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Is Populism a Threat to Democracy?

Mitsuo Koga
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Political science

What is Populism?

In recent years, a political ideology called populism is growing in popularity around the world. Politicians representing this trend include Donald Trump, the President of the United States, and Marine Le Pen, the President of the National Rally political party of France. In attempts to identify what is causing this trend, the accumulation of research into populism has rapidly increased, and new theories are being presented on a daily basis.

However, despite all the attention it has been receiving, experts have not been able to reach a consensus on what exactly populism is. In fact, the debate around whether populism is an ideology that encompasses a consistent value system, as the suffix "ism" would suggest, or if it is a political methodology is not a settled matter among experts. Because of this, although there is largely an agreement on the question of who is a populist, the term itself is defined loosely, and the basis for the arguments being made varies depending on the person making the point.

What are the Problems with Populism?

Along with the definition of populism, the impact of populism has been a major subject of debate in recent years. On one hand, some are emphasizing the danger that populism poses on democracy due to the politics of xenophobia espoused by President Trump and by Prime Minister Orbán of Hungary, and the authoritarian tendencies of these leaders. On the other hand, there are those who argue that, while these concerns are valid, the problem lies in the institutional fatigue of the existing political systems, and that populism is a self-reforming mechanism, or an engine of reform.

Those who express concerns about populism criticize the movement as a way of pandering to the masses, by catering to their simple demands based on irrational thinking and anti-intellectualism. This argument does have a degree of persuasiveness, as we see actual populist politicians making nonfactual claims at times to sow fear into the public, identify an enemy that is easy to understand and fan the flames of division.

However, these methods cannot be said to be unique to populism. Sadly, during elections many powerful political figures adopt the method of showing contempt for the opposition in attempts to expand their base of support. Furthermore, the rhetoric behind the phrase "pandering to the masses" is not only seen as a way of disparaging the general electorate as ignorant masses of people, but it is also an expression that can invite the misunderstanding that the experts, or the elites, are infallible beings in certain fields. People who are experts in certain fields actually understand that no matter how narrowly you define the scope of any given subject, there are limits to expertise, and the complex and multifarious nature of real-world social problems are such that solutions cannot be created through their own limited expertise. In fact, it's the people who feel that they are all-powerful due to their specific type of expertise that are fit to be called "the masses" in disparaging ways.

Is Populism Synonymous with Democracy?

If we exclude the actual populists we see today, and think of populism purely as an ideology, wouldn't it actually have much in common with democracy? Let's say that populism as an ideology is the idea that the will of the public is the only legitimate source for political decision-making. This theory is similar to Rousseau's idea of the general will, and is an embodiment of the ideal of public sovereignty. This ideology would validate many of the arguments made by modern-day populists, such as the idea that the political figures who win elections have the right to decide everything, and that political decision-making is ultimately all decided at the ballot box.

One way to discern where the problems lie in this philosophy is to analyze ideologies that have much in common with the ideals of democracy, while differing from populism. One ideology that conflicts with populism is constitutionalism. In many countries, independent judicial branches of the government have the right of judicial review, meaning that even if the legislative branch unanimously approves of a law, if that law is in violation of the constitution, it can be nullified. Judges are not elected by the public, and do not always reflect the will of the people. At first glance, this system may seem contrary to democracy. However, the core of a healthy democracy is respect for rights of individuals, including the freedom of thought, creed, and speech. Therefore, securing certain perimeters where decisions cannot be made by majority vote is actually a mechanism that protects democracy. The independence of central banks and the system of evaluations by expert coalitions on regulations regarding food safety and environmental issues are different in scale, but are based on a similar idea.

In addition, while decisions made by public opinions should be respected, there is an argument to be made in opposition to the tacit understanding by populists that there already is a public opinion that is monolithic in nature. For example, there are systems like interest group pluralism that is based on the premise that a diverse range of interests exists, where people freely organize coalitions and aim to build consensus through competition and cooperation. There are also systems that operate under the premise that the public opinion is something that is in constant flux, where efforts to build consensus through debate are emphasized. Deliberative democracy is one system based on this idea, and parliamentary democracy is a system that was originally created in order to actualize this endeavor.

The Threats Posed by Populism

Of course, the environment that has allowed populists to gain so much support flourished in part due to the fact that existing political systems, including representative systems, have lost the support of many people. If populism is a philosophy that espouses the idea that the public opinion is the only thing that matters, and that all decisions should be made at the ballot box, it would mean that it strongly emphasizes the most important component of democracy, while grossly underestimating the other components. This way of thinking is a threat to the core ideals of democracy. Specifically, populism has a tendency to underestimate the mechanism that prevents the degradation of individual rights even through elections and majority vote in legislative assemblies, especially with regard to freedom of speech and equality under the law.

In order to define what populism is, we must first consider what exactly democracy is. Maintaining the ability to critically assess existing political systems while reaffirming the ideas behind those systems will prove to be a key strategy in confronting populism.

Mitsuo Koga
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Political science

Mitsuo Koga was born in Tokyo in 1978. He graduated from the University of Tokyo Faculty of Law in 2003. He graduated from the University of Tokyo Graduate Schools for Law and Politics in 2010. He is a Doctor of Law (University of Tokyo). He assumed his current post in 2016 after teaching as an assistant professor at the Rikkyo University College of Law and Politics and as a full-time lecturer at the Faculty of International Politics and Economics, Nishogakusha University. He is an expert in comparative politics and its history. He conducts comparative research on radical right-wing and left-wing populist movements in the West, with a focus on political parties, especially the Freedom Party of Austria. Recent publications include Hoshu no Hikaku Seijigaku (Comparative Politics of Conservatism) (Iwanami Shoten, 2016) (edited by Jiro Mizushima) and Daitoryosei-ka no Hikaku Seijigaku (Comparative Politics of Presidentialization) (Minerva Shobo, 2019) (edited by Masahiro Iwasaki), both of which were co-authored.