In times of structural crisis, populism seems to appear with offers specific to the needs of voters that feel excluded or forgotten by the traditional political class. These two recent books, with different levels of depth, help clarify a contingent phenomenon, although it borders on irrationalism and messianism.
The following reading of only two books about populism shows that there are many ways to approach the phenomenon. In this case, the readings were very different and perhaps because of that, complementary. They are commented in the order in which they were read because this order may affect the evaluation of one book compared to the other.
Populismo. Una breve introducción, by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser is the Spanish translation of Populism. A Very Short Introduction (2017), a book that belongs to a mythical series of the Oxford University Press that adds up to 644 books, always with acute points of view, a wide range of subjects, from Islam to the Anthropocene. One of the particularities of this book is that Rovira is a Chilean academic, a sociologist from the Universidad de Chile and a PhD in political science from the Humboldt University in Berlin.
Mudde and Rovira approach populism from what they have defined as an ideational focus, founded in a rather positivist tradition that looks to generate empirical evidence and therefore tries to avoid judgements of populism. In this way the first obstacle that the authors were faced with was the definition of populism, a term that is used to negatively qualify the point of view of a political or ideological adversary, more than a concrete phenomenon. The authors looked for a definition that would “accurately capture the core of all major past and present manifestations of populism, while still precise enough to exclude clearly nonpopulist phenomena.” (p.5). The definition that they came to was the following:
“a thin- centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (p.6).
The authors then extend the concepts contained in this definition, in which, if it could be synthesized without distorting, the important elements are:
Firstly, to note that it deals with a “thin-centred ideology”, which is, “a kind of mental map through which individuals analyze and comprehend political reality” (p.6). However, being “thin-centred”, it doesn’t have its own, specific content. Because of this, populism is often supported by the extreme right. The authors don’t describe populism as a strategic policy ⸻which would also make it a thin centred ideology⸻ because they don’t limit populism to politicians nor to parties. For Mudde and Rovira there are populist “actors”, and that includes the populist electorate, which is to say the citizens that feel attracted to postures or attitudes of this kind. For these authors, it’s not only the offer that can be populist, but also the demand. This affirmation, as obvious as it might seem, is one of the main contributions of the book.
Second, the relevance of the concept of “the common people”. This concept is essential to the phenomenon because each populist actor defines it according to its own context and agenda, which is to say that they take advantage of the vagueness of this symbolic construction – which, if not “the common people” is “the people”, “all of us”, “citizens”, or any other equally void term – for their own political benefit. Here, according to Mudde and Rovira, the determining factor is that which the definition includes and leaves out. “this meaning of the people tends to be both integrative and divisive” not only does it attempt to unite an angry and silent majority, but it also tries to mobilize this majority against a defined enemy (e.g., “the establishment”).” (p.11). Other enemies might be “immigrants”, “political parties”, “state bureaucracy”, “bourgeoise institutions”: what’s important is that it’s different from “the common people” and therefore, the enemy.
“For Mudde and Rovira there are populist “actors”, and that includes the populist electorate, which is to say the citizens that feel attracted to postures or attitudes of this kind. For these authors, it’s not only the offer that can be populist, but also the demand. This affirmation, as obvious as it might seem, is one of the main contributions of the book”.
Third, the idea of the elite. It can be economic, cultural, political, it doesn’t matter. Populist actors always have an elite as an objective, which they qualify as corrupt, corrupted, saboteur. As the authors signal, “the distinction is essentially moral”. (p.12). The people represent purity and moral superiority, and therefore, the elite represents perversion, abjection.
Fourth and last, the idea of general will. For populists, this is often evident and transparent, and is generally based on “common sense”. Problems have simple solutions and, as Yascha Mounk says, all that is needed to resolve a crisis is for “a faithful spokesman of the people to conquer power, to vanquish the traitors and to implement commonsense solutions” (p.41). This spokesperson, of course, is populist. They are in direct contact with the general will. According to Mudde and Rovira, “an elective affinity exists between populism and direct democracy, as with other institutional mechanisms that are helpful to cultivate a direct relationship between the populist leader and his/her constituencies”. (p.17).
As can be seen, the effort of Mudde and Rovira is in the detailed analysis of the characteristics of populism, in the finding of common patterns, in the description of the rhetoric mechanisms that are used. They segment, classify, order.
In this same spirit, they describe the ways populism has been manifested in different regions of the world throughout the last 150 years. They observe, sadly but not surprisingly, that “Latin America is the region with the most enduring and prevalent populist tradition.” (p.27). But they also make interesting notes, such as that “The United States has a long history of populist mobilization, going back to the late 19th century” (p.22), with spontaneous surges, regional mobilization and weak organization.
They them establish a breakdown of the ways in which populism is incarnated, be it through a personalist leadership -such as Fujimori, for example-, through a social movement -such as 15-M Movement in Spain- or through a political party -such as the National Rally in France.
In Latin America we are familiar with personalist leaders, thanks in large part, to the fact that we have a system of presidential governments and parties that are often weak. The authors also consider that “the concentration of economic and political power in a small minority makes the populist discourse particularly appealing, since it helps to identify the existence of a fraudulent oligarchy that acts against the wishes of the people.” (p.28).
On the other hand, they observe that parliamentary regimes incentivise the emergence of populist parties, as we can see today in Europe where -and this is an interesting fact- “a populist party is among the three largest parties in roughly one-third of the countries.” (p.52).
The book affirms that social movements aren’t always in line with the populist frame, because the movements often look for a common identity for a specific group of individuals, while populism assumes the “people” as a large and homogeneous group. Now, if you observe what’s happened recently in Chile, almost all the social movements try to widen their rhetoric range to the admissible maximum, with the aim of gaining more support. In practise, the anonymous populist seems to not get on so badly with social movements: not in vain, they call themselves “citizens”. Now, the authors consider it “interesting” that populist social movements are examples of rising mobilizations, with a capacity to “interpret a widespread feeling of anger with the establishment and to convincingly propose that the solution lies in the sovereign people.” P.47-48).
Now, as all this is dynamic, populist leaders can create idem parties; the parties can develop leaders and social movements can become platforms on which to found parties or to transform an existing one or raise personalist leaders.
Mudde and Rovira also develop other distinctions, that as well as proposing a brief introduction on a rather more academic plane than necessary for a general public, show limitations in their positivist focus. The most striking is the consideration that populism “can be seen as a democratizing force, since it defends the principle of popular sovereignty with the aim of empowering groups that do not feel represented by the political establishment.”. (p.18). Further on, in Chapter 5, they develop this idea and signal among other things, that “depending on its electoral power and the context in which it arises, populism can work as either a threat or a corrective for democracy”. (p.79). In fact, on page 87 they include a graph of the positive and negative effects of populism in liberal democracy.
It can’t be denied that populism, in some circumstances, can be used to give voice to those excluded from the political system, increasing their integration into the system or improving their ability to react, but looking at the history of Latin America or the huge perturbation that Trump is provoking today, the positive and negative effects of populism don’t deserve to be on the same level. They are not comparable in intensity or in extension. In this, as will be seen, Mounk doesn’t hesitate.
“It can’t be denied that populism, in some circumstances, can be used to give voice to those excluded from the political system, increasing their integration into the system or improving their ability to react, but looking at the history of Latin America or the huge perturbation that Trump is provoking today, the positive and negative effects of populism don’t deserve to be on the same level”.
Populism. A Very Short Introduction, concludes with some recommendations that respond to populism. At the centre, more than undermine or attack the populist figure, conducts that finally play the game of their strategy to position themselves as the voice of the people facing the establishment, Mudde and Rovira propose that media and traditional politicians should focus their attention on the populist demand, that is often the real problem. This happens with an “open dialogue with populist actors and supporters”, in order to “better understand the claims and grievances of the populist elites and masses and to develop liberal democratic responses to them.” (p.116). In other words (the reiteration is worth it), “given that populism often asks the right questions but provides the wrong answers, the ultimate goal should be not just the destruction of populist supply, but also the weakening of populist demand. Only the latter will actually strengthen liberal democracy.” (p.118). Mudde and Rovira finally call us to listen to the signals transmitted by populists that show problems that have to be treated.
For Yascha Mounk the problem is much more critical and urgent than Mudde and Rovira implied. In The People vs. Democracy liberal democracy is portrayed under a degradation that hadn’t been seen before, that the West had shown with pride for the last 200 years. Mounk developed the argument that the alliance between democracy and civil rights that configures that which we call liberal democracy, can no longer be ensured. If the group of institutions that ensure the participation of people in its government can be described as democracy, and if the institutions that guarantee equality before the law and the protection of individual rights, can be described as civil rights, it’s no longer clear that both go hand in hand. Mounk goes on to describe in detail how treaties and international regulations, such as those involved in the European Union; autonomous institutions -such as a Central Bank or a Constitutional Tribune-; or the courts of justice themselves -that guarantee individual rights, but are not precisely democratic-, although all necessary, also generate “a vast share of the rules to which ordinary citizens are subject are now written, implemented and sometimes even initiated by unelected officials.” (p.64). If we add to this the influence of corporate money on the political class and the distance with which it is sometimes shown to its electors, conditions are created for citizens to feel as if the political decisions don’t involve them, don’t represent them and don’t attend to their problems.
This generates a context for the parties or populist leaders to attribute to themselves the concerns, pains and representation that the establishment ignores. And they have done this. Mounk describes in detail how Hungary, Turkey or Venezuela went from being liberal democracies to becoming democracies without rights, more or less close to potential dictatorships, India, Poland, the Philippines have taken the first steps in the same direction. But the threat even exists in countries in which democracy was supposedly consolidated, like France and Germany, Austria the Netherlands or Italy, in which populist parties are constantly growing in their voting. Now, for Mounk, the meteorite that approaches the Earth, the threats that really turn on the alarms and triggers the urgency of his book is, of course, Donald Trump.
However, “like populist insurgents around the world,” Mounk says, “Trump is as much a symptom of the current crisis as he is its cause. He could only have conquered the White House in the first place because so many citizens have grown deeply disenchanted with democracy” (p.261). This disenchantment is described extensively in Chapter 3. Mounk shows how from the 60’s, North Americans had lost confidence in their political class. For anyone who has taken the time to watch the documentary series The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns, it doesn’t take a lot to imagine the reason. If we add to the hoaxes undertaken by the North American government in the war, the Watergate scandal, what is strange is that this disenchantment wasn’t bigger than what Mounk describes.
But the decrease in confidence towards democratic institutions doesn’t only compete the United States. Based on a study undertaken with Roberto Stefan Foa, from the World Value Survey, that concludes with the same questions for a diversity of countries. Mounk affirms that “across North America and Western Europe, citizens really are turning away from democracy in large numbers” (p.105). His study puts special attention in how young people have increased their apprehension towards democracy. Among other notes, the following stand out: “In 1995, 34 percent of young Americans ages 18–24 felt that a political system with a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections, was either good or very good. By 2011, 44 percent of young Americans felt the same way”. Foa and Mounk’s study, originally published in the Journal of Democracy in June 2017, awoke a clarifying polemic in January 2017, with reactions from renowned academics -Amy C. Alexander, Christian Welzel, Pippa Norris and Erik Voeten- uploaded on the online version of the magazine, a debate that even made its way to the Washington Post. However, Mounk, in this book, written in 2018, sustains his evidence and the arguments that come from it.
Mounk attributed this fall in the appreciation of democracy to three factors, described extensively in the second part.
- First, the dominion of communication media limited the distribution of extreme ideas, created a group of shared facts and values, and slowed the diffusion of fake news. But the rise in the internet and social networks has weakened the traditional guards, handing over power to movements and politicians that were once marginal.
- Second, throughout the history of democratic stability, most citizens enjoyed a rapid increase in their standards of living, and maintained high expectations even of a better future. In many places, citizens can now hardly keep their head out of the water, and are afraid of facing worse suffering in the future.
- And third, almost all stable democracies were founded by nations of a single ethnicity or allowed the domination of an ethnic group. Now, this domination is increasingly challenged.
Mounk doesn’t get to argue that there has been an economic setback in the last decade, or a replacement of dominant ethnicities, but the phenomena of economic stagnation, as well as those of high levels of immigration, produce fear and especially anxiety, and it is this anxiety that the populist actors try to calm, to satisfy. Let’s remember that, as Harold Bloom wrote, anxiety can be defined as aguish for the future.
“Mounk doesn’t get to argue that there has been an economic setback in the last decade, or a replacement of dominant ethnicities, but the phenomena of economic stagnation, as well as those of high levels of immigration, produce fear and especially anxiety, and it is this anxiety that the populist actors try to calm, to satisfy.”
Mounk surely is not only convincing when exposing his points, but also passionate. Unlike Mudde and Rovira, his writing is agile, sharp, awake, rich in expressions. He doesn’t write for the academy, but to shake and wake the reader. He is quite an activist for liberal democracy, if that figure can be imagined. And although it’s comforting to find a contemporary author that, rather than being sceptic or cynical, shows a passion for democracy and individual rights, it also has to be recognized that his book is closer to being a sophisticated commentary on the current political scene than a text to be read in 20 or 30 years (unless it ends up being converted into another record of the mechanism through which Trump and company destroy Western democracy, a subject which is for now, improbable).
But if his look towards the political moment is documented, sensible and on the whole, convincing, the remedies that he proposes to leave this quagmire are guilty of being schematic, superficial or of an inoperative good intention.
For example, in order to face the authoritative populist in power he recommends that the defenders of liberal democracy: i) are united in opposition; ii) speak the language of ordinary people and connect with the concerns of the voters; iii) focus on a positive message rather than referring obsessively to the defects of populists, so as to give voters a real chance of hope in their economic future; and iv), “the most important lesson”, to not appear to commit to the status quo. Yes, this all sounds reasonable, but it’s extremely complicated to undertake in practise.
On the other hand, his idea to develop a domesticated nationalism, that includes an inclusive patriotism, in such a way that it builds on “the tradition of a multi-ethnic democracy to show that the ties that bind us go well beyond ethnicity and religion” (p.208), is attentive, but suggests that Mounk has in mind only the populism of the right. When he then argues, to fix the charge, that the principals of liberal democracy are not violated when states exercise control over those that enter their land, and that rather that “secure borders can help to win popular support for more generous immigration policies” (p.214), only reiterates this impression.
As economic measures, Mounk puts many ideas on the table, perhaps too many, without shedding light on the problems that can arise. In this way for example, he proposes very coercive measure for tax evasion, including jail time or estrangement; intervening the real estate market, restraining the power of local veto to densification or increasing the offer with state run housing; separating social benefits from traditional employment, so as to protect both the employer as the person outside the formal work market (which does seem like a good idea); or improving productivity, something obvious and that everyone searches for, but that requires more elaboration than simply saying that it is necessary to increase investigation and reimagining education.
Where Mounk does seem on track with his proposals is in “renewing civic faith”, which is how he titles the 9th chapter. In his quality as a political scientist and university professor, there is a subject that he does dominate and makes interesting observations on, for example, in relation to how the abundance of conspiracy theories, is the symptom of an eroded democracy. Those on this side of the world will immediately think of Argentina. He also proposes a realization of a more clear and energetic separation between political and economic power, and on this line to more generously finance parliamentarians and their advisors, so that they don’t have to depend on the investigation undertaken by lobbying, and so that they can retain the best talents in the deliberation of laws.
Finally, Mounk dedicates some of his best lines to describe the mistakes committed in the area of civic education itself. Not only because education in the values and procedures of democratic life is increasingly limited in schools, he says, but also because in the university level formation of social sciences and humanities, students find professors that are “far from seeking to preserve the most valuable aspects of our political system, their overriding objective is, all too often, to help students recognize its manifold injustices and hypocrisies” (p.248). In this way deconstructing the values of the Enlightenment and exposing racism, colonialism or the inequality produced by Western institutions, professors generate a combined effect of leaving “many students feeling that a disdain for our inherited political institutions is a hallmark of intellectual sophistication” (p.249). Further on, many of these students will be professors in schools or other universities without the interest of transmitting genuine admiration, needless to say love, for the institutions of liberal democracy. Although Mounk, with Trump always in sight, often gets mixed up thinking about the next presidential election of the United States, on the 3rd November 2020, reaches in this kind of warning, long-term reflections and reminds us that there is a genuine danger in taking liberal democracy for granted.
“For Mounk, by deconstructing the values of the Enlightenment and exposing racism, colonialism or the inequality produced by Western institutions, professors generate a combined effect of leaving “many students feeling that a disdain for our inherited political institutions is a hallmark of intellectual sophistication”.
 In the work of Foa and Mounk, Chile is rather well positioned in terms of the value given to democracy by its citizens, and the aversion shown towards a military government. Data coincides with those exposed in ¿Malestar en Chile? Informe encuesta CEP 2016, coordinated by Ricardo González, in which, it is also signalled that “the high adhesion to democracy as a form of government, coexists with a very bad evaluation of its undertaking” (p.148).