4 ways populists are jeopardizing democracy

In 1954, Richard Hofstadter, the eminent American historian of modern conservatism, asked a provocative question about his era’s assault on progressive and left-wing ideals, known as McCarthyism: Where did this extremism come from?

He argued in a celebrated essay that even the prosperous, post-Second World War United States was not immune to the radicalism of authoritarian populism. The so-called Red Scare of the 1950s was “simply the old ultra-conservatism and the old isolationism heightened by the extraordinary pressures of the contemporary world.”

Seven decades later, Hofstadter’s words ring true again. Conservative movements are always fighting a rearguard action against modernity by falsely claiming to protect society from progressives who trample traditional values and sneer at the forgotten men and women who embrace them.

Paranoid politics

With so much money and power behind it, this paranoid style of politics — with its enemies lists, demonization of opposition leaders and often violent language — has gone mainstream.

Conspiracy theories are no longer a stigma discrediting those who trade in salacious innuendo. Even mainstream politicians are now peddling them.

But is there anything to fear from the red-hot rhetoric of the paranoid style of politics? Some argue these circumstances are cyclical.

In Hofstadter’s time, after all, American conservative politics turned away from fringe radicalism following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. The following year, Lyndon Johnson defeated right-wing Republican insurgent, Barry Goldwater in one of the largest landslides in U.S. history.

But the crisis we face today is bigger in scale and scope. It’s been whipped to a frenzy by political leaders who seek to profit from the chaos that it incites via social media.

Populism was supposed to bring government closer to the people, but it actually places the levers of power squarely in the hands of authoritarians. Here are four ways populism has turned poisonous and poses existential threats to democracy:

1. The shrinking middle ground

Democracy without compromise erodes popular sovereignty by fragmenting the electorate and eliminating meaningful compromise.

We are now in a world of zero-sum political contests, with a shrinking middle ground. Conservative parties often force extreme referendums to maintain their grip on a deeply divided electorate.

Election campaigns have become dangerous contests over wedge issues designed to deepen cultural divisions using social media.

We saw this with Brexit as Boris Johnson and other populists stoked fears about immigration and Europeans. Donald Trump did it well with attacks on immigrants. Republicans are now doubling down on the abortion issue, even though they’re facing pushback from some state legislatures and governors.

In Canada, Alberta’s Premier Danielle Smith, whose United Conservative Party has been newly re-elected with a majority, has focused on demonizing her opponents and has allegedly engaged in anti-democratic conduct in her months as premier.

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2. The working class isn’t benefiting

Identity politics isn’t empowering working people because the politics of revenge doesn’t fix structural problems.

Nevertheless, conservative parties around the world are marketing themselves as parties of the working class.

Populists recognize the working class is essential to their success at the national level because of the “diploma divide” that now separates right and left.

There is a strong correlation between lacking a college diploma and supporting nationalist conservative movements at election time.

Graduates listen during a convocation ceremony at Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, B.C., in May 2022.

It used to be that working people recognized education as a path to prosperity. But massive tuition increases in the U.S., in particular, have betrayed the promise of universal access to a college degree.

Tuition fees are also heading in the wrong direction in the U.K., Canada and Australia. Education now reinforces class divisions rather than breaking down barriers to a better life.

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3. The rich and powerful direct the chaos

Populism was supposed to empower people outside the corridors of power, but talk of retribution against liberal elites normalizes calls for political violence — always a bad thing.

In a war of all against all, it’s not the wealthy who lose. It’s ordinary, hard-working citizens.

Furthermore, once a lust for vengeance takes hold in the general public, it’s almost always being directed by elites with money and power who benefit financially or politically from the chaos.

A woman wearing a 'team trump' cowboy hat carries an american flag. Behind her rioters confront police wearing riot gear.
Violent protesters loyal to Donald Trump try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

4. Assaults on the rule of law

Authoritarian leaders have gained unprecedented institutional legitimacy by building successful movements based on fantasies of blood and soil. The paranoid style of politics has entered a new phase with a full-spectrum assault on the rule of law — from inside government.

Populists are lying when they argue they want to empower the rest of us by divesting judges of their authority to oversee democracy. They really want to breach the strongest constitutional barrier against authoritarianism.

Look at the situation in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist coalition seeks to destroy judicial checks and balances and allow the country’s parliament to overrule its Supreme Court, a move that would ease the prime minister’s legal woes.

Netanyahu has been charged with corruption and influence peddling.

Trump’s attempts to undermine the legitimacy of judges are equally self-serving. As he runs again for president, he’s already telegraphing his violent desires, promising pardons for the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.

A sea of blue and white Israeli flags during a protest.
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan outside the parliament in Jerusalem in March 2023.
(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The road ahead for populists

The political dial is already spinning. The defeats of Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro don’t represent absolute rejections of their movements.

Despite an indictment for alleged financial crime and being found liable for sexual abuse in a civil case, Trump is still the 2024 front-runner.

Read more:
Why populism has an enduring and ominous appeal

We can’t count on an easy institutional fix, like a grand electoral coalition to push the populists off the ballot.

A grey-haired round-faced man in a suit waves.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban greets cheering supporters during an election night rally in Budapest, Hungary in April 2022.
(AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Opponents of Hungary’s Viktor Orban formed a united front to oppose him in the country’s 2022 elections. But Orban was re-elected in a vote widely derided as free but not fair.

Opposing coalitions are an uncertain strategy in most cases, and they don’t work at all in two-party systems. There is in fact no obvious electoral strategy for defeating populism, especially now that the far right has hacked the system.

Red lights flashing

We can no longer view elections as contests between the centre-right and centre-left in which undecided voters make the difference between victory and defeat. Nor can we count on the right to step back from the abyss of culture wars. We can’t even say for certain that the populism will recede in the usual cyclical manner.

Only decisive rejection can force the right to abandon anger and grievance, but voters are not yet turning their backs on the paranoid populists. It will take a lot of strategic ingenuity to beat them. And it will get harder to do so as they rig the game with rules designed to disenfranchise people who are young, poor or racialized.

All citizens can do is offer is constant, concerted pushback against the many big lies told by populists. It’s never enough, but for the time being, it’s the only way forward.

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