Populism is growing in the shadow of democracy

Demonstration for science and against populism in London. Around the world, more than one million people demonstrated in more than 600 cities under the slogan “March for Science”.

A wave of populism is washing over the world. The parties of discontent are growing in many countries and coming to power in general elections. This indicates a vulnerability in our democratic system, according to Sverker Gustavsson, Professor of Political Science at Uppsala University.

The strength of populism has recently shown itself in a number of widely noted elections. Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election is one example. Another is the success of the far-right French party Front National led by Marine Le Pen.

One person who knows a great deal about the subject is Sverker Gustavsson, well-known researcher in political science who is also active in public debate.

What actually is populism?
“This question is not all that easy to answer. It’s not that all ideas that come from the grass roots and call attention to social injustices can be called populism – they can indeed be highly justified criticism of society. Some authors talk about ‘unconventional behaviour’ – which matches such politicians as Berlusconi and Trump, but isn’t true of all of them.”

A better definition according to Gustavsson is the populists’ “fundamental illiberalism” – in other words, that they object to parts of our liberal democratic system.

“They’re not against universal suffrage, on the contrary, they’re fans of universal suffrage and majority rule. But they’re negative towards the other side of democracy. A functioning constitutional state, professionalism and legitimate opposition are things they absolutely don’t want.”

The rapid growth of populism today surprises even political scientists, even if they recognised in purely theoretical terms that this could happen.

“Ever since World War II, we’ve lived in a kind of state of triumphalism, as if our democratic system is beyond question. This isn’t true, as we are now seeing. It’s not a given that people want to have the liberal side of democracy. Here in Sweden, we are extremely naïve because we haven’t had any serious antidemocratic movement in the past hundred years.”

He calls it a shadow theory of liberal democracy, which seizes on a few weak points. For example, it is not obvious who belongs to the people; this changes through migration and war. Nor is it obvious where power should lie or how it should be organised. Another weakness is that it is unclear where the line goes between what civil servants should do and what elected representatives should do. Opinions also differ about the actual goal of politics.

“A liberal of my kind would then say that the very point of a liberal democracy is that we are not in agreement about what it’s about. We can work on the issue of what the right organisation is and where power should lie. But when we can’t really be bothered with this discussion, we open up for the ‘shadow theory’.”

Does populism become a threat to democracy?
“Yes, if by democracy you mean that there should be certain barriers between popular opinion and what is decided. One should investigate, one should have courts, one should have journalism that questions the politics. We’ve lulled ourselves into a sense of security far too long and don’t really see what our form of government demands of us.”

The political parties have an important role in liberal democracy – namely to identify the voters’ needs and tell them what is politically possible. When this does not work, it paves the way not only for populism, but also for technocracy – the idea that politics are too important to be managed by politicians and that we must therefore engage experts. They may be economists, lawyers and experts in other areas, according to Gustavsson.

“Democracy presupposes loads of expertise, but what happens when these experts begin to say that the politicians are no longer capable of giving us orders? Then we have generals who want to manage the armed forces and economists who want independent central banks and a ministry of finance that acts independently, so that it’s not drawn into the electoral process.”

So on the one side we have the populists and on the other the technocrats and what they have in common is that they distrust the party system. In the past 20–30 years, technocratic thinking has been common, not least in the EU.

“The more technocratic solutions are introduced, the more it paves the way for the populists. And if the populists gain influence, the other side says that we have to have rules so that our expert areas aren’t drawn into the electoral process,” says Gustavsson.

It is a dramatic development, which political scientists are monitoring with interest. This spring, elections were held in France, with the far-right Marine Le Pen as one of the candidates for president, and on 24 September, it was the Germans’ turn to go to the ballot box. In this election, the populist party AfD won 12.6 per cent of the vote, making it the country’s third largest party.

America and Europe share a free-trade model that opens their countries up to the world. Citizens need to feel confident that they do not risk losing out, says Gustavsson.

What can be done to turn the tide?
“I believe in classical politics, investing in infrastructure and making sure that people believe their children will have a better life than they did. Then, it’s important to raise the level of education and healthcare and this requires higher taxes. The idea that people’s ultimate dream is to shop more underestimates the voters.”

Gustavsson emphasises the importance of preserving the tension between the parties of the right and left. On the international level, it is important to find a balance between the open borders of free trade on the one hand and national self-determination and democracy on the other. For example, this can involve the conditions in the labour market differing in different countries.

“If you want to maintain confidence in politics, it’s not realistic to say: ‘We have to get rid of the collective agreements in the labour market because there have to be equal conditions for competition everywhere’. If you do that, you’re playing into the hands of populism. And different countries must be able to levy different taxes so that the citizens find it meaningful to vote and have faith in the future.”

30 October 2017