What do populists do once in power? In what do they differ from traditional authoritrian leaders? In this article, Wojciech Sadurski answers these questions while introducing his new book “A Pandemic of Populists” (Cambridge University Press). First, all populist leaders in power, he claims, share some common characteristics: they use aggressive language about their opponents, and often demonize their enemies. The narratives they develop often draw on conspiracy theories, and their discourse deploys familiar tropes that brings it close to fascism (anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, antipathy to rationalism and Enlightenment, xenophobia). Moreover, formal institutions are viewed by populist leaders as irritants, unnecessarily throwing obstacles on the path of implementing the leadership’s will. Finally, populist regimes rely on a thoroughly corrupt symbiosis of political power with the economy.
But isn’t this just traditional authortiarianism? No, argues Sadurski, because populist regimes respect at least one civil right of their citizens: that of participating in free, fair and regular elections. Indeed, populists are unlikely to fundamentally abolish free and fair elections because their whole legitimacy relies upon the claim to represent the People. But what sort of democracy do you have if there are no checks and balances which prevent the accumulation of all powers in the hands of one person?
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