Expert Discussion: „Populism and De-democratisation”

On Tuesday, 13 December, an expert discussion took place at Das Progressive Zentrum with the populism experts Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and Nicole Loew.

First things first: What is populism?

First of all, the populism expert and associate professor at Diego Portales university in Santiago de Chile, Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser,  defined democracy as a combination of popular sovereignty and majority rule (i.e. electoral democracy). A “liberal democracy” however is a combination of popular sovereignty, majority rule and a set of independent institutions that are neither elected nor directly controlled by “we, the people” (e.g. central banks, constitutional courts, etc.). Populism is thus at odds with liberal democracy but not necessarily with democracy itself. The biggest issue is therefore not populism itself, but nativism, racism or right-wing ideologies.

Populism is a “thin ideology” thin that differentiates between the people vs. the elite and which pretends to defend the “volonté générale” of the people. There are two opposites to populism: Elitism and pluralism. The difficult question whether the real issue for democracy is populism or whether it is illiberal and anti-pluralistic populism was also raised.

Finally, in order to define populism, there needs to be a differentiation between the various forms of populism: Right-wing populism in Western Europe, authoritarian populism in Eastern Europe, left-wing populism in Southern Europe or Latin America.

Populism and democratisation: A difficult relationship?

Kaltwasser then went on to explain the positive and negative effects of populism on liberal democracy. There are four different systems relevant to explain (de-) democratisation: Liberal democracy, electoral democracy, competitive authoritarianism, full authoritarianism. Populism moves in between electoral democracy and competitive authoritarianism, but rarely moves towards full liberal democracy or full authoritarianism.

There are three intervening variables in this system:  The electoral power of populist actors, the political system itself (parliamentary or presidential) and the international context (favourable or critical of populism). In addition, there are three types of success of populists: Electoral strength, agenda-setting powers and the policy impact.

The rise of populism can be explained by a set of factors: The convergence between mainstream parties towards a same set of policies and politics, the capacity to create a sense of crisis by populist forces even though there might not be a crisis, and the growing tension between responsiveness and responsibility of politicians – responding to urgent policy matters, but not acknowledging their responsibility towards the citizens.

An open discussion on how to fight populism

Nicole Loew, policy fellow at Das Progressive Zentrum and executive director of the Mainz Centre for Empirical Research in Democracy (MZeDf), opened the discussion with a set of questions. Who ‘the people’ are that populist parties refer to? Are right-wing populist parties a bigger threat to democracy than left-wing populist parties?” And what’s the main driving force of populism?

During the Q&A session with the audience, several issues were raised. Can democratic innovations fight populism? Does a good populism exist? Maybe even an “enlightened populism”?  Can a populist agenda-setting be favourable for politics, as it guides the political discourse towards where the issues in society?

In the final remarks, Kaltwasser concluded that populism might not necessarily be a big threat or even a topic of interest soon – there might be new ideologies which will come up in the next decades. Instead of focusing on populist parties, we should concentrate on the mainstream parties and why they are losing votes to populists. There also needs to be a discourse about the topics approached by populist parties, and it is central how the mainstream politicians react, whether populism is de-democratising or not.

We would like to thank our guests as well as the participants for this fruitful discussion.