“Are populist parties a threat to democracy?” (Macmillan Prize Winner 2022)


By Ivan A.

Abstract

In the opening pages of Eatwell and Goodwin’s National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, populism is defined as a political ideology that excels at “prioritising the culture and interests of the nation”. It targets a select “people” who often feel neglected “by distant and corrupt elites” and promises to give them a voice. From former National Rally leader Marine Le Pen promising to protect the 35-hour working week to Vermont senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, pledging to raise the American minimum wage to $14 an hour whilst proposing to increase taxes for multinational corporations like Amazon, populist politicians pledge policies that align with the popular consensus and seem to empower “the ordinary man”.

Populism can be argued to encourage more democracy as it is usually linked with increased voter turnout, uniting a wide range of voters in a common goal. However, this essay will argue that there is a darker side to populist parties that threatens democracy in three main ways: (a) by winning elections based on misinformation of the electorate which questions the legitimacy of the party’s mandate to govern (b) by exacerbating an increasing democratic deficit and (c) by eroding the rights of minority groups and reducing civil liberties.

An uptick in political participation

Political sociologist Cześnik argues that widespread participation in an election strengthens and enhances the legitimacy of the result. By extension, Lijphart adds that low voter turnout affects democracy as it can indicate that those from certain demographics aren’t participating in politics. Populism can be argued not to threaten, but in fact strengthen democracy by encouraging high voting turnout, which is essential for democracy, and motivating voters from a wide range of demographics to partake in elections. For instance, in the 2018 Swedish national election, the right-wing populist and conservative party, The Sweden Democrats , were the most popular party amongst 18-35-year olds, illustrated by a 3% increase in first time voters from 83% turnout in 2014 to 86% turnout in 2018. This can be associated with attractive manifesto pledges such as free access to public healthcare for Swedish nationals. Similarly, between 1998 and 2007, the percentage of French women aged between 18-26, who were first time voters and decided to vote for the populist National Rally party, increased from 9% to 32%. Thus, it can be concluded that populist parties have significant support from voters, which is exemplified in increasing percentages of the population present at the polls, in some cases motivating young voters to participate in politics and so therefore enrich democracy.

The case could be made that populism aids democracy by creating an output for voters who feel disenfranchised from the current state of politics and thus enhancing pluralism. In 2016, Donald J Trump became the 45th president of the United States of America and successfully won 304 out of 538 electoral seats by uniting several demographics. These included 64% of white non-university graduates, 62% of men and 53% of voters aged over 65 . Among these groups of voters were popular populist concerns such as fear of loss of traditional values and patriotism, hyper-ethnic change due to rising inequality, immigration, and globalisation. In addition, the 2016 Brexit referendum appealed to Eurosceptic voters, many of whom expressed anti-elitist and or anti-immigration sentiments and wanted greater sovereignty for Britain, a stance which had previously been considered unpopular. Voters with higher anti-immigrant attitudes were revealed to be 66% more likely to vote Leave whereas those with higher anti-elitist attitudes were 49% more likely to vote Leave. The referendum resulted in a turnout of 72.2% representative of 33,551,983 people and made history as the highest recorded turnout for a UK-wide referendum, and the highest for any national vote since the 1992 general election. Reflecting on these two examples, populism can strengthen democracy by allowing for the representation of alternative views which adds greater pluralism but also aids political participation.

High voter turnout aids democracy by giving greater legitimacy to the reached decision and gives populist parties and politicians a strong mandate to govern. However, Cześnik’s statement can be challenged. Even though strong mandates can enhance legitimacy, if they are achieved by supplying fake news and misinformation to the electorate, then the mandate becomes questionable which in turn threatens democracy as the result could be declared non-binding or inauthentic.

Misinformation and Questionable Mandates

Misinformation can undermine democracy as it challenges the electorate’s right to free expression which is a key component of democracy. A cross-national survey held by academics at the London School of Economics revealed that populist radical right-wing supporters may be more susceptible to conspiracy theories and fake news. In addition to this, populism can be linked to misinformation particularly in Italy where scholars, like Gigiletto, make the case that an overwhelming percentage of fake news consumed by Italian populist supporters echoed the same anti-establishment sentiment encouraged by their respective parties .Guy Berger (UNESCO Director for Strategy and Policy) states that “we cannot have genuine elections without having a free flow of information” , going further to argue that protecting “the right to vote” is at “the core of freedom of expression”. In recent years, populist parties have become culprits for providing false flows of information in order to get elected and gain popularity. For example, in the lead up to the 2016 Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson claimed that leaving the European Union would provide up to £350,000,000 for the NHS, a claim which the UK Statistics Authority described as “misleading”. In this example, Johnson capitalised on “the national interest” (Eatwell and Goodwin), which in this case was a pre-existing concern over maintaining NHS funding and used an incorrect pledge to gain support from voters.

Another example is Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who stoked anti-immigration and anti-elitist tensions in Hungary by falsely claiming that: “They [the EU] want to bring in the mandatory settlement quota; weaken member states’ rights to border defence; facilitate immigration with a migrant visa.” This is of course false given that the EU currently allows for all member states to set caps on legal migration. However, the damage has already been done and supporters of Fidesz (Orban’s political party) would have already become more agitated, thanks to the wildfire spread of misinformation in the digital age. In both instances, a populist party has been able to distort the realities of its voters. This means their choices were not free as they were manipulated by false narratives and so consequently, populist parties undermined the democratic process.

Exacerbating The Democratic Deficit

Populist parties threaten democracy by encouraging supporters to distrust democratically elected institutions and thus contribute to an increasing democratic deficit. This can be defined as when democratic institutions or democratically elected officials fall short of the principles of democracy, typically demonstrated through a loss of faith from within the electorate. Populist parties are often linked with the anti-establishment rhetoric which leads to distrust of vital democratic institutions. For instance, UKIP heavily criticised the EU over its bureaucracy and claimed it was overpaid and challenged Britain’s sovereignty and economic independence. Before the 2016 Brexit referendum, the party contributed to the democratic deficit by utilising slogans such as “Take Back Control” and “Britain Together”
which enhanced pre-existing anti-elitist sentiments amongst British voters, effectively worsening the poor trust Britain had in the EU (in 2015, the UK had the lowest average trust in the EU than anywhere else in Europe with only 33% ).
Similarly, in the 2017 French presidential campaign, Marine Le Pen frequently characterised “unregulated globalisation” as the enemy of the people and called for a referendum for France to exit the European Union. It is important to note that by choosing to leave the EU, France and Britain would no longer be held accountable to laws set by the EU that protect the democratic rights of their citizens. Furthermore, questioning the democracy of structures within institutions like the EU (such as unelected commissioners in the European Commission) weakens their mandate to govern and threatens the democratic decision to participate in them by undermining public trust.

The “Them vs Us” Rhetoric

In The Meaning of Democracy, Charles E Merriam states that in order for democracy to be present, it is necessary for there to be the cultivation of self on a “fraternal rather than differential basis” . On this principle, any political ideology that creates a sense of division or alienation is inherently undemocratic. This sense of division has become key in characterising the way in which populism currently operates. Writers like Jan-Werner Müller make the point that populism naturally creates segregation by splitting the electorate into two; the “people” and the “enemy” which often includes minority groups . Furthermore, Larry Diamond correctly argues that “populists reject the notion of pluralism [which is key in many functioning democracies] and embrace cultural exclusion”.

For instance, the Movement for A Better Hungary, more commonly known as the “jobbik” movement, used the slogan “Hungary is For The Hungarians” during the 2009 general election, which alienated those from alternative ethnic minority backgrounds or immigrants living in Hungary as an “other”. Furthermore, the “jobbik” movement capitalised on pre-existing hostility against the minority Romanian and Jewish communities and as a result has been commonly linked to antisemitism. Based on Merriam’s definition of democracy, populist parties like this are undemocratic as they operate on a “differential basis” by offering policies that only benefit a select group at the expense of others, consequently creating divisions amongst the electorate.

Anton Pelinka adds that “liberal democracy is based on the principle of majority rule as well as on the principle of minority protection”, going further to say that there are “at least tensions between liberal democracy […] and any populist agenda”. The Swedish Democrats have publicly opposed the wearing of hijabs in public schools, claiming it is a choice that must be made at adulthood. This infringes on the rights of minorities as it directly contradicts Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) (the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) and Article 10 (freedom of expression) which makes the provision for “the freedom to hold […] ideas without interference by public authority” . It could be argued that the Swedish Democrats’ views challenge the protections of minority rights provided by the ECHR and therefore, according to Pelinka’s assertion, the party’s rhetoric is undemocratic.

The trend of populist parties restricting the rights and liberties of citizens can be further demonstrated in the rhetoric of former US President, Donald Trump in several instances. For example, in 2015 during his presidential campaign, Trump in an interview with Fox Business declared that he would “certainly look at” the idea of shutting down mosques in the United States. Trump later reprised his statement in November of that same year when he again pledged to “strongly consider” shutting down mosques in America following the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. These comments stand as direct violations of the First Amendment of the US Constitution which states that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” . Therefore, it could be argued that these statements are undemocratic as they again express the desire to repress the rights of minority groups.

According to Lijphart, populism could be deemed democratic as it offers high levels of turnout, especially for disenfranchised groups and thus populist parties who win elections have strong mandates. However, these strong mandates can lead to tyranny of the majority and attack the rights and freedoms of minority groups which Pelinka defines as an attack on democracy itself.

Conclusion

Populism operates on the promise of representation and claims to protect the interest of “the people” encouraging substantial amounts of voters to participate politically to combat popular national concerns and thus at first glance may seem to strengthen democracy. However, populist parties achieve their support by challenging the rights of minority groups, misinforming the public and promoting a culture of distrusting democratic institutions, therefore it is entirely rational for one to see how populism places democracy under siege.

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