Almost every country in the Western hemisphere has seen new, anti-establishment movements flaring up in the last decade. Most often described as ‘populist’, these movements have garnered first actual successes in several places in past years. Countries like Italy, Poland, and Hungary now have ‘populist’-only governments, while other parties and political leaders have established themselves as stable political forces in countries like Germany, France, Denmark and Sweden. Some others have already turned to clear authoritarian regimes, such as in Turkey and Russia. Perhaps most prominently, the US voted in a ‘populist’ as president in 2016 only months after a ‘populist’ referendum voted the United Kingdom out of the European Union.
What is so notable is that all these movements are generally considered in a homogenous way. All of them are ‘populists’, and all of them think the same. Very little effort will suffice, however, to see that this is not the case. Instead, these movements advocate for a wide range of policies, which is just one major reason why they have been unable yet to truly cooperate on an international level. The differences are indeed often so profound that it is wholly unclear why we speak of them all as one. What supposedly makes them all populists? What, indeed, makes one a populist in general?
In search of a definition
Many different definitions of populism are used in today’s political discourse; yet, it turns out, all of them are little more than empty words. The simplest definition derives itself from the populus, i.e., the people, in which these movements primarily talk to ‘the people’, most often railing against those in power, i.e., ‘the elite’.
Needless to say, this is true for almost all politicians in the world – it might actually be a precondition for political success if one is in opposition. One will always try to speak to the people, that is, the voters, the working class, the unemployed, the fixed income earner, or else one could immediately drop out of an election. And one will point to the failures of the current government to not only make the case for oneself, but also against those in power.
“Change is overdue,” one will say, “and that change has to be me.” And even when in power, one will always do one’s best to not be seen as a detached elite. This is necessary for continued legitimacy.
Another definition extends this to merely giving easy answers to complex issues. Donald Trump has often been accused of this, but yet again, are not all politicians guilty of this? In political campaigning, it will always be difficult to take all factors into account. Trying to convince someone in a short amount of time will mean portraying things to be easier than they really are. This is the art of pitching something knowing that others are not ready to read a thousand-page exposé on an issue.
Meanwhile, one of the most popular definitions has some more layers and is thus more complex, but this does not mean it is any more useful. John O’Sullivan described this ‘textbook account’ of populism in a National Review column as follows: “it supposedly describes a movement that is personalist, rooted in a leader-principle, hostile to the ‘regime of the parties,’ and based on blending Left and Right in a vague new synthesis.” But, as O’Sullivan also notes, under this definition, which is most commonly put forward by establishment politicians, Emmanuel Macron is surely the most successful populist in the world. His movement En Marche is still only a few years old and is built around Macron himself. It aimed to and was successful at disrupting the party duopoly of Républicains and Socialists, and it blended policies that were pro-market in some areas and on the more social democratic, centre-left spectrum, in other areas.
Yet, nobody has ever considered the French President a populist – instead, Brussels hailed his election as the end of populism. The reason is simple, according to O’Sullivan: “Brussels and the establishment opinion generally approve of his broad ideological tendencies, which embrace such familiar policies as multiculturalism, open borders, a banking union to underpin the Euro, and a kind of militant born-again Europeanism.”
This is, indeed, what the accusation of ‘populism’ amounts to: it simply means that this ‘populist’ movement or politician is fighting against the status quo. They are a danger for the establishment and so everything that is a threat to that needs to be badmouthed as much as possible. If someone is accused by the mainstream as a populist, it most often simply means that what this someone says is something the mainstream does not like.
Fighting liberal democracy
There is one final definition of populism that might be more helpful and encapsulates better what the issue is with many of these movements: it is that these movements are trying to roll back our liberal democratic institutions; that they are not only anti-establishment, but more importantly, against the system itself on which our world is built today.
Of course, the word ‘liberal democracy’ is another slippery term which has been heavily abused, especially today. But if we take the description of this system put forth by Alexis de Tocqueville, it encompasses “a love of liberty”, “respect for law” and “an ideas of rights”, as well as the possibility of free “association”. Or, to put it like Wilhelm Röpke, “liberal democracy is a source of freedom because it is liberal, that is, respectful of the individual’s right to liberty, and because it is, at the same time, democracy, that is, making government subject to the consent of those governed.”
This classical form of liberal democracy based on individual liberty, personal responsibility, the free market, free speech and press, and political decision-making close to people, where politicians can be held accountable, has been the formula which put the Western world on the path of success. It made “the miracle”, as Jonah Goldberg called it in his recent Suicide of the West, i.e. the immense increase in prosperity, possible.
While most of those that call themselves defenders of the liberal order today, most of those are, indeed, neither overly liberal nor democratic. The EU will be example enough, which has been focusing mostly on being protectionist, anti-business and -market, and a regulatory, bureaucratic machine in recent decades – so much for liberal – as well not being democratic, as countless democratic referendums around the continent have been ignored, while decisions have increasingly been made in a far-away capital.
And yet, while these ‘liberal democrats’ are fighting against liberal democratic principles, many of those we call ‘populist’ today are actually doing the same, just in a different way.
The problem with today’s populists
It is these ‘populists’ that become a problem, not because they have bad ideas – which they do, but because they want to reverse the system that we have all benefited from so mightily in the last decades and centuries. Under this definition, we will be able to exclude some of the movements, however. Politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Jair Bolsonaro, and parties like the German Alternative für Deutschland or Danish People’s Party surely should be attacked for many reasons – but accusing them of wanting to get completely rid of liberal democracy would be a lie.
Take the AfD as an example, which is often unfairly and revoltingly going against immigrants, but other than that – and with the exception of some loud party members, is defending the rule of law and the market economy, i.e. the foundations of the Western success story. No, the goals of these movements are not (necessarily) laudable. But they are not existentially dangerous either.
Then there are those that are actually defending liberal democracy from those pseudo-‘liberal democrats’ like the EU or the Washington machine. Brexit has been described as a ‘populist’ victory. Ron Paul certainly fulfilled all the definitions of populism. But Brexit, at least in theory (the practical side is still ongoing), was about reinstating liberal democracy once more, to return to freedom, sovereignty and local (or, for the moment, at least national) democracy.
Ron Paul was not fighting against the market economy. He fought for it against a regulatory machine that was slowly getting rid of it.
Who is a populist of the dangerous sort then? We might look to Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, which wants to put “France First” by letting the government fight against any outsiders, by protecting everything that is French, by abolishing what is left in France of a free economy. We can look to governments in Poland and Italy, which have been mostly incompetent in what they are doing, which has made the damage they have caused at least not catastrophic (yet), though it is still early. We can look at Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who started out as someone who did not dare to attack liberal democracy but ended up being the one who has been slowly abolishing it in Turkey.
The most prominent example is Viktor Orbán. While it is easy to sympathise with the Hungarian Prime Minister at first sight (as with most other populists) considering his attacks against the ‘liberal democrats’ of our day, when looking closer, it becomes clear that his is not only an attack on today’s ‘liberal democracy’, but the actual, classical liberalism, too.
In Hungary, the rule of law has been attacked over the years, putting the independence of the judiciary under threat. Crucially, the freedom of the press has been constrained immensely – at the end of 2018, hundreds of private news entities were donated to a company owned by acquaintances of Orbán. By some estimates, 80 percent of the media is now owned by people close to the government. This is similar to the economy in general, where corruption is becoming more prevalent, as Orbán has been setting up a quasi-oligarchy. Non-profits as well as universities and all kinds of other private organizations have been accused as being part of the ‘Soros Empire’, and, like in the case of the Central European University, driven out of the country.
Hungary is not the worst example – it is still very far away from locking up dissidents in thousands like in Turkey, Russia or even China. But it is a very visible and clear example of where the wrong kind of populism can lead to. It is one of centralisation, of more power and less accountability for those in power. Yes, it is correctly opposed to some of the excesses and dangerous parts of today’s multilateral, uber-internationalist ‘liberal democracy’ of supranational organisations, which is so often illiberal and undemocratic. But this is only because it wants to set up its own version at home, in one’s own country. Instead of attacking anyone criticizing the status quo and the establishment of today, it is this kind of authoritarian populism that should truly be attacked more than ever.
Kai Weiss is a research fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Hayek Institute.