It is time to let go of the assumption that democracy always leads to progressive outcomes. The only certainties in a democracy are the ceaseless shifts in the balance of power as majorities rise and wane, and the constant prospect of change. By its very nature, democracy contains the risk of populism. But our democracies may be less fragile than we think, argues political theorist Nadia Urbinati.

Green European Journal: How has populism changed the way we do politics?

Nadia Urbinati: Each country has its own populist tradition. In Europe, for example, nativism is less prominent than in the United States, whereas nationalism is more prominent in Europe than in the US. But, in my view, the outcome of the trajectory of populism in government – that is, populism in power – is the verticalisation of representative democracy. Down with parliament, up with the executive. It also brings more corruption, because leaders need to secure the support of the various groups they claim to represent and promise to satisfy.

Furthermore, populism introduces an unpleasant new style into ordinary political language that leads to forms of verbal and emotional intolerance in the public sphere towards those who are not regarded as belonging to “the people”. In some countries, this may even translate into violence against both minorities and migrants coming from outside. This exclusionary logic and linguistic practice stifles opposition, and dissent more generally. It means radical majoritarianism and the humiliation of those who are in the minority – culturally and morally, as well as politically. This climate of intolerance can become hard to manage democratically. It prevents the use of reasoned discussion and deliberation among citizens to help them to define their views or change them.

In Me the People, you argue that populism in power remains a democratic form of government operating within the limits of constitutional democracy. In Europe, we sometimes hear that Hungary and Poland have taken definitive steps towards authoritarianism. What is your perspective on this?

If populists in power get the chance to change the constitution, they will change the constitution. Populists want to constitutionalise their majority, which is a paradox, because constitutionalism is normally a way of containing majorities. Instead, you have a strong majority that wants to assert itself in legal terms as the only legitimate people. Constituent power is thus a natural target for populists, as we have seen in several European countries. But that does not mean that the countries in which this happens are no longer democratic regimes. The majority may have become preponderant and even intolerant, but until the leader abolishes elections or the majority-minority divide to declare that there is only one true people, de jure and de facto, we are still in a form of a representative democracy, however unpleasant.

This “yes” and “no” relationship between populism in power and democracy is always problematic. In the US, the moment Donald Trump declared that the elections had been stolen and mobilised people to storm the Capitol, he became a bridge within democracy to another kind of regime. It was the moment when a democracy could turn. But only once it goes beyond that point. Although Hungary and Poland are hyper-majoritarian, they remain democracies. In Hungary, the national government is dominated by Viktor Orbán’s ruling party, Fidesz, but the opposition is achieving majorities in municipalities and local governments. There is still the prospect of a change in the majority. As long as that possibility remains, it is still a democracy.

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The Hungarian emergency pandemic law attracted widespread criticism for suspending elections and referendums. The law was eventually repealed but while it was in place, the suspensions were indefinite. Was that a temporary break with democracy?

Democracy is not a static system. Modern democracies are complex and articulated into procedures, institutions, and social and political intermediary bodies. If you remove or dislocate one internal component of democracy, you do not necessarily change the entire system. We should not forget that the system’s connection to society is also part of the picture. All these layers together constitute a democratic society and system; simply passing a new law or making an unpleasant decision is not enough to kill a democracy.

People are used to saying that democracy is fragile. I would prefer to say that democracy is stubborn in its fragility. Rather than fragile, democracies are elastic and possess an incredible ability to adapt and change. The Cold War made us think that liberal democracy is the only form of democracy, where democracy is popular power by majority rule and liberalism is the limitation of power by civil rights and the institutions protecting them. But this conception impoverishes democracy. Popular power by majority rule cannot exist without public conflict over and open participation in the making of that power. Democracy has political and civil freedoms built in because no majority is final, and people have full liberty to change their minds. Of course, this also means that we have conflicting forms of democracy and less pleasant forms of majorities. We should stop thinking that democracy is good because of its outcomes. Not everything democracy produces is good, and non-democratic regimes can deliver positive outcomes, as we see in some authoritarian East Asian countries. Democracy works because it is based on the premise that we can reverse decisions and remove those who make them without needing to dismantle the entire system. Until there is a suspension of the right to vote, or a suspension of freedom of expression and association, and as long as a political opposition exists and is vociferous, we are still in a democracy.

Rather than fragile, democracies are elastic and possess an incredible ability to adapt and change.

You have described a kind of “shadow fascism” within populism. What do you mean by that?

Fascism and populism share the overarching idea of the people being one with the nation and the people’s special relationship with the leader, a kind of religious or charismatic relationship – regardless of whether this charisma is real or not.

Fascist regimes were born as populist movements and developed in opposition to pluralism, parliamentarianism, and the fragmentation of leadership. But there is a crucial distinction: fascism does not want to face the risk of losing power and thus fascists abolish elections. Populists do not want to abolish elections and take away the risk of losing. They live for the electoral moment, the counting of the votes. They want to use elections as a celebration of those who are right against those who are wrong. Sometimes they fail and sometimes they win. Of course, there is the risk of crossing the Rubicon as Donald Trump did in January 2020. Populism presents the constant risk of fascism taking power, but is not itself a fascist regime.

Some scholars explain the rise of authoritarian populism as a cultural backlash from older generations or other groups who feel that their dominance is waning. In the long run, they argue, progressive, democratic alternatives will prevail. Do you agree?

I argue that the possibility of populism lies within representative democracy; it is not something external to it or even simply a result of dissatisfaction. People are always dissatisfied with their governments and mistrustful of the political establishment. After all, cyclical elections exist to prevent the political class from becoming an entrenched elite. In contrast, populism is a way of transforming the institutions and the basic foundations of representative democracy from within. Populism is not a regime in its own right, because it does not have its own institutions and procedures; it is parasitic on democratic procedures and institutions, especially majorities.

Populism sees the majority as the substance of democracy. It is not representation through competing visions or parties; rather the representation of the people as one through its leader. Representation becomes the embodiment of the people in the leader, which means that it is wholly indifferent to accountability and checks. This is more likely to be successful at certain times – especially in moments of crisis for representative institutions.

The possibility of populism lies within representative democracy; it is not something external to it.

Populism holds up a mirror to representative democracy. When pluralism isn’t working well, mobilising a majority is a response to the dysfunctionality of traditional political parties. It can also be a sign of societal problems that need to be resolved and may thereby open the door to positive change. Jürgen Habermas said that when ordinary working people no longer have an effective advocate on the progressive side, they turn towards leaders promising them what they need. Populism is a reflection of the decline of the Left today and, with it, the decline of a social conception of democracy that makes citizenship more than just a formal right to suffrage. Perhaps populism was different in the past – there is a more positive story of populism in late 19th-century America, for example. But today, in Western democracies based on political parties and parliamentary forms of deliberation, populism is a symptom of the lack of representation of the middle class, working class, and precarious workers. Instead of discourses on social justice and redistribution, they are attracted to discourses on national protectionism and the exclusion of immigrants and other minorities.

The audience is key to populism. Your book uses the term “audience democracy”. Do we live in audience democracies?

In many countries, yes. When political parties no longer act as a structuring force, the citizenry becomes an indistinct and disorganised public that acts as a judging tribunal rather than a source of alternative political programmes. A citizenry that simply reacts to the words concocted by smart leaders seeking popularity, and that exists as an undifferentiated entity without partisan lines, is a crowd that a leader can easily mobilise. The experience of Italy and many other European countries shows where a combination of weak parties and a loud media that shapes political opinions can lead. The media becomes a substitute for the parties, orchestrating the public. From party democracy to democracy of the public – this is the change in representation that populism brings to the floor.

The outcome is not necessarily negative, however. Podemos is a rather positive example, the Five Star Movement is another (although more moderate and in some ways the heir of the Christian Democrats in southern Italy). But there is also the Lega and Matteo Salvini’s quasi-fascist ideology. Parties in audience democracies present themselves as actors performing according to the public’s likes or dislikes. This is a significant shift. There is no longer a language of politics based on reasoned arguments or ideological framing, but a language of “I like” or “I dislike” with no real discussion. This is not a language of politics; it is a language of aesthetics.

How have countries in the grip of populism managed to break the dynamic?

Many people focus on the conditions and reasons for the success of populists. But the important question now is how we exit from populism. In the West, we see at least two developments that attempt to answer this question.

The first is the classical political party model. In the US, Joe Biden has responded to populism by rehabilitating and rejuvenating the political language of Right and Left, and of social justice. It is clearly different from Trumpist language, but it is also distinct from Obama’s because Biden is reviving partisan discourse and not looking for consensus from moderate Republicans. The Democratic Party – in part because it has listened to its left wing – is showing that good policies such as investing to create stable jobs are possible even when society is divided.

In Europe we see another model. The European response to populism is about stabilising the European Economic Area by drawing on its long experience of technocratic decision- making. As Carlo Invernizzi Accetti and Christopher Bickerton have shown in their book Technopopulism, there can be a conjunction between populism and technocracy. Not the demagogical and movement-based populism, but instead a kind of populism that wants to tame the myth of the unity of the people against parties using technocratic governance. Examples include Emmanuel Macron’s France and Italy under Mario Draghi. They promise to unite the people through a form of decision-making that is declared to be neutral and objective, with its outputs subject to measurement, monitoring, and evaluation. Economists and bureaucrats are to be the judges of success, not parties or partisan ideas. Technopopulism relies upon leadership rooted in governance and sets out to speak to the people with the assurance that its decisions are expressions of data, independent of views of justice. But the problem with technopopulism is dysfunctionality, not injustice.

Antonio Gramsci has been a source of inspiration for advocates of a progressive left-wing populism. Would it be fair to say that you interpret Gramsci as rather warning against populism and the domination of individual leaders?

Yes, Gramsci’s idea of hegemony has been interpreted in such a way as to transform his words into a theory of the strong leader. This is not Gramsci. Gramsci emphasised the rule of the collective and the party. We can be critical of his Leninist understanding of the party, but he never proposed transforming its logic into that of a leader unifying the people. That is precisely what fascism created: Mussolini created his movement using the rhetoric and myth of national unity against class divisions that brought together different post-World War I dissatisfactions, those of veterans, workers, and peasants. Gramsci opposed all of that. He supported the idea of a society densely populated by intermediaries: with associations, unions, cooperatives, and political parties. It is a rich society, not a simplified one, brought together by the struggle over how to run the country. It is therefore about collective leadership, not individual.

How will the pandemic affect the populist dynamic?

The pandemic will lead to a difficult situation. People are getting poorer and poorer. Because they are currently locked inside their homes we do not know the full extent of the problem, but some public demonstrations of discontent are already taking place. As soon as the situation evolves and people can resume their ordinary lives, we will see the extent of their despair. If we do not adopt the mentality of transforming states into public actors capable of providing concrete answers, creating better working conditions, and investing in public services – particularly healthcare and public education – the situation will become very risky.

Can this transformation also be a means to reinvigorate democracy?

I think we have the opportunity to recreate a new kind of welfare state. But it needs to be constructed. We cannot simply give Draghi, Macron, and other technocrats the freedom to do so, using their financial experts, bureaucrats, and scientists to determine what is good for us and what should be done. Democratic citizens are not recipients of policies devised by experts; they are not clients who judge according to the products they buy. The people and organisations themselves need to be brought into the process of participation. Without that, all you are left with is a managerial state.

Democracy requires people who are ready to act, not simply people who like having a good constitution.

So far, Biden’s United States is a good model of social democratic and ecological sensibility. The state is calling for active participation and decision-making in favour of those who are in untenable situations. Without this political project, populism would be rampant – and by populism, I mean the bad kind. So, there is a lot of room for emancipatory projects, participation, and political imagination. But we need to create the conditions for it, we need to want it, and give value to it. It will not come by itself. Democracy requires people who are ready to act, not simply people who like having a good constitution.

So democracy is as much about the substance as the form?

The Athenian Solon is often considered the father of democracy. After he was elected ruler in 594 BCE, Solon’s first act was to free the land by “shaking off the burdens”. He cancelled debts, freed the slaves, and gave them land. He then gave the Athenians a new constitution that granted them the right to participate in government. Why? Because he wanted the people to guard against a return to slavery. Though Athens was riven by factionalism, Solon did not want indifferent citizens but rather active participants ready to take sides. Democracy entails participating – that is, taking part and taking sides. The best way to pacify a society is not retreating from politics and handing over responsibility to experts or a single leader, but, in Aristotle’s words, “fighting and disputing vigorously for each side against the other”.

Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation
Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation

Between the progressive movements fighting for rights and freedoms and the exclusionary politics of the far right, this edition examines the struggle over democracy and representation in Europe today.

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