Against Populism

Across the western world, populism is ascendant. On the right, figures like Donald Trump, Marine LePen, and Geert Wilders have attained prominence, and in some cases high office, with attacks on a purported conspiracy of internationalist “elites” and racial, religious, and ethnic minorities. On the left, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and others have re-popularized a paradigm where a similar elite—the “billionaire class” and its enablers in the media, policy, and political worlds—is locked in a struggle for economic and political power with the broader public. Thus far, only Trump has carried his populist vision to full electoral victory, a narrow triumph in which he was rejected by a plurality of voters. Nevertheless, populism’s influence is now felt in the political mainstream, where it is the subject of debate over how, if at all, it should be opposed. The clearest answer to the populist question is this: populism is fundamentally at odds with, and corrosive to, liberal democracy and should therefore be vigorously opposed in all its forms. Philosophical liberalism, the ideology upon which liberal democracy is built, is universalist and values the rights of the individual. Furthermore, it posits that people are generally self-interested, and that those with a clear understanding of their self-interest will act cooperatively since most interactions have the potential to be positive-sum. Populism holds none of these precepts; indeed, it is directly in opposition to all of them.

Populism must be clearly defined before the threat it poses to liberal democracy can be understood. Contrary to the many inaccurate applications of the term that now abound, “populism” is not “economic progressivism,” “anti-establishmentism,” “popular ideas” (in the sense of ideas backed by a majority of a given population), or any number of specific issue stances. Instead, the clearest and most accurate explanation of populism comes from political scientist and scholar of populist movements Cas Mudde:

“An ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups ― ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’ ― and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale or general will of the people.”

Per Mudde, the populist political framework features two actors, the People and the Elite, locked in a never-ending and zero-sum conflict. To the populist, the purpose of politics is the triumph of the People’s will. There is no place for mutual benefit, for any victory of the Elite is definitionally a defeat for the People. Where the liberal democrat believes a political system is for all its constituents, the populist believes it is only for the People (however that group is defined). Where the liberal democrat centers the protection of the rights of that smallest minority, the individual, the populist sees any limitation of the volonté générale as illegitimate. Where the liberal democrat values the possibility of individual and societal benefit from cooperation between constituencies with seemingly divergent interests, the populist finds no need for cooperation within the homogenous People and no possibility of it between the People and the Elite, each of which can only benefit at the other’s expense.

If we accept the premise that those who adhere to a political ideology seek to advance it in the realm of politics as actually practiced, the threat populism poses to liberal democracy is not merely theoretical. Liberalism’s universalism and concern for individual rights are reflected in liberal democracy’s fundamental features—the rule of law, institutions, checks and balances, minority protections—all of which are properly understood as instruments to safeguard each person’s rights against any who would infringe upon them. Such a rights-based institutional framework has no place in populism, where the will of that homogenous constituency, the People, trumps all else. Indeed, if the volonté générale is to triumph it is necessary that liberal democracy’s institutions, which inevitably restrict the populist will in order to protect dissenting groups and individuals, be weakened and destroyed. Any limitation of the volonté générale is, after all, an abrogation of the very purpose of populist politics. In brief, populism is a threat to liberal democracy because the former is ideologically committed to total victory of the populist will at any cost while the latter is ideologically committed to the notion that some costs—namely the violation of individual rights—are unacceptably high.

Critics of this argument will likely claim it is a response to a charge no one of consequence has made (or, less kindly, that I have created a populist strawman). Surely, they’d argue, no committed populist practicing politics within a liberal democratic system would take things so far as to argue for the destruction of the system itself. Follow any ideology to its logical conclusion and find the same threat to liberal democratic norms. It is absurd to suggest that populism poses a unique danger. First, this rejoinder ignores prominent populists who have indeed called explicitly for the destruction of liberal democratic norms. More importantly, it reveals an ignorance of the fact that populism is dangerous to liberal democracy because it is an illiberal interloper in systems built for liberal ideologies. Neither modern liberal conservatism nor liberal progressivism will ever pose an existential threat to liberal democracy because even when carried to their logical extremes they exist comfortably within liberal norms. Even in its most extreme form, liberal conservatism will not threaten individual rights such as minority protections, for if it does it passes into the realm of illiberalism. Likewise, liberal progressivism will not threaten individual rights such as the right to property, for if it does it betrays itself and becomes something else entirely. Populism does not pose a unique danger to liberal democracy; it poses the same danger as all illiberal ideologies. At this moment, however, it is the only strain of illiberalism to enter the mainstream conversation with a veneer of respectability and thus the current greatest threat.

Others will argue that a philosophical attack on populism misses the mark on the grounds that questions of philosophy and ideology are not on the minds of many politicians, let alone voters. Politicians and voters¸ these naysayers claim, live in the world of tax policy, wages, and healthcare, or perhaps the realm of partisan identity. These critiques are correct in that many factors come before political philosophy for most politicians and voters, but they miss an important reality: philosophy and ideology trickle down into how we talk about politics. As I have previously written, the notion that interactions have the potential to be positive-sum is a fundamental tenet of liberalism and all political ideologies that proceed from it. The liberal believes that people are generally self-interested, but also that a proper understanding of self-interest leads them to behave cooperatively; as a result, everyone involved in the cooperative interaction benefits. This notion—mutual benefit through enlightened self-interest—informs all liberal ideologies. Though liberals of different stripes may vary on the details—for instance, the liberal conservative argues that a society of low taxes and minimal fiscal transfers ultimately benefits all, while the liberal progressive holds that progressive taxation and a robust safety net are ultimately beneficial up and down the income scale—they are united by the conviction that their favored policies benefit all segments of society to some degree.

This positive-sum vision is reflected in the way liberals talk about policy and politics. Whether Jack Kemp on the liberal right or Barack Obama on the liberal left, liberal politicians talk about mutual benefit and universal progress. A country where entrepreneurship flourishes, free of burdensome regulation and excessive taxation, is good for the poor as well as the rich. A society that invests generously in education, training, and healthcare is good for the rich as well as the poor. Philosophical liberalism is present in this kind of politics whether or not it is invoked by name. To be sure, it is sometimes not the case that the policies favored by right-liberals or left-liberals benefit everyone, despite the sincerity of liberal politicians. But liberal politics is fundamentally a good politics. Enlightened self-interest, when heeded, warns citizens not to destroy their institutions, majorities not to abuse minorities, the wealthy not to exploit the non-wealthy, the poor not to eat the rich out of spite. Too often, enlightened self-interest is disregarded, but it has been followed frequently enough for liberalism to produce peace, health, and wealth never seen before in human history.

Populism speaks a darker language, and the ideology need not be explicitly invoked to be recognized. Right-populists and left-populists alike pitch their politics and policies solely in terms of the benefit to their constituency—that is, their “People.” The interests of the industrious producers, the virtuous working class, the deserving white native-born must be served at the expense of the lazy “takers,” the rapacious rich, the unworthy minorities and invasive immigrants. Any kind of zero-sum politics is inherently sectarian. With no hope of mutual benefit there is no possibility of cooperative action, only brutal competition. After all, if your tribe will not seize whatever influence it can, the others surely will. It is no wonder that populist politics ultimately leads people to view the institutions of liberal democracy as obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of whatever power is deemed necessary to protect the in-group and subjugate the out-group. If there is only so much money and power to go around, thinks the populist, it only makes sense to conserve it by disenfranchising the minorities, demonizing the wealthy, deporting the immigrants, or expelling the intellectuals. Liberal democracy offers these groups some measure of protection, affords them some measure of precious political power. It must, the populist concludes, be subverted so the right kind of people can get their due. Thus is a liberal democracy’s politics poisoned. Soon the symptoms emerge: calls for political opponents to be jailed, for confiscation of money and property, for night raids and prison camps, for casting preemptive suspicion on allegedly “dangerous” minorities in the name of order.

Those who assert that identity comes before philosophy for voters are correct about something very important—that voters’ political choices often are driven by partisan identity—but that statement has an equally-important corollary: identity is the conduit through which philosophy and ideology enter the realm of politics as actually practiced. If a party under the influence of populism begins to speak of politics as zero-sum and of institutions as illegitimate, voters who identify with that party will likely adopt a similar worldview. It is well-established that voters, driven by partisan identity, usually adapt in response to their parties. Questions of philosophy, then, are not removed from politics but are inextricably linked as long as philosophy shapes parties’ views and partisan identity shapes voters’.

In the final analysis, populism poses both philosophical and practical threats to liberal democracy. The answer to the populist question, therefore, is not merely an argument but an obligation: every person who values liberal democracy, who believes in the rights of all individuals, who seeks a politics for all rather than for some, must oppose populism in all its forms and wherever it appears. In the face of the greatest danger liberalism has faced in decades, we are called upon to act—whether through voting, marching, writing, or engaging others in everyday life—to ensure that political actors, whether parties or individuals, reject populism. This means defining populism as ideologically unacceptable, but also demonstrating that its adoption is politically disadvantageous. Only when populism is once again relegated to moral and political disrepute will liberal democracy and all its successes be safe for another historical moment.