What is populism? Some people simply define it as political opinions they don't like. Others go as far as to say populism is incompatible with democracy - and that populism must be fought in order to protect democracy...
---Ever since my days in Swedish politics, including a candidacy for the European Parliament in 1995, I have been puzzled by the term "populism". The name of the party I represented was, translated into English, "the popular democrats". Our agenda was to end broken government promises (in the wake of the Swedish depression in 1992-94) and bring democracy closer to the people.
We were accused of being "populists", a term that I have always had a hard time understanding. When I asked our critics what it meant to be a "populist" the standard answer I got was something like "you want what the people want". This, of course, as opposed to what the more established political parties wanted - which was apparently not in accordance with the will of the people...
Over the years, at least in Swedish politics, I have noticed a drift in the definition of populism. Today the term is simply used synonymously with "I disagree with your opinion": a politician who does not bother to outline his argument against the point of an opponent simply labels that argument "populist" and leaves it at that.
On a broader scale, across European politics the term has taken on a somewhat more coherent meaning. It is reserved for political parties and candidates who are somewhere along the scale from British patriotism embodied in Nigel Farage and his new Brexit party, to outright nationalists like Viktor Orban and Fidesz in Hungary.
Many people want to throw President Trump into that mix. He is in fact often portrayed as a populist in European media, being lumped together with Farage, Orban, Salvini in Italy, Polish and Swedish nationalists and sometimes even Marine Le Pen in France. I would never place Farage and Le Pen on the same scale - never - but that is a story for another day. The point is that all these politicians are sorted in under the same populist label. Little if any reflection is given to the term itself and its de facto meaning.
The underlying purpose, of course, is to portray patriotism and nationalism as something disagreeable, but there is also a deeper dimension to how it is used. Increasingly, pundits, analysts and even academic scholars are putting populism in contrast to democracy.
This is where things get interesting, as demonstrated by an essay in the Review section of the Wall Street Journal, the weekend of May 18-19. Larry Diamond, senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, does precisely that: portraying populism as the antithesis of democracy. Promoting his new book Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition and American Complacency, Diamond explains:
Only for the past quarter of a century has democracy been the world's predominant form of government. By 1993, the number of democracies had exploded to 77 - representing, for the first time in history, a majority of countries with at least one million people. by 2006, the number of democracies had ticked up to 86.
Before we continue, I have to briefly note Diamond's metric, which strikes me as arbitrary and even self-defeating. Population growth naturally changes his sample, making historic comparison impossible.
That, however, is beside the point that Diamond is driving at:
But we are now at a precarious moment. Democracy faces a global crisis. We have seen 12 consecutive years of erosion in global levels of political rights and civil liberties, with many more countries declining than gaining each year, according to the nonprofit group Freedom House. Over the past decade, one in six democracies has failed. Today only a bare majority of the world's larger states remain democracies.
We should be alarmed, should we not? If democracy is being rolled back, does that mean we are hearing dark echoes of Steufeltrampf and watching the brown shirts of yore once again conquer the world?
Not exactly. In fact, Diamond's analysis leads to the absurd conclusion that the problem is democracy itself, not some external theat to it. He gives away part of this point when he turns on President Trump:
America's own political decay is increasingly advanced. President Donald Trump has insulted U.S. allies, befriended Vladimir Putin, excused a grim list of other dictators, embraced nativist politics and movements, and shaken the post-World War II liberal order.
It may be excusable that Diamond has missed the pressure that Trump has put on North Korea and Venezuela. It may also be forgivable that he refuses to see how our president has put an end to China's free rein of economic theft through distorted "trade deals" and grand scale larceny of intellectual property. All that can pass as ignorance on behalf of Diamond, who is a former official of the US AID and now a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution.
What cannot be dismissed but must be attributed to scholarly shortcomings is Diamond's casual pinning of "nativist politics and movements" against the "liberal order".
Here, we find Diamond inhabiting the same pool of muddy rhetorical waters that my opponents in the 1995 EU election so eagerly waded into. He makes many splashes to give away his location. For one, after a review of democratization across the world Diamond missteps in referencing South Africa as a "robust democracy". If he raised his eyes beyond formal parliamentary institutions, he would note how epidemic corruption is bringing the economy to a standstill and how the justice system is collapsing in the face of rampant violence and a wave of racist attacks on rural farmers.
However, Diamond goes one better than that. Offering a startling definition of democracy, he raises his Jolly Roger in direct defiance of modus ponens itself:
But after 2006, three decades of [democratic] progress ground to a halt - and began to reverse. The key elements of this alarming deterioration have been the rise of illiberal, anti-immigrant populist movements in Europe in the U.S.; the steady decline in the quality of American democracy; and the surge in global power of Russia and China, which are avidly undermining democratic and liberal values around the world.
In other words, when a popular majority elects politicians who want to restrain immigration, they are acting anti-democratically. This remarkable conclusion is reinforced by Diamond's rant against "nativist politics" and "anti-immigrant populist movements". When the finances of local governments across Europe, from Greece to Italy to Germany to Sweden, are crumbling under the pressure of wave after wave of immigrants going on welfare; when people respond by voting for parties and politicians who want to put a brake on immigration until the pressure on the public purse has subsided; then Hoover Institution senior fellow Larry Diamond labels that voter choice anti-democratic.
And, apparently, nativist.
I could enlarge the list of epithets, but it is not necessary. The message is clear: only one set of opinions are approvable as liberal, and only liberal opinions can pass for democratic.
If you do not share the definition of liberalism that Larry Diamond and other anti-populists embrace, you are a democratic outcast.
To further obfuscate his argument, Diamond fails to offer a definition of liberal values. Hopefully, his book does, and I will be curious to read it, but already based on his defining democratic votes as un-democratic - try that in formal logic and win big money - Diamond elevates his liberalism above democracy. Since a parliamentary vote that puts immigrant skeptics in power are illiberal, he demotes democracy to an instrument for the perpetuation of his liberal values.
Democracy is conditional, acceptable if and only if its outcome is a specific brand of liberal. If not, democracy has failed.
This reminds me of the joke going around in Denmark after the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht treaty. After the Danish people rejected the European constitution (signed in the Dutch city of Maastricht, hence the name) they were asked to go to the polls again. The Danish government negotiated four exceptions unique to Denmark, then again put the treaty before the people in a new referendum - with a different outcome. I quickly lost count of my Danish colleagues and friends who joked about their democracy as being based on the premise "wrong answer, people, try again".
I, for one, do not believe in parliamentary democracy. I believe in the American constitutional republic. Parliamentary democracy precariously relies on popular majority as the final arbiter of what rights and liberties we all have. There are countless examples of how parliamentary democracy has failed liberty; we do not need to go as far as to the Egyptian elections that put the Muslim Brotherhood in power, but it does work as a good reminder of what it means to put too much faith in the parliamentary form of government.
Diamond, to his defense, seems to understand the limitations of parliamentary democracy. He gives this away in his concerns over "populism", but he then fuses together politicians and parties who respect and uphold democracy but oppose unrestricted immigration with despots and dictators who rise to power through popular vote.
You cannot be an ardent advocate of democracy and at the same time only accept part of its outcomes as democratic. Either you accept parliamentary democracy for what it is, and live with its consequences, or you acknowledge that liberty is too precious to be thrown to the winds of shifting majorities.
I, for one, prefer liberty. Therefore, I prefer the American constitutional republic. It restrains the ability of the majority to assault minorities and individuals in the name of democracy. The American constitutional republic guarantees individual freedom for every one of us, liberal or not. Even if a majority of the people would decide to repeal freedom of speech, the Constitution prevents them from doing so.
In fact, the very process to amend our constitution reflects this hard-line libertarian principle. Many parliamentary democracies permit outright rewriting of their constitution through just a couple of parliamentary votes; by contrast, our founding document requires votes by 99 elected chambers to make amendments - not even changes - to that same document.
In other words, Larry Diamond fails to ask the real question: is individual freedom making strides across the world, or is it being rolled back?
The answer would likely be different than Diamond's answer on democracy, but it would not be to his support. In fact, even assuming that his conclusion on the roll-back of democracy has merit, that does not mean democracy is a bulwark in defense of freedom. Consider, e.g., the proliferation of anti-speech laws in Europe. In Finland and Germany, political use of certain symbols and rhetoric are being outlawed and excluded from the freedom of expression; in Britain you can now be fined, theoretically even jailed, for using the wrong pronoun in reference to a transgender person; in both Britain and Sweden it is considered hate speech, punishable by law, to criticize islam.
Meanwhile, back here in the United States, the Supreme Court has consistently upheld the First Amendment and its universal application to all Americans, regardless of whether they are liberals or "populists".
Does that mean the First Amendment illiberal? I have no reason to believe that Larry Diamond thinks so. That said, in dichotomizing between democracy and populism, and in elevating some set of liberal values above the popular vote, he opens for the possibility that democracy and liberty can end up on different sides of his aisle of discernment.
That is worrisome.