Populism in Democracies

The course taken by populist movements that have arisen from democracies was reviewed in a December 5, 2016 article from Foreign Affairs. The article’s authors, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, note that, whereas in the latter half of the 20th century, two-thirds of the failures of democracies were due to coups, democratic failures between 2000 and 2010 followed populist movements, increasing in frequency to equal those due to coups.

The article cites post-Cold War populist movements in Venezuela, Russia and Turkey that emerged from democratically-elected leaders who slowly removed opposition and expanded their power. By voicing distrust of elites and established institutions, populist parties assure they can turn back the forces of change. In the current environment, globalization and immigration are presented as the causes of economic hardship for the beleaguered working classes. The article notes that populist parties currently dominate legislatures in Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland.

In Venezuela, Russia and Turkey, the authors observe the populist movement has given rise to what they call “personalist dictatorships,” a form of autocracy which concentrates power in the hands of an individual. Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Alberto Fujimori in Peru are cited as past examples of this evolution to autocracy. As the authors reveal:

A robust body of political science research shows that such systems tend to produce the worst outcomes of any type of political regime: they typically pursue the most volatile and aggressive foreign policies, espouse the most xenophobic sentiments, are the most likely to mismanage foreign aid, and are the least likely to transition to democracy when they collapse.

Although the authors mention the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president only in passing, there has been a clear link in the popular perception between current events and single-party authoritarianism. Within a week after Trump’s inauguration, George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 became the No. 1 best-seller on Amazon as sales surged 9,500%. Other dystopian novels recorded similar surges. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here was Amazon’s 8th best-seller and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was in Amazon’s top ten by sales.

Similarly, searches for “Reichstag fire” peaked worldwide the month after Brexit and again in October 2016 as the U.S. election neared. The fire in the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, occurred the month after Adolph Hitler took office in 1933. The fire was blamed on communists and used as a pretext for instituting emergency powers suspending civil liberties in Germany. In present-day Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the July 2016 failed coup attempt to justify a more authoritarian system with few checks on his power.

The Foreign Affairs article’s authors conclude:

The forces fueling populism aren’t going away anytime soon. If anything, economic underperformance, disillusion with corruption, and dissatisfaction with government performance will continue to fan the flames of populism across the globe.… The damage to democracy caused by the populist surge in Europe has so far been limited to Hungary and Poland, because Europe’s long-standing norms, strength of institutions, and experience with democracy have so far buffered populism’s antidemocratic pull. The damage to democracy is likely to be more pronounced in less developed democracies.

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