Prof. Pappas: We need creative leaders with realistic agendas against populism

Caricature of Italian politicians Beppe Grillo, Matteo Renzi and Matteo Salvini in carnival parade of floats and masks, on January 2018 in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy. Photo: Kokophotos.

Professor Takis Pappas: “I think that exactly as populism begins with some extraordinary leaders with radical ideas about how to reconstitute democratic societies, the liberal recovery requires creative leaders with realistic agendas of how to renew the liberal institutions and make them fit for contemporary political realities.”

Interview by Erdem Kaya   

Challenging ahistorical definitions Professor Takis Pappas, who is a professor and an associate researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and works for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Populism and Civic Engagement”(PACE), views modern populism as a phenomenon emerging against political liberalism in the post-war Europe and the Americas. Pappas referring to a minimalist definition of democracy takes modern populism simply as “illiberal democracy” which stands as an unstable category between liberalism and autocracy. Pappas designed a causal model based on a detailed comparative analysis of prominent cases to develop a theoretical explanation of modern populism. In his perspective, in order to counter populist politics, we need creative leaders with realistic agendas as well as the adaptation of liberal institutions to present-day political realities of the democratic world. 

The following is the excerpts from the interview. 

Your research underlines the necessity of the clarification of the basic concepts and exposes the conceptual and methodological errors in populism literature. To begin with, how do you outline the common problems within the growing literature on populism?

The literature on populism has grown fast but also in a haphazard way. As a result, the concept of populism is being stretched to a breaking point. It was several decades ago that Margaret Canovan, among others, warned that, the more flexible this concept would become, the more tempted political scientists and others would be to label “populist” anything that doesn’t fit into previously established categories. This is what has actually happened. Today, “populism” is everywhere and almost everything is “populist.” 

This highly problematic situation has two main causes: On the one hand, there is in the generic literature of populism a tremendous lack of empirical knowledge about the cases classified as populist and, on the other hand, there is by now a very large number of attributes, or features, that are commonly attributed to populism while in reality they are quite common in other political phenomena, as well. 

What is, therefore, necessary in order to get out of such an impasse and be able to make useful and meaningful theoretical propositions, is to first focus on the core properties that are unique to the concept “populism” and, second, to acquire detailed historical and political knowledge of the cases that fit the definition of the concept and, therefore, ought to be classified as populist.

Populism Is Time- and Space-specific

Your argument specifies the concept of populism focusing on post-war Europe and the Americas as a spatiotemporal realm instead of searching for a timeless, one-size-fits-all definition. Can you please unpack your approach and explain the rationale behind it?

Populism, like all other political phenomena, is time- and space-specific. Think about “democracy” and how this concept applies in three different spatiotemporal settings: ancient Greece, 19th century Europe, and our own times in still early 21st century. The concept is the same but the ways it materializes across historical eras and places is entirely different. The same happens if you try to compare the populism of, say, the Gracchi brothers in the late Roman republic, the 17th century Levellers in England, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In more than one senses, all three are expressions of a generic populism. So what? To study them comparatively is as meaningless as studying together ancient Greek democracy and, say, Germany’s post-war and contemporary democracy! 

What my work brings into focus, instead, is modern-day populism. More specifically, my interest in populism stems from, and addresses, a real historical and political puzzle, namely, the transformation of post-war liberal democracies into populist ones. I ask why, and how, certain societies with a previous liberal tradition may allow into power populist leaders who subsequently establish illiberal democratic regimes. Obviously, my work finds empirical resonance precisely in those countries in which liberalism became established, however feebly, in the aftermath of World War II. With no exception, those countries are to be found either in Europe or in the Americas.

Modern Populism Is Synonymous to Illiberal Democracy

Your definition of modern populism as “illiberal democracy” and “the rejection of liberal democracy” is quite straightforward. Modern populism is still democratic and not autocratic though it is clearly against the liberal canon. But you also take populism as an unstable category in the liberalism-autocracy spectrum. When does a populist party cross the Rubicon and cease to be democratic in this spectrum? Should we then drop the title of populism for nondemocratic autocracies, such as the Orbán government in Hungary?

My theoretical work hinges on just two pairs of clearly defined opposites: democracy vs. nondemocracy and liberalism vs. illiberalism. Now, if you agree with me that modern populism is synonymous to illiberal democracy, then we end up with only three basic political systems, or regimes: liberal democracy, illiberal democracy, and autocracy. In this view, populism stands midway between democratic liberalism and the rejection of democratic pluralism. Which way it will go eventually depends on a large variety of reasons including structural and agentic factors, external crises, and other conjunctural events. 

Telling when a party passes from one type to another is easy when we have clear and easily operationalized definitions of the basic political systems. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, for instance, which was conceived as a populist force under the leadership of Hugo Chávez has in more recent years transformed into an authoritarian party under its current leader Nicolás Maduro. Quite the opposite is, for instance, the case of Greece’s PASOK—a classic populist party that in more recent years (and amidst the financial crisis that befell on that country in the early 2010s) recast itself as a liberal force. There are many other similar cases.

In your recently published book, Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis you argue that extraordinary or charismatic leadership plays a prominent role in the populist emergence. What does it take to be a successful populist leader in the first place?

Indeed, I know no case of successful populism that is not being led by a leader with charismatic qualities. To put it in a nutshell: No charisma, no successful populism. In contrast to ordinary, non-charismatic leaders whose rule is rather impersonal and procedural, charismatics display two different characteristics—the personal nature of their authority and the radicalism of the political goals they seek to achieve. Accordingly, I understand, and define, political charisma as a distinct type of legitimate leadership that is personal and aims at the radical transformation of an established institutional order. Under this definition, charismatic leaders are not identified as such by their electoral success, which would make for a tautological analysis, nor by any physical or personal characteristics, such as physical height, oratorial skills and the like. 

My definition of charisma requires leaders combining two characteristics: full personal authority and radical political aims. Come to think of it, this type of authority is both extraordinary and rare. For, in the reality of ordinary politics, most parliamentary democracies are ruled by collective decision-making processes in the pursuit of moderate and piecemeal reforms, not radical change. But then, when I looked at my cases of populism, I realized that, with no single exception, all had emerged out of extraordinary leadership action. Most typically, the charismatic populists have had founded their own parties (or, as in the case of Trump, taken full control over existing ones) and, by exercising full control over the party organizations, used them as their means to radically change liberal democratic systems into illiberal ones. 

Populist and Nativist Parties Constitute Different Classes

In your studies, you argue that nativism is often conflated or inaccurately identified with populism. What is the difference between nativism and populism

This question of yours takes us back to the quest for empirical data. Try to compare factually, for instance, Denmark’s Progress Party and Hungary’s Fidesz. Both parties are often classified as “populist.” But what makes them similar? The question is apparently rhetorical for the differences far exceed any similarities those parties may have. Simple comparison of the cases easily reveals that populist and nativist parties constitute different classes which should not be kept analytically separate. Populist parties depend on charismatic leaders, tend to develop in flawed liberal democracies and, when in office, pursue comprehensive illiberal political agendas. In contrast, nativist parties are mostly led by ordinary (non-charismatic) leaders, grow particularly strong in Europe’s most politically advanced and economically strong liberal democracies, aim at specific policies rather than entire political system overhauls, and, interestingly enough, have never won power singlehandedly. There are several other differences between populist and nativist parties, which I have presented in booksarticles but also in simple infographic form.

Your research on the theoretical and comparative study of populism fills a critical gap in the literature. What do you think is the main challenge in theorizing populism?

The real challenge is to understand what causes populism and how it then afflicts our liberal democratic systems. There are several gaps in our knowledge which my work tries to fill in logical order. You see, to establish causality, we need to do meticulous empirical research on the significant cases of populist occurrence. But to do so, we must previously have selected the cases carefully and organized them into coherent classificatory system. But this is a far from easy task, especially when our definitions are unclear and ambiguous. 

Everything Begins with a Charismatic Leader

You developed a causal model for the theoretical explanation of the populist emergence. How does your causal model work?

Yes, I have developed a model including the causal chain of populism informed by the detailed comparative analysis of significant cases over long periods of time. It is based on the interplay of three factors: political structures, individual agency, and the activation of micro- and meso-mechanisms that are absolutely necessary to produce the populist outcome. Everything begins with a charismatic leader who emerges against major crises of democratic legitimacy, often involving the collapse of entire party systems. That leader then is able to activate a chain of mechanisms including the politicization of resentment, the forging of “the people” as an inclusive social category, and active social mobilization against established constitutional legality. It is interesting to see how similarly this model works in ostensibly dissimilar countries with strong populism such as Italy and Venezuela or the United States and Hungary.

There is also the political significance element you refer to. You do not choose Japan or Australia as negative cases where populism has not turned into a major political force though these are liberal democracies. What makes Brazil and Spain negative cases and different from Japan and Australia?

Japan and Australia (which, not unimportantly, are island nations) are solid liberal democracies with no populism worthy of serious consideration. But Spain and Brazil present an altogether different but very interesting puzzle. Given the strong populism in other countries in their respective neighborhoods (Italy and Greece in Southern Europe, Argentina in Latin America) why did populism come so late in Spain and Brazil? Remember that the Spanish PODEMOS was founded as late as 2014 and had never had the success of contemporary populist parties in Greece or Italy. As of Brazil, it remained paradoxically free of populism at least until the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro in the presidency of this country. In my book, I dedicate separate chapters in each of these two countries trying to address this paradox. 

The historical phenomenon of modern populism in your perspective excludes the varieties of populism in non-Western parts of the world where liberal democracy has not turned into an overall political tradition. There are flawed but functioning democracies such as South Africa, India, Mongolia, South Korea that are outside Europe and the Americas but definitely meet Przeworski’s minimalist definition. Do you see a possibility to extend the comparative study of populism to include the non-Western cases where there is a steady progress towards liberal democracy

My research focus is, indeed, on western-type democracies that have already experienced modern liberalism but made a switch from liberal democracy to populism. My interest does not extend, therefore, to states which, even if they allow elections, lack any liberal tradition. Russia and Turkey are such representative cases. Also here belong the various pre-liberal faulty democracies examined by Fareed Zakaria in his 1997 essay on the rise of illiberal democracies. With the exception of South Korea, the other cases that you mention would belong in this group of non-western and non-liberal countries along with the cases mentioned by Zakaria including Belarus and Kazakhstan, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, the Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan, the Palestinian National Authority and Haiti. 

Liberal Democracy Needs to Remodel Itself

Liberal democracy in the post-war period has spread and gained global acceptance under the US hegemony. So, in a similar way, how do you think a possible unraveling of democracy in the US would affect of the fate of liberal democracy in the Western world?

Unsurprisingly, populism tends to grow strong where liberal democracy becomes weak or inefficient. After decades of continuous self-advancement and expansion, liberal democracy has reached a point at which it needs to remodel itself. Institutions need both to be respected and become more congruous with new social realities, including identity politics; politicians must find new ways for achieving consensus on critical issues rather than serving polarized policies; and markets also have to become more controlled by benevolent states intent to fend off inequalities. Populist leaders, like Trump and his political kin, thrive precisely in environments of institutional inefficacy, political polarization, and economic inequality. In such situations, liberal democracy may indeed unravel, as it happened in the US under Trump’s presidency. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was during his presidency that some of the biggest countries in the world—including India, Brazil, Turkey—saw their electoral democracies deteriorate and even turn to authoritarianism.

And, as my last question, I am wondering how you would define the best way to counter populist politics. Do you think “liberal mind” or liberal democracy the only antidote to modern populism?

Populism is not inevitable, of course. But nor has liberal democracy been carved in history’s marble. In fact, history has never ended and is full of surprising twists. I believe that today we are living through an era in which democratic states reconsider whether they want to stay liberal or take an illiberal path without abolishing their democratic semblance. I also believe that the liberal states are reconsidering their “liberalism.” Immigration has posed to them a real challenge, which is how to stay liberal while also accommodating within their national borders (and their societies, their economies, and their politics) significant numbers of illiberal others. In short, the real question is: What are the limits of liberalism? Or, put in another way: How much of illiberalism are liberal states able to bear? In all those cases, it would be naïve to say that the “liberal mind” or some liberal ethos would be sufficient to counter the foes of liberalism. I think, instead, that, exactly as populism begins with some extraordinary leaders with radical ideas about how to reconstitute democratic societies, the liberal recovery requires creative leaders with realistic agendas of how to renew the liberal institutions and make them fit for contemporary political realities.

Who is Takis Pappas?

Takis Pappas is a trained political scientist with a Ph.D. from Yale University and an expert on populism, democracy, and political leadership. Currently, he is a professor and an associate researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and works for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Populism and Civic Engagement” (PACE). Having extensively published on populism in English and Greek, Pappas is a frequent keynote speaker at many academic and non-academic events, and a regular op-ed contributor in Kathimerini, Greece’s major newspaper.

Pappas has authored five books, the last of which is Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2019) and coedited two. He has also authored Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece (Palgrave 2014; also translated in Greek), and co-edited European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press, 2015). 

His articles have appeared in American Behavioral Scientist, Comparative Political Studies, Constellations, Government and Opposition, Journal of Democracy, Party Politics, West European Politics, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia among others. 

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