Bolsonaro, Johnson, Salvini, Trump. Erdoğan, Kaczyński, Le Pen. Modi, Orbán, Putin. Some of these global leaders are populists; some have authoritarian streaks; others are authoritarians using populism to consolidate power. Some will be booted out after their disastrous mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. Others will stay, and new ones will arrive.
Given the poor performance of many populist governments in dealing with the coronavirus, populism looks like it could be magically swept away. But such wishful thinking ignores the reasons for the rise of populism and its likely endurance. To rid the world of populism, its root causes must be addressed.
Europe’s Populism Problem Goes Deeper Than Its Many Crises
Many in Europe believe that populism came about because of external crises that have hit the continent over the past ten years. These include the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on the eurozone, which sparked displeasure with the euro and economic inequality, and the refugee influx of 2015 and 2016, which unearthed fears of identity loss and led to greater skepticism about the EU.
In short, EU scholars and policymakers assume that the EU’s success is tied to its performance. They reason that better policies and more efficient institutions will ensure that European and national politics can coexist smoothly. If populism is driven by economic grievances and fears of identity loss, it can be solved by creating more jobs and closing borders to reduce immigration.
This interpretation is wrong. The multiple crises have been a perfect storm for populists, true. But they did not cause the fundamental dissatisfaction that has rattled Europe and other democracies. People who vote for populist politicians do not usually care how well a particular policy performs. In fact, the populist politicians’ common claim—to embody the will of the people—eliminates the possibility that they could ever be wrong. So, populist leaders’ attacks on the elite are rarely questioned—even when they are part of that elite themselves.
How Populism Damages Democracy
Understanding the roots of populism is the first step toward identifying how to protect democracy.
First, populism is tied to the hollowing out of advanced democracies. Political elites have become estranged from voters after decades of declining participation in elections, in party membership, and in the civic activities that created links between the electorate and the government. These links once kept the government in check and forced politicians to pay attention to their responsibilities toward citizens. But today, political parties represent fewer societal interests and people, as membership has gone down. As the Irish political scientist Peter Mair perceptively explained, politics has created a void.
Populists have filled this void, bypassing the traditional institutions—from parliaments to newsrooms—that have always been the pillars of democracy. Technological advances have forced the news media’s business model into an existential crisis. Social media enables populists to engage directly with their base, without the mediation and interpretation of the press.
This dynamic plays out at the broader international level too. For years, mainstream political leaders in Europe have played the blame-Brussels game to whip up approval at home. Others have mimicked recklessly populist positions to survive an electoral contest. It is too soon to say whether these political actors and tactics will be successful in the long run. But now, their actions have eroded the institutional machinery of the EU, making it brittle and vulnerable.
In Europe, democracy can no longer be understood only at the national level. Nor can the EU expect to improve its democratic procedures by merely tweaking its institutions. Because governance is shared at many levels—local, national, and supranational at the EU level—nothing short of fixing the relationship between all these levels will solve the populist conundrum. Making local, national, and supranational governance more participative and accountable will lead to better responses to problems of inequality and identity.
Second, even if some populist leaders will be booted out through elections, populism is likely to survive the coronavirus because its right-wing variant has been extremely successful in shifting the entire political and ideological debate further toward the right. In some cases, it has captured center-right political parties. In the most extraordinary example of a traditional center-right defeating its own populist challengers, the UK’s Conservative Party adopted the anti-EU agenda of the then-UK Independence Party and led the country to leave the EU. In other cases, recently in Austria and Italy, the populist right made it into government and changed policies to its liking. But in most countries, it has simply influenced the public debate to the extent that centrist governments have shifted toward the right.
Europe Has a Populism Problem Across the Board
This is most evident in European migration policy, which has become illiberal, driven by a fear of losing national identity, and in breach of international commitments. But it can be seen in many other fields, from social policy to security and anti-terrorism. The governments of Hungary and Poland have systematically eroded the rule of law and fundamental rights. Yet curbs on press freedom and civil liberties have also been registered, such as France’s fight against terrorism and Italy’s push to restrict NGO activities helping refugees and migrants. The coronavirus pandemic is accentuating some of Europe’s problems in respecting fundamental rights.
The inability of the European center right to act as a gatekeeper of democracy is one of its greatest failures. The parties of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Polish Law and Justice Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński have managed to undo their countries’ democratic achievements with the complicity of European sister parties, who were supposed to keep their values and actions in check. In Poland, the victory of Andrzej Duda, thanks to a partisan media, will give the government led by the nationalist and ultra conservative Law and Justice Party more time to undo the independence of the judiciary, and unravel democracy in the country.
EU governance is undermined too. Populist leaders have discovered that they can easily achieve their goals by creating chaos. Populist governments have blocked consensus-building in the European Council, where the EU heads of state or government meet, not only on the trademark topics that keep them in power at home—such as resisting the relocation of asylum seekers—but also on other issues such as China’s abuse of human rights.
It is well known that divisions abound within the EU. Many predate the rise of populism, and vetoing tactics are nothing new. What has changed is that because populists have been successful in hedging against partners and holding political issues to ransom, others are copying them, often on matters of lesser importance. The goal is simply to sow discord, making the EU look weak, divided, and incapable of addressing its great challenges, from Chinese encroachment on European economies to transatlantic tensions.
Behind this dynamic is Europe’s broken democracy, unable to keep up with the transformations of the twenty-first century. So far, institutional reform has not worked. Populist politics pose deeper questions about legitimacy, representation, and political participation. Who are “the people?” Who decides? And for whose benefit?
Filling those voids meaningfully requires a total rethink of the relationship between the local, national, EU, and global levels of governance—instead of the top-down reform the EU has habitually pursued. Addressing this disconnect will be key to renewing the European project.
This article is part of Carnegie’s Reshaping European Democracy initiative.