Morsi in power only to topple him in favor of military rule seem to suggest so. And the people supporting Mr. Trump, even though he completely disregards our Constitution and the founding myth of our country—its inclusivity—also seem to suggest so.
But democracy will survive. In fact, what we are seeing now is a very robust display of democracy in action.
The populist movements we see are not simply the manifestations of regressive elements in society or fueled solely by racists or the unintelligent. In fact, to suggest that they are is exceptionally demeaning to the many voters who are not, in fact, racist or even xenophobic, but are rather just frustrated. In a world with growing inequality and the failure of economies to really recover in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, can we really blame voters for turning to less-than-savory alternatives?
The fact of the matter is this: the working and middle classes feel left behind. The promises of economic success and “climbing the ladder” that they were told have, by-and-large, failed to materialize. People are struggling. And so their answer has been to rebel.
They are rebelling against the establishment not out of a hatred of democracy, but rather because they feel our current democratic institutions have failed to address their grievances.
Morsi fell not because Egyptians wanted a military dictatorship or that, somehow, their culture is incompatible with democracy. He fell because he did not solve the problems that he promised to address. Democracy is an imperfect institution, as it is susceptible to demagoguery and anger. But it is the duty of our leaders and indeed us voters too to try and make sense of the anger that is around us and to treat people’s concerns with the respect that they deserve.