Is Populism Compatible with Liberal Democracy?

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Updated: Oct 19, 2023
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Evaluating the symbiotic or antagonistic relationship between populism and liberal democracy. Exploring whether populist movements strengthen democratic participation or undermine established democratic institutions. More free essay examples are accessible at PapersOwl about Democracy topic.

Category: Democracy
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Trendafile Sina Pol 266Prompt #1: Is populism compatible with liberal democracy?Liberal democracy and populism are both ideologies/political approaches committed to the idea of popular sovereignty, which appeal “the people” and support the rights of the individuals over “the elite” or those who are more powerful than the ordinary people. Despite that, both these concepts rely on incompatible conceptualizations of the people and as a consequence they manifest antagonistic and contradictory understandings of the concept of democracy. Therefore, it challenges the common assumption that populism might be beneficial for the demos.

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Although the populist movement can signal an underlying malfunction/failure of our liberal democratic system, it can never itself operate as the corrective. Instead, it should be seen a main threat to liberal democracy, which should undertake actions with the purpose of repairing both the symptom(populism) and the underlying issue.

Until recently, liberal democracy dominated triumphant, most citizens seemed committed to this form of government, the economy was growing, and no radical parties. Political analystis thought that democracy in places like France/ U.S. would not change in the years to come, but it turned out to be very different. Citizens have now grown restless and the authoritarian populists are on the rise around the world, from America to Europe. Across Europe and North America, long-existing political systems are facing a change, including the Brexit vote, the 2016 U.S. election, the doubling of support for France’s National Front, the outright victory of the populist party in the Czech Republic’s 2017 elections; and most concerning, the entrenchment in Hungary of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s self-styled “illiberal democracy,” changes which threaten the shape of liberal democracy. Donald Trump’s election to the White House has been the most striking manifestation of democracy’s crisis. But it is hardly an isolated incident. In Poland and Hungary, populist leaders are using that same playbook to destroy the free media, to undermine independent institutions and to muzzle the opposition, according to Bustikova & Guasti on “The liberal Turn or Swerve”.

In Spain and Greece, established party systems are disintegrating with breathtaking speed. Even in the supposedly stable democracies of Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, extremists are celebrating successes. There can no longer be any doubt that we are going through a populist moment. The question is whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt. To answer that question first we have to define liberal democracy and populism. So what Is Liberal Democracy? Democracy, at the most basic level, requires both the equality of all citizens and inclusive citizenship. The other key pillar of a democratic government is majority rule. In addition to that, some boundaries/limitations are also established, like the “separation of powers” and “checks and balances.” How Does Populism Challenge Liberal Democracy? Populism is not just, an expression of disappointment over frustrated economic expectations, and fear of threats to physical and cultural security as some may define it. Populism does accepts the principles of democracy. It is skeptical, however, about constitutionalism, which concludes that it aims what a national leader (Orbán) calls “illiberal democracy”, a governing system capable of translating popular preferences into public policy without the impediments that have prevented liberal democracies from responding effectively to urgent problems( Lipset, pg 7).

From this perspective, populism is a threat not to democracy but rather to the dominant liberal variant of democracy. Populism can also be defined as “the people” against “the elite”. Today, “we the people” is understood to mean all citizens, regardless of religion, and length of citizenship. The people have one set of interests and values, the elite has another, and these two sets are not only different but fundamentally opposed. Populists see the elite as hopelessly corrupt and the peopleas uniformly virtuous, meaning that the people should govern themselves. And populist leaders claim that they alone represent the people, the only legitimate force in society. Populism is the enemy of pluralism, and thus of modern democracy.How Serious Is the Threat? On the one hand liberal democracy faces clear and present dangers. We may also gain perspective, and a measure of comfort, from a cross-national survey released just a couple of months ago. Although there is widespread discontent with how democratic institutions are performingin the European and North American countries included in the survey, median support for representative democracy across these countries stands at 80%. By contrast, only 13 % support a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from the legislature or the courts.

That said, while publics are not turning their back on representative democracy, they are willing to consider other forms of decision making. Seventy percent favor referendums in which citizens vote directly on major national issues, and 43% believe that allowing experts to make decisions about what is best for their countries makes sense. According to a Voter Study Group performed by Lipset, among respondents, 78% believe that democracyis preferable to any other form of government, while 83% think it is very important to live in a democratic system. Nonetheless, 23% are open to a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections, and 18% would countenance military rule. Openness to undemocratic alternatives was most pronounced among voters who combine economic liberalism and cultural conservatism, a characteristic of U.S. populists. Nearly half the voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012 but switched to Donald Trumpin 2016 favored a strong, unencumbered leader and declined to endorse democracy as the best form of government. In practice, not every manifestation of populism threatens liberal democracy. While the Brexit vote, as a policy decision made by referendum, raised some issues in terms of parliamentary sovereignty, its outcome pointed out policy concerns.

In systems where liberal-democratic institutions are strong, arguments about trade, immigration, and even national sovereignty can still happen. According to Galston, another public intellectual populism is “ broadly defined, are being screwed over by the elites, either intentionally or not. It is true, that there is a tendency among populists to exaggerate the virtues of the people. Then again, we live in a democracy, and all politicians must flatter the people in order to gain their vote. It is also true that populism is divisive. Then again, politics is always divisive. But sometimes the populist challenge does directly threaten liberal democracy. Unchecked, moves to weaken freedom of the press, constitutional courts, strengthen of the executive, and discriminate groups of citizens based on ethnicity, or national origin will weaken liberal democracy from within. Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán is frank about his antipathy to liberalism. We should not ignore these developments, which may well be harbingers of worse to come. According to 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer citizens are also less committedto democracy than they once were; while more 2/3 of older Americans say that it is necessary for them to live in a democracy, for example, less than ? of younger Americans do.

They are also more open to authoritarian alternatives; two decades ago, for example, 25% of Britons said that they liked the idea of “a strongman ruler who does not have to bother with parliament and elections”; today, 50% of them do. And these attitudes are increasingly reflected in our politics: from Great Britain to the US, and from Germany to Hungary, respect for democratic rules and norms has precipitously declined. No longer the only game in town, democracy is now deconsolidating. One possible explanation for why a lot of young people have grown disenchanted with democracy is that they have little conception of what it would mean to live in a different political system. People born in the 1930s and 40s experienced the threat of fascism as children or were raised by people who actively fought it. They spent their formative years during the cold war, when fears of Soviet expansionism drove the reality of communism home to them in a very real way. When they are asked whether it is important to them to live in a democracy, they have some sense of what the alternative might mean. What Is to Be Done? The defenders of liberal democracy must focus relentlessly on countering threats to liberal institutions.

An independent judiciary, freedom of the press, the rule of law, represent the first line of defense against illiberalism, and they must be safeguarded. At the same time, political reforms are needed to restore the ability of liberal-democratic institutions to act effectively. Also liberal democrats must make their peace with national sovereignty. Politicalleaders should put the rights of their nations to put their interests first without threatening liberal-democratic norms. Again, this is a policy dispute withinliberal democracy, not aboutliberal democracy. Large population flows, finally, have triggered concerns about the loss of national sovereignty. In the United States, Donald Trump’s famous promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the Mexican border became a powerful symbol of sovereignty regained. One may speculate that any country has a finite capacity to absorb new arrivals, and that bumping up against this limit triggers a reaction that detractors condemn as nativist. But denouncing citizens concerned about immigration as ignorant and bigoted does nothing either to address the issue in substance or to lower the political temperature.

In conclusion, we can state the populist movement uprising could bring down liberal democracy and should be considered as a potential threat to this system of democracy. In the recent years we have witnessed the triumph of populism which in a way does counter democratic value, such as human rights convention and has distanced themselves from constitutive democratic principles such as the separation of powers, in countries such as Great Britain, Hungary, etc. Thus, we can conclude that liberal democracy and populism cannot be compatible, since one principle is an actual threat to the existence of the other one.

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Is Populism Compatible With Liberal Democracy?. (2019, Oct 20). Retrieved from