Populism and Liberal Democracy Podcast #5

Takis Pappas explains his theories of populism and liberal democracy. He uses comparative analysis to establish a theoretical context. Before this conversation was recorded, Justin Kempf wrote a reflection on his recent book Populism and Liberal Democracy

Takis Pappas

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Populism as Illiberal Democracy

A lot has been made about Viktor Orbán. Indeed, some have argued too much has been made about him. He has drawn a disproportionate amount of influence for a leader of a country of less than ten million people. It is less than half the size of Shanghai which is just one of six cities in China larger than the population of Hungary. A better comparison for Americans is probably New York City. Its official population is about eight million so a little less than Hungary, but its greater metropolitan area is over eighteen million. The Hungarian economy is slightly larger than Kazakhstan and Ukraine but less than Algeria and Iraq, none of which are economic powerhouses.

Yet Viktor Orbán has captured the imagination of scholars as he has challenged Europe with his brand of illiberal democracy. Perhaps it is not so much anything his government has done so much as his open antagonism to liberalism. In 2014 he declared, “The new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” Of course, this was not a warning of his intentions but a recognition of the direction he had already taken. His government had already rewritten his country’s constitution, undermined its judiciary and begun its assault on the press, but this speech brought his larger intentions into the open.

Fareed Zakaria had written about “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” in 1997. It was an Ockham’s Razor moment for democracy scholarship. He saw how liberalism had become detached from democratization. The preference of American foreign policy for democracy had begun to undermine liberalism. He felt the United Stated needed to prioritize liberalism and constitutionalism even if that meant the support of nondemocracies. Zakaria believed the rise of illiberal democracy was worse than the development of undemocratic liberalism.

Liberalism and Democracy

The tension between liberalism and democracy is long established. Samuel P. Huntington saw how the process of Westernization inevitably led toward democratization. Yet democratization brought to power new leaders who were often opposed to Westernization. Huntington referred to this as the paradox of democracy, but it is more aptly a paradox of westernization. Indeed, the ideals of democratization and the realities of its application create a tension in liberalism. The Arab Spring was the most recent example of this phenomenon where Egyptian elections brought to power new leaders who were closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. The subsequent military coup consequently had the support of many liberals who had championed democratization.

Takis Pappas has established a larger theoretical construction for the role of illiberalism within democracy. For Pappas, democratic illiberalism is populism. He uses them interchangeably. But he breaks from Zakaria noticeably in his refusal to acknowledge the possibility of liberalism outside of democracy. This framework establishes populism as a midpoint between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Populism, for Pappas, retains elements of democracy but flirts with authoritarianism. This makes it inherently unstable. And it becomes easier to cross the line into authoritarianism than to resurrect a genuine liberal democracy.

Is Populism Democratic?

It helps to reflect on the nature of democracy to understand what Pappas has described in his notion of populism. Over the years, democracy has been defined and redefined as expectations have evolved and changed. Pappas largely embraces the Schumpeterian concept of democracy as the “competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” This has become synonymous with the presence of competitive elections. Levitsky and Way have challenged this notion with the concept of competitive authoritarianism. Indeed, political scientists have begun to recognize the presence of competitive elections does not guarantee they are free nor fair. Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas have gone further in their analysis of the different ways that elections are rigged or manipulated. So, Pappas casts a wide net, compared to other scholars, in his definition of democracy. He recognizes illiberalism undermines the quality and performance of governance but recognizes “poor-quality democracies are still democratic.”

And there is a critical flaw in the analysis of Levitsky and Way that undermines the framework of competitive authoritarianism. The presence of elections is described as a necessary compromise by would-be dictators. But many populists embrace elections. Their illiberalism is justified through success at the ballot box. For example, Juan Perón did not simply accept elections as an unfortunate necessity. Pappas argues Perón had the opportunity to seize power undemocratically but preferred the electoral process. It is through elections where populist leaders channel their charismatic energy to establish a connection directly with the people. In contrast, nondemocratic leaders, like Hitler, may have charisma but their aim is to remove people from their role in governance.

Charismatic Leadership

Charisma becomes a fundamental component of populist governance. Without charisma, populist governance turns authoritarian. For example, Pappas notes how the ordinary leadership of Maduro in Venezuela was unable to maintain the relationship between the president and the people that Chávez established. The difference in leadership made the transition from illiberal democracy to authoritarianism inevitable. But charismatic leadership is hard to define. Carl Friedrich broke down some of the problems in its classification. First and foremost, it has been used to label any form of successful political leadership. Friedrich noted how leaders as diverse as Churchill and Roosevelt have been described as charismatic alongside Hitler and Mussolini. The outcomes of charismatic leadership were monumentally different.

Pappas tries to distinguish between charismatic and ordinary leadership through examples. He refers to Angela Merkel as the archetype of ordinary leadership. She has held onto power for over a decade but lacks the charismatic energy of Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán. Yet it is unfair to say she lacks any charisma. David Cameron has described the first time he saw her. She was at a rally where she approached a podium with the Rolling Stones’ song “Angie” announcing her arrival. It does not sound dry or “ordinary.”

Charisma in Democracy

Indeed, there is something charismatic about every leader in a democracy. It is a necessary component of their support and eventually their success. Margaret Canovan’s idea of “the two faces of democracy” recognizes how democratic governance relies on a redemptive role for the people. Leaders in a democracy use their charisma to establish a relationship with their supporters to become a symbol as an expression of their voice.  

But there is a fundamental difference between charismatic power among liberals and populists. Liberals use their charisma to reinforce the institutions and norms of liberal democracy. George Washington walked away from power after two terms. His decision established a precedent of term limits for executive power not just in the United States but Latin America as well. Thomas Jefferson repealed the Alien and Sedition Acts and welcomed the freedom of the press. Populists, on the other hand, double down on their relationship with their supporters to transcend political institutions and norms. They redefine institutions to enhance their own power and diminish the role of those designed to hold them accountable.  

Populism as Democratic and Authoritarian

Nonetheless, there is something fundamentally democratic about the populist phenomenon. Populism finds a way to include people who feel disenfranchised back into the democratic process. Indeed, democracy is about more than elections. It is more than inclusive participation. Democracy requires a degree of inclusion into the actual process of governance. This means diverse views are recognized and different perspectives are considered. Populism brings new voices back into the process of governance. But populism is also authoritarian because its form of inclusion depends on the exclusion of others. Pappas is right when he says populism straddles the line between democracy and authoritarianism. But it is about more than their participation in elections. Their philosophy of governance depends upon elements of democracy and authoritarianism.

Takis Pappas offers a new lens to examine populism within the context of democratic governance. He uses extensive examples to demonstrate its roles inside the bounds of democracy and its temptations to evolve into authoritarianism. But his biggest contribution is the recognition of populist governance as a form of democratic governance. Others have made this point, but Pappas has constructed a larger framework to make his point. He goes in-depth into multiple examples including an unparalleled examination of Greek populism. And ties these examples back to his larger conceptual framework in the end. Nonetheless, Pappas does not embrace populism as a realization of democratic ideals. He considers it fundamentally unstable. It represents the bridge where the demos can cross from democracy into autocracy and dictatorship.

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