Democracy and Populism: the (Black) Mirror of Society

The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people.
― Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator


Why democracy should listen to populism

Governing well is possible —in fact, it is necessary— and not despite populism, but thanks to it. How? The first step consists in clearing the table from a classic misunderstanding: populism is not the opposite of democracy. That would be authoritarianism, or dictatorship, or fascism. Populism can actually be very helpful: it measures how much democracy is under pressure and offers a potential relief valve. When we witness Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro, or Rodrigo Duterte tearing apart democratic principles we are not observing the effects of populism, but the effects of authoritarianism on its way to become fascism.

Many observers get confused because these leaders are also populist: it is true, they divide society between the good people and the corrupt elites while claiming to embody the vox populi, but this is not what makes them a mortal danger for democracy. Authoritarian leaders are dangerous for democracy because they incite people to storm Capitol Hill, or to arm themselves and kill drug addicts in the streets. They are a danger for democracy because they repress the minority rights of the Kurdish people, because they silence and control the media, because they praise the military dictatorship, or deny the existence of Covid-19. This has little to do with their populist views —populism can be the opposite of all this— and a lot to do with their rejection of democracy.

This is not (only) populism…

In the age of authoritarian tendencies, cultural backlash, economic anxiety, ideological polarization, and widespread conspiracy theories, listening to populism and its lessons about popular sovereignty, representation, and legitimacy can actually strengthen democracy. To do that, we must first leave our comfort zone, which some would call ivory tower, and ask ourselves where the suffering, the grievances, the dissatisfaction come from. By doing so, we might realize that populism is not our fiercest enemy, and we might dismiss the idea that every populist mobilization is the expression of uneducated, old fashioned rural communities, representing the “Rust Belts” of the world. We might even consider the fact that populism, like a fever, is not the disease itself but its symptom.

The future of democracy is strictly linked to the lessons that populism can teach and stems from our capacity to adapt our idea of democracy to them. Populism is a form of democracy that emphasizes popular sovereignty, it is not the contrary of democracy, and where democracy exists, populism follows like a shadow. Twenty-five centuries of democracy have gone hand in hand with populism. Themistocles decided to move to a down-market part of Athens in order to be perceived as a man of the people, while Pericles had a rather populist interpretation of Athenian democracy. Populism, rather than the herald of democracy’s end can be what saves democracy, regenerating it and giving a renewed legitimacy to it.

History presents us with enough cases of democratically elected representatives that are corrupt, criminal, or simply unprepared, and cartel parties whose programs differ so little that citizens are in fact lacking real political alternatives. Ignoring the populist critique to the establishment or dismissing it as unimportant would sharpen the diffused democratic malaise we are witnessing, enlarging even more the existing gap between the demands of the electorates and what governments actually deliver. Levels of participation and involvement in politics are declining, as is trust in parties and institutions. It is therefore impossible to govern well without listening to, and learning from, populism. In the next section I will show how populism can strengthen democracy. In particular, there are three lessons that we can and must learn from populism in order to adapt and improve our democratic mechanisms and their legitimacy.

Three Populist Lessons

First: democracy can learn from populism that democracy without popular sovereignty is undemocratic. Populism reminds us that democracy is based on the identity between governing and governed, and therefore on the power of the people. We know that populism is not a threat to democracy, but to liberal principles. Dissatisfied citizens do not oppose democracy as an ideal, they oppose, increasingly often, those who claim to embody democratic values: political parties and institutions. If many are convinced that ‘the elites’ are stripping something away from them, if they feel unheard or left behind, it is time to listen. This has to do with our vision of society, with how we decide to regulate social conflict and, ultimately, with human decency. We keep repeating that “democracy is in crisis”, but perhaps the problem is that we expect democracy to fix our problems and we blame democracy when this does not happen. Essentially democracy is a set of rules and procedures, a machine. If our input, what we feed into this machine, is a society plagued by inequalities, corruption, and intolerance, democracy will not transform all of this into Utopia.

We are trying to tighten the screws with a hammer, and to reconcile the tension between equality and liberty without recognizing the presence of conflict. Democracy is not necessarily the right tool for all our problems, nor can all our problems be fixed by democracy. We should however be very careful in understanding which parts of populism can strengthen democracy and which ones, on the other hand, would threaten it. Populism can indeed undermine minority rights, media freedom, pluralism, and the separation of powers. In the last months this happened in Eastern Europe where Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seized on the crisis to claim extraordinary powers and pass a law making it impossible for transgender or intersex people to legally change their gender. Similarly, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) tightened its grip on power, including the judiciary and media systems, and won a presidential election where it was almost impossible for the opposition to compete. When populists are in power, pluralistic societies are more difficult to achieve, for opposing “the people” is impossible. Populism alone —without pluralism— might damage individual and collective rights and weaken or destroy the system of checks and balances intended to prevent the abuse of power. Governing well is therefore possible if we commit to make democracy more respectful of popular sovereignty without becoming illiberal.

Second: democracy can learn from populism that responsiveness is essential for legitimacy. Democracy is complete when it couples the populist idea to be responsive to the desires of the voting public with a pluralist vision of society. Respecting rule of law, human rights, and individual liberty is essential, but it should not come at the expenses of popular sovereignty, or responsiveness will be compromised. When we forget about popular sovereignty, when we forget that the power is in the people’s hands only as long as their representatives transform the volonté générale into action, we might have liberalism, but we lost democracy. The wave of populist radical left leaders who came to power in Latin American countries such as Bolivia (Evo Morales), Ecuador (Rafael Correa), and Venezuela (Hugo Chávez) as well as the experiences of SYRYZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain indicate what can be the consequence of a democratic system without credible representation.

When a government resigns itself to the idea that it is either undesirable or impossible to be responsive to the desires of the voting public, thus failing to honour popular sovereignty, it is inevitable for the ruling elites, parties, and institutions to lose their legitimacy. The risk is that disenchantment with the actors, in this case political elites, becomes disillusionment with the system, hence with democracy. This is dangerous because it can trigger the idea that a “responsive” government might be preferable over a democratic one. When democratic institutions become unresponsive, there is little doubt that democracy loses legitimacy and alternatives to democracy become more appealing. Populism shows very clearly that democracy cannot remain liberal at the cost of becoming undemocratic. Governing well is therefore possible if we commit to make democracy more accountable and responsive.

Artist: Blu. City: Rome. Check it out here. Is there an alternative?

Third: democracy can learn from populism that a bad alternative often feels better than no alternative. Margaret Thatcher used to say that “there is no alternative” (TINA) to claim that market economy is the only possible system and that there is no need to debate about it. Now that political actors are heavily constrained in their action by the impositions of global markets, multinational corporations, and international institutions, the TINA argument feels stronger than ever and every day less endurable. When citizens cast a populist vote, their motivations might be several. One of them, is surely the idea of sending a signal to their elites about the unfairness of the system. When austerity is considered as the only viable option to face the cyclical bumps of modern market economy, it becomes clear that our leaders lack perspective and the ability of long-term political planning. Technocracy is then evoked, to manage welfare cuts, unemployment, and poverty, on the false assumption that the only way to recover is to go back exactly to what we were doing before and relying on the fact that unelected bodies will fill the vacuum left by an establishment that gave up looking for alternatives. Populism shows how these issues can actually be repoliticized, rather than being considered as mere technicalities.

When people protest in the streets or use their vote as a hammer to smash the system and criticize the establishment, it becomes clear that even a bad alternative is often more welcome than a fake one. When during a pandemic our governments put their citizens in front of false dichotomies such as “economy vs health”, as if having both was considered immoral, anything that challenges these logical fallacies will feel more real, more in touch with the needs of normal people. The TINA model undermines and weakens democracy: as long as democracy will be imagined only within the boundaries of market economy and contemporary capitalism, to the point that the two concepts almost came to overlap, populism will provide an alternative by accusing the establishment of having betrayed the people. Populists will point their fingers at migrants, financial institutions, feminism, political correctness, and political parties, channelling people’s frustration. These targets might be real or imaginary, they can be used to attract attention towards real problems or deflect it towards imaginary enemies, but the redemptive promise to redress injustices, to nostalgically go back to the good old times, to before, is a disruptive force that feeds from our incapacity of imagining democracy in any other way. Governing well is possible if we stop believing that there are no alternatives.

Conclusions: the “Waldo Moment” and the Future of Democracy

In a famous episode of the dystopic TV show Black Mirror titled “The Waldo Moment”, a character named Jack explains his vision of democracy: “Look, we don’t need politicians; we’ve all got iPhones and computers, right? So any decision that has to be made, any policy, we just put it online. Let the people vote thumbs up, thumbs down, the majority wins. That’s a real democracy.” The Italian populist party Five Star Movement that won the general election in 2018 wanted to implement direct democracy, having people to vote online all the time, and live streaming all their debates. The online voting proved to be easily manipulated by the party’s leaders, the topic of the online referenda was accurately chosen, their outcome disregarded if inconvenient, and the live streaming quickly forgotten. This is an example of how political actors can exploit the grievances that populism intercepts and turn them into short-term political consensus, media visibility, and personal gain. Representation, after all, is such an elusive concept.

Governing well means to consider democracy as the pacific management of social conflict, bearing in mind that its legitimacy starts and ends with popular sovereignty. Democracy does not need to be managed technocratically, or to be reduced to clicktivism, an empty ritual of online voting without deliberation. Democracy needs honesty and competence in equal measures because every decision is ultimately political. Even in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the idea that science will determine —once and for all— which one is the truth, which one is the line to follow, and which one is the decision to take is just an illusion. Citizens, as well as their representatives, must be well informed: in this sense free media, open debates, and independent research are crucial. But then comes a moment in which the common good is more complex that a mathematical formula, and democracy must find a synthesis of every conflict to imagine a better society. Because, as Jack’s friend Jamie retorted in that famous episode, if your idea of democracy is just thumbs up, thumbs down, it is better to keep in mind that also YouTube works that way and its most popular video “is a dog farting the theme tune to Happy Days.”


This essay was written in January 2021 for this award. The question to answer was this: Is it possible to govern well in the age of populism?

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