Takis Pappas makes a mistake when he describes populism as a democratic illiberalism. It is natural to believe populism represents a perversion of democracy because it is based on popular support. Yet populism does not necessarily represent a majoritarian impulse. Donald Trump is widely recognized as a populist but failed to win the popular vote. Marine Le Pen lost in a runoff in the French Presidential Election. Populism is not the same as the politics of the majority.
Moreover, populism does not demand a greater reflection of majoritarian sentiment in public policy. As democracy continues to expand participation into the political process it risks the alienation of the political majority. The constant concessions and compromises within democracy are balanced against the demands of the political majority. Nonetheless, the majority finds despite their political strength they compromise and concede in order to engage smaller groups into the political system. It makes sense for a frustrated majority to demand a greater say in the political process after long periods of concessions.
But populism is not a majoritarian ideology. Hungary has become a nightmare within the European Union due to the rise of the Fidesz Party under the leadership of Viktor Orbán. Hungarian populism has led to the creation of a self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy.” Liberalism and Democracy remain an awkward marriage for many theorists. The traditional fears of the tyranny of the majority allow many to imagine and thereby accept the possibility of illiberal democracy. But Hungary’s illiberalism is a threat to its democracy. The new constitution of Hungary requires Cardinal Laws, that require a 2/3 majority, for a variety of legislative areas. Because Hungary has a unicameral legislature, the difference between a Cardinal Law and a Constitutional Amendment is a technicality. The previous Hungarian Constitution incorporated nearly as many Cardinal Laws. But the difference was the previous constitution assumed a supermajority required legislative consensus. The new Constitution was established in an environment where Fidesz already has a supermajority. They change the constitution at will without the need to incorporate or bargain with opposition political parties. It is easy to interpret this as simple majoritarianism. But Fidesz has not written a constitution meant to strengthen majoritarian principles but to entrench their political vision as a permanent public policy.
Because Cardinal Laws and Constitutional Amendments require a 2/3 majority to change, the Fidesz Party will not need to maintain control of Parliament to control public policy. As long as they maintain a 1/3 presence in Parliament, they will have an effective veto on a wide array of policies without much incentive to compromise. The Chávez administration in Venezuela won large majorities in elections, but it was not enough to represent the majority. Populism works to entrench its policies and leaders in power beyond their electoral mandates.
Populism is an ideology. It is an ideology of polarization. Democracy depends on a variety of stakeholders. This is the essence of pluralism. The supremacy of the law keeps institutions in check. Polarization centralizes the political debate into two sides. Rather than a variety of nuanced opinions who seek common ground, political debate is focused on two global perspectives. It marginalizes smaller interests into larger ideologies. Populism can arise from any political perspective. It is neither liberal nor conservative. Instead, it emerges out of the politics of polarization.
Electoral politics incorporate populist elements. They focus on political differences to win votes. But the difference is found in our principles. Liberal democracy demands a commitment to the political process. Policies become secondary to the rule of law and the democratic process. Populists risk the entire democratic process to achieve their goals. Because democracy becomes a secondary concern, its destruction becomes an inevitability rather than a possibility.
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