Fear of a Populist Planet

“Populism” is today employed as a bogeyman by liberals and centrists alike. Is there anything worth salvaging in the concept?

Seth Ackerman (SA)
Sheri Berman (SB)
Jonathan Chait (JC)
Yascha Mounk (YM)
Adaner Usmani (AU)

Seth Ackerman

Yascha, you’ve been critical of what might be called the “New Far Left” in Europe and elsewhere. You seem to put them at least partly in the same basket as the populist right, in the sense of posing a threat for the future of liberal democracy.

What is your case for that characterization, and would you put Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in that category?

Yascha Mounk

I don’t want this to turn into a big debate about where to classify people, so I’ll answer more broadly on my main topic of study, which is populism, and what I take the meaning of populism to be. Of course, there are many undisciplined uses of the term “populism,” as there are many undisciplined uses of most political terms, but what I take to be the core meaning of this designation is a situation in which politicians make a claim to the exclusive representation of the people.

Those who say, “I, and I alone, truly stand for the people, and anyone who disagrees with me doesn’t just have different values, doesn’t just misunderstand some important things about political reality, isn’t just advocating for a different set of people whose interests they mostly bear in mind, but they are, by virtue of that fact, illegitimate.”

A lot of the populists that I talk and write about are on the Right, and I also happen to dislike them for reasons unconnected to populism. For example, I’ve written about a lot of people from Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to, of course, Donald Trump here in the United States. But at the same time, when you look at a case on the Left like Venezuela, in which the government says that they alone can legitimately speak for the people in their country, and when you look historically at how similar regimes have evolved, they have actually ended up undermining democracy and undermining the rights of individuals in substantive ways. When people are unwilling to see that, and when they start to make similar claims, I start to worry.

Seth Ackerman

Sheri, you’ve written extensively about the process of democratization, and recently you’ve also written on right-wing populism. Your view is quite different. You argue that the rise of right-wing populism is the product of political choices made by the traditional center-left social-democratic parties — specifically their moves to the center on economic issues.

Sheri Berman

I’m definitely happy to make the case for how the Left’s move to the center is one of those causes of democratic decay — but I’m not going to say that it’s the only cause, because I don’t think there is any one single cause. Let me lay out, first, the logic of this particular argument. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the center left moved toward the center economically. This had a variety of consequences that not only helped to explain the Left’s decline cross-nationally, but it also helps explain the rise of right-wing populism.

If you look at the origin of right-wing populist parties in Europe, they almost all started off with conservative economic policies; they were anti–welfare state, they were low tax, they were forgetting the state as far out of the economy and away from society as possible.

But what happened at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century is that these populist parties recognize an electoral opportunity developing, particularly among working-class voters, as the Left moved away from them on economic and other issues. So, at the end of the twentieth century, the Left moves to the center economically while the populist right does the same, but from a conservative starting position. This helps the populist right capture voters who they would not have been able to previously.

If you look at polling data over time, for instance, working-class voters have always been somewhat conservative on issues like immigration and national identity, in Europe in particular, but more left-wing in their views on economic policy. As long as they had to choose between voting on the basis of their economic and cultural preferences, they were torn. But once the populist right moves left on economic issues, they no longer have to choose. This allows such voters to shift to the populist right party very easily.

The other important thing that I think the Left’s shift to the center economically did was raise the salience of cultural, and identity-based, issues in particular. There’s a huge amount of research on how, as the traditional left and the traditional right converge on their economic policies, there’s an increase in emphasis on identity and immigration issues on both the Left and the Right, because they need to differentiate themselves in some way.

The shift to having political competition focus more on cultural and identity issues than on economic differences does not help the traditional left. The real winners of this shift are populist right parties, because their voters are very unified on cultural issues, whereas they’re divided on economic ones. So the greater the salience of things like immigration and national identity, the better the electoral outcomes generally are for populist right parties and new left and Green parties.

In the United States the situation is a little bit more confused because we have two parties but scholars have shown that working-class and low-income voters in the Republican Party do have more left-wing economic views than other Republican voters and that Trump’s perceived moderation on economic issues during the 2016 campaign did help persuade some working-class and low-education voters to shift to him. Cutting back to Yascha’s point, I think the pressing question to ask is, when push comes to shove, and people whose policies you like start using undemocratic means to stay in power, what do you do? Do you say, “Oh, well, Venezuela was an incredibly unequal society, and Chávez put into place policies that helped the poor, so while he’s playing fast and loose with the democratic rules of the game, I’m not going to criticize him because what I care more about is redistribution and soaking the rich.” That is extremely problematic. When you have to choose between your democratic principles and your policy preferences, and you choose your policy preferences, then you’ve got a problem.

This is, of course, precisely what we are currently criticizing Republicans for doing — sticking with Trump because he is putting in place conservative policies, judges, etc., at the same time he is undermining democracy — and we on the Left can’t be hypercritical by not criticizing actors ostensibly on the Left for doing the same.

Seth Ackerman

So, those are two pretty contrasting interpretations. Adaner, democratization is one of your main areas of research as a sociologist. What’s your take on those arguments?

Adaner Usmani

My own view is that democracy — and this is not just what sociologists have argued about democracy, but also economists and political scientists — when viewed over the long course of the twentieth century, is, first of all, not really in as dire straits as perhaps it is commonly understood in everyday discourse. I mean, democracy is as healthy as it’s ever been in human history — I think it’s important to remind ourselves of that.

The second point that’s important to note is that the challenges we observe today are challenges that are, in some ways, regular parts of political life across the history of the twentieth century. There are certain continuities that are just part of democratic contention that we observe today that we might be blowing up into overwrought anxieties.

But the other point that I would make when looking at the long history of democracy — and hopefully this ties into what other people have been observing — is that democracy has always been contentious; it’s always been a battle between contending social classes. In many ways, the history of democracy’s advance is a history of the rise of mass working-class organizations winning the franchise from recalcitrant elites. And we should take that lens to some of the present-day anxieties about democracy.

Many of the issues that we see when we’re observing these “decaying democracies” are fundamentally symptoms of the political establishment’s failure to speak to the economic challenges of the last thirty years. I understand Sheri’s hesitation to commit to a monocausal account of what is happening — I think it’s analytically laudable, as there’s a lot to piece together — but I think we’d be remiss not to note the dramatic changes that have afflicted all of these economies over the last thirty years. And my one-sentence summary of what has happened has been that the political center has been unable — much like Sheri has argued — to represent the concerns that have resulted from those enormous economic shifts. It’s the failure of the political establishment to speak to the anxieties of the working class.

Yascha Mounk

There’s a very telling omission that Adaner just made. As a longtime member of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and as somebody who comes from a family that has a deep socialist tradition, I recognize the importance of those class struggles in establishing democracy. But I think it’s also important to note that, in a very important set of countries, the struggle of workers has been perverted and appropriated in order to erect terrible dictatorships.

One of the moments when I start to worry about a certain kind of socialist discourse is when people take the label of “democratic socialist” to be axiomatic — that all you need to do in order to guard against possible authoritarian dangers on the Left is to claim that you’re a democrat. What I think that the history of far-left movements shows is that they can be very productive for democracies, but that requires a deep understanding of the pitfalls that also come with this movement, and having a theory about how to avoid falling into them.

Seth Ackerman

I’d like to comment on the idea that what makes something populist is its delegitimization of enemies by saying they lie outside the boundaries of legitimate political disagreement. The irony to me is that the actual historical movements that we now identify as being important in achieving democracy in the first place, including in the United States, were often the most intense and passionate deployers of this kind of rhetoric. And I don’t just mean scrappy activists, but figures who are part of the pantheon of American heroes.

Abraham Lincoln was part of an anti-slavery movement that, as historians often point out, embraced a conspiracy theory about the “slave power” — the power of the “slavocracy” — secretly controlling the US government from behind the scenes, subverting the rights of ordinary Americans, and that the vital economic interests of a whole section of white society had no claim to legitimacy.

I found a quote from Lincoln shortly before he was elected, where he was talking about his political opposition, the Democratic Party, which was then largely pro-slavery. After quoting a series of contemporary pro-slavery Democrats dismissing the line in the Declaration of Independence about how “all men are created equal,” he said: “These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect: the supplanting of the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the vanguard — the miners, and sappers — of returning despotism. We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.” And that kind of rhetoric was absolutely endemic in most of the historical movements that we teach our kids today were part of the struggle for democracy in the United States.

If you read Richard Hofstadter, he points out that Thomas Jefferson’s rhetoric exemplified the “paranoid style” in American politics. All of his political opponents were secretly working in concert with Great Britain trying to undermine America’s republican form of government. It seems to me that part of any struggle for democracy in an undemocratic society has to be pointing to certain interests in society — or certain groups, especially those elite groups that are usually the main supports of undemocratic regimes — and saying those interests are illegitimate.

Yascha Mounk

I think there’s a real category mistake you’re making in that argument, which is to assume we have to tolerate the intolerant in a democracy. I think it’s perfectly valid to recognize that there are certain political forces that are so illegitimate and that perpetrate such extreme forms of injustice and oppression that they actually are the sworn enemies of democracy and we should not regard them as legitimate political actors.

There’s been a long debate about that in Germany over the last twenty-five years regarding the National Democratic Party (a kind of neo-Nazi, extremist party) — and certainly I think it’s very understandable why somebody like Abraham Lincoln would have thought that that may be true of the party that defended slavery. But the fact that you believe there are certain political leanings that are beyond the scope of democratic legitimacy precisely because they deny full participation in democracy to certain groups does not make you a populist, because it is not the claim that “I, and I alone, represent the people.”

So I would like to counter your quote of Lincoln with a Hugo Chávez quote. He says, “I demand absolute loyalty because I am not me, I am not an individual, I am a people!” And I think it illustrates the distinction between these two stances very, very clearly. What Lincoln was saying was that slaveholders were not democrats and were not legitimate, and I fully agree with him. What Chávez was saying was not just that there are some enemies of his government and that some of them may have been willing to resort to undemocratic measures, but what he’s saying is that because they are enemies of the people, enemies of work he wants todo, he is the sole representative of the people, and anybody who fails to recognize that, anybody who fails to act accordingly, then becomes an enemy of the people. He is owed absolute loyalty.

Sheri Berman

I basically agree with Yascha here. The example you use about Lincoln is compelling, but it’s a different case. The South was not a democracy by any political science or any commonsense definition. What Lincoln was saying was that our democracy cannot exist if it has within it an aristocratic, oligarchic tyranny. That is a totally different thing. It is totally legitimate for democracy to say, “No, a neo-Nazi party advocating national socialism, particularly in a country with Germany’s history, is not a legitimate stance in our system.” This must be set apart from saying, “You are illegitimate simply because you disagree with me on policies or you didn’t vote for me.” That is a very different kind of position to take, and it has very different implications for democracy.

To get back to something Adaner said before, it is totally legitimate to say that over the past generation, the establishment has screwed significant sectors of the American, European, and Latin American electorates — that is entirely true. But the question then becomes, do you advocate blowing up the system, or going outside of the democratic rules of the game; or do you stay within the boundaries of democratic institutions and procedures to correct that? The questions we must always ask of any movement, populist or otherwise, are: do they delegitimize people who don’t agree with them? Do they undermine the rules of the game so that democracy cannot continue in the future?

Seth Ackerman

I don’t accept these sharp distinctions you’re trying to draw. To take the example of Venezuela, the forces that Hugo Chávez denounced as illegitimate were right-wing and business-oriented groups that did in fact organize a military coup in 2002 where they deposed Chávez and replaced him with the head of the business federation.

With that Chávez quote, Yascha, you’re pointing to a certain rhetorical gesture: “I and my movement are the only legitimate object of political loyalty.” It seems to me that if that’s your criterion of undemocratic politics, you’re going to be skipping over a lot of other non-democratic cases —for example, Lenin would never have used that kind of highly personalized language — and on the other side, you’ll probably be including many people we now think of as democrats. It wouldn’t be so difficult to find an example of Thomas Jefferson saying that outside of the Democratic Party, his party, there was no legitimate political authority, because that was the nature of the extremely heated rhetoric of his time.

Yascha Mounk

Just to answer in one line: I believe that certain forms of left-wing populism can be very dangerous to democracy. But there are obviously also many non-populist movements that can be dangerous to democracy, including some more overtly authoritarian forms of left-wing politics.

Adaner Usmani

I think what needs to be distinguished in the most recent part of this conversation is the distinction between fealty to the political rules of the game, the rules of liberal democracy and democratic norms, the kind of thing that Yascha is emphasizing, and that I think all of us would agree are very important in fashioning a political movement that can take us from here to where we need to go; and fealty to the political center. I worry that sometimes those two things are conflated, though they actually are very, very different.

Fealty to the establishment politics that we’ve had for the last thirty years is — and I hope we would all agree — what has gotten us into this mess in the first place. So, the path from here to where we need to go cannot run back through the political center.

And sometimes I worry that when Yascha says he is anxious about a turn to populism, that he is anxious that people are turning away from that political center. I think that distinction really needs to be made — and maybe it’s helpful to be more concrete and speak specifically about what’s unfolding in the United States and the United Kingdom. The political movements and figures that I see as most likely to move us out of the morass that was the last thirty years of establishment politics are Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. And I wonder, Yascha, Sheri, Jonathan, whether you think of these figures as populist and therefore terrifying because they use contentious rhetoric.

Jonathan Chait

I don’t accept the premise — even though you said you think everyone does accept it — that the political establishment is what has brought us to this point. Bill Clinton ran on raising taxes on the rich, giving middle-class people a tax cut, and getting health care for everyone. Every Democrat who’s run since then has had some version of that plan: raising taxes on the rich, more social benefits for middle-class and working-class people, and tighter regulation of at least some businesses. So you can critique the specifics of what they’re running for, but I don’t think you can say that there’s been a convergence between the two parties. I think there’s been a pretty clear, sharp differentiation — the main difference being that the United States has a right-wing party that’s much more extreme in its anti-government stance than most conservative parties.

I would define the threat to democracy in the United States as the Republican Party and the Right. They have preexisting advantages — anti-democratic advantages — in the makeup of the House, the Senate, the state legislatures, everywhere, and they have tried to expand those anti-democratic advantages with voter suppression and other attacks on democracy. It’s not the establishment, it is one side of the political spectrum, acting within the Republican Party.

I think Professor Berman is absolutely, profoundly correct. In the United States, you have a party — the Republican Party and its domination by the conservative movement — that is ideologically committed to small government on principle. Part of their definition of democracy is not only following certain electoral rules but that they should ensure certain outcomes, such as strict protection of property rights so that the masses can’t gang up on the rich at the ballot box and take their resources away from them. And I think there is a parallel to some socialists on the Left, whose definition of democracy is a certain kind of equality. So, on both the Left and the Right, you’ll find groups of people who define democracy as having a certain kind of outcome even if that means breaking the democratic rules of the game in order to achieve it.

You asked about Sanders and Corbyn. I have a much closer understanding of Sanders than of Corbyn. I’m not planning to vote for Sanders, but I will say this about Sanders: he is a political liberal. He recognizes the legitimacy of other points of view. He does have populist rhetoric. He does often say that the only reason anybody disagrees with him on anything is the influence of big money, and in its absence his position would prevail in every case, which I think is silly and reductive. But I remember, last year, there were some episodes of protests threatening to shut down Trump, they were going to stop Trump from speaking, and Sanders really spoke out against that.

Sanders is a committed political liberal, an old-fashioned, ’60s, free-speech liberal, and I think he should be commended for that.

Sheri Berman

I think that’s a really important point to make, which is that you can disagree with Sanders on policy issues, but I, for one, don’t doubt his commitment, as Jonathan just said, to basic liberal democratic principles. Corbyn I find slightly more problematic. But do I think that Corbyn represents a real threat to democracy akin to that represented by our own president or someone like Viktor Orbán? No, not at all. I think he’s more clueless than he is problematic. And for me, that is a crucial distinction.

Adaner Usmani

I just want to clarify one thing very quick. When I was making this distinction between fealty to the rules of the game and fealty to the political center — by “the political center,” I meant what Sheri was talking about in her opening answer, which is an economic orientation that has failed. And I think Sheri made that point very well. But there’s another aspect to it, and what I see exemplified in both Sanders and Corbyn — and I don’t see in other political movements or figures in the United States and the UK specifically — is an understanding that to win the kind of agenda they are arguing for, to win a reorientation away from the center left back to a more left economic agenda, will fundamentally require contention and struggle.

It’s not something that is simply a matter of reorienting a policy platform in a technical way. It’s actually going to be fundamentally about conflict. And I think that is where I’m uncomfortable with this aversion to conflict, because conflict is the bread and butter of democratic politics in an unequal society. I don’t see how we can escape it. There’s a danger that we will mistake the rhetoric of conflict for a rhetoric of anti-liberal populism — and that distinction needs to be made very clearly, because what Sanders and Corbyn have both done is reintroduced a language of conflict into politics, and it’s high time for that.

Yascha Mounk

Obviously, fighting for robust left-wing policies, fighting for strong redistribution, for wealth taxes, will take some amount of political contestation. But I do worry about the attitude that says this is the only way we can get policy goals through, and obviously there will be all kinds of contestation, and that basically just means we have to take the gloves off, and anybody who’s squeamish about how that might actually damage democratic institutions just isn’t sufficiently up for a fight. Because I do believe, from lots of evidence, from lots of different countries, that at that point it runs the danger of seriously damaging democratic institutions. And the countries that did so never turned out — or very rarely turned out — to actually realize the kind of economic goals that the people who invoked the need to “break an egg to make an omelet” supposedly fought for.

Sheri Berman

I think this is a distinction that’s very important to make, and it’s not clear to me whether Adaner is actually saying something that I and perhaps Yascha and Jonathan would disagree with. Democracy requires contention, democracy requires political mobilization, and democracy requires people sometimes to go out on the streets. There’s absolutely nothing problematic about that, and democracy provides the framework within which all of those things can happen. I’ve never met anyone who calls themselves a democrat or a centrist who says that political protest is illegitimate, or that mobilizing people to vote or to participate is illegitimate, or that forming new social movements in politics in other ways is illegitimate. Democracy’s whole point is to make conflict possible without violence or chaos.

The question is whether protest, contention, and conflict stays within the rules of the game or not. It’s important to stress that this position is not distinctive only to the center — you can be someone who advocates for right-wing policies like small state, low tax, and say, “I feel strongly about these things, but I’m playing within the rules of the game.”

Seth Ackerman

You and Yascha are drawing a very neat distinction between the forms of contention that are legitimate and within the democratic rules of the game, and the forms that aren’t. It seems to me a little bit too neat, because there are certainly forms of contention that all of us would agree are illegitimate — a putsch, a coup — and there are forms of contention that all of us would agree are legitimate — like holding a peaceful demonstration. But since those are the things that pretty much everyone agrees about, I think the more salient examples are the ones where there are disagreements.

For example, FDR, during the New Deal, found that much of his economic program was being blocked by one of our great democratic institutions, the Supreme Court. In response, he had to choose between allowing that roadblock to stand or taking action. He decided to take action, famously, by packing the court: appointing more judges until he got the rulings he wanted.

Ultimately, he didn’t pack the court, because he didn’t get enough support in Congress, but the end result was that the Supreme Court reversed itself and validated much of the legislation. Had that shift not taken place, much of what we know today as American liberalism probably would not exist. So there is this question about which democratic institutions are actually democratic, and which ones claim to be but actually represent illegitimate roadblocks.

It seems that there are moments of intense contention, when the legitimacy of existing institutions, even if they are supposedly democratic institutions on paper, are obstacles to genuine, real, substantive democracy. And that is why the rhetoric that Yascha and Sheri are concerned about, this rhetoric of being willing to “break some eggs,” is not about undermining democracy, but about preparing for the possibility of a conflict to defend the substance of democracy.

Jonathan Chait

Any principle will have tricky cases, and I think court packing is a tricky case because you can make the argument that the Supreme Court was itself usurping democracy by deciding that the Constitution ratified Herbert Spencer’s economic libertarianism. You have anti-democratic behavior by the courts over a series of decades that reaches a crescendo under the New Deal, and since the court has supreme authority, and there’s no recourse, it’s hard to find a democratic solution. So FDR’s response was itself anti-democratic, but the counterposing of those two anti-democratic forces resulted in a kind of truce that left the system intact. But I think that’s a pretty difficult edge case for democracy that you certainly shouldn’t use as a model.

Yascha Mounk

First of all, nobody is saying that any political system is deserving of our loyalty and legitimacy. So one judgment you have to make at the outset is whether you live in a democratic political system in which there are sufficient institutional avenues for you to express your political views and militate in favor of democratic change.

When you live in Russia or Venezuela today, that’s clearly not the case. And the absence of those democratic institutions justifies forms of protest and institutional contestation that may not be justifiable in more democratic countries. So that deals with a lot of these examples about the American South in the nineteenth century, for example.

The second point I would make is that a lot of how the United States got through the Great Depression and managed to implement very necessary and radical reforms to our economic system without losing democracy is precisely because political partisans who strongly agreed with a lot of the economic policies that FDR was pursuing were nevertheless leery of giving him absolute power. And a great part of that success you talk about is precisely the fact that members of his own political party — who agreed with him on important economic issues — nevertheless said that allowing him to pack the courts in this kind of way would damage our political system in ways that undermine our ability to resolve the conflict peacefully and realize our political goals in the long run.

Adaner Usmani

I feel like that example might perfectly encapsulate our disagreement here. And it’s just constructive to note that. I understood you, Yascha, to be arguing that there was a kind of political consensus behind the New Deal and the anxieties at the time about court packing, or anxieties that were coexisting alongside political consensus. But that is not my understanding of how the New Deal unfolded. The New Deal unfolded because the 1930s were the most contentious class struggle-ridden period in American history ever.

Yascha Mounk

To clarify, I didn’t say there was consensus on the New Deal, I said there were a certain number of key political actors who were members of the Democratic Party who did agree with FDR — nearly all Republicans disagreed — but there were key people who were members of the same political party who agreed on his set of economic issues but were not willing to back the court packing either. And it is that kind of willingness, of people who share a set of policy goals to nevertheless reign in the co-partisans when they feel that they are damaging key democratic institutions, that allowed the New Deal to come to fruition without damaging key democratic institutions.

Seth Ackerman

We’re talking about all these edge cases, and where do you draw the line on this or that. I opened the conversation by asking Yascha about Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and if you don’t want to address particular cases and would rather talk about the broad principles, fair enough. But I think part of the reason why the Left is frustrated by this explosion of populism discourse is that there’s a degree of slipperiness about it.

In my view, the slipperiness is strategic. I’m not necessarily talking about you, Yascha, but there’s a larger discourse around populism and democracy that attempts to delegitimize the Left — Jeremy Corbyn might be the best example of that — by implying or insinuating that they belong to a sort of anti-democratic bloc.

There are plenty of people who buy into that discourse who will then say, “Well, of course I don’t really mean Jeremy Corbyn, and I don’t mean Bernie Sanders.” But there are plenty of people who do mean them — and they appropriate that discourse as a way of delegitimizing those political forces.

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Seth Ackerman is Jacobin's executive editor.

Adaner Usmani is an assistant professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard University and a Catalyst editorial board member.

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