British political scientist Paul Taggart does not regard populism as a “pathology” nor as “evil” and contends that it could be even useful in terms of heralding the problems of democracy. “Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously,” says Taggart.
Interview by Selcuk Gultasli
Prof. Paul Taggart of Sussex University does not agree that populist politics will, in the end, fail, as some of his colleagues argue. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, Taggart said populist leaders sustain their power by resorting to authoritarian mechanisms. The British political scientist does not regard populism as a “pathology” nor as “evil” and contends that it could be even useful in terms of heralding the problems of democracy. “Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously,” he says.
Stressing that there has been no significant surge in the number of populist leaders around the world, Taggart says populism should be assessed in perspective. He underlines that there is no magic formula to fight populism as populists in power do not all behave the same way. According to Taggart, once in power, populists can pursue several distinct strategies—either moderating their populism, reshaping political institutions to suit their populism, or behaving like an opposition in power. Given there is no single model, Taggart says the response to populist leaders should be tailor-made.
The following excerpts from the interview have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
You argue that you do not regard populism as a “disease” or a “pathology” nor as “evil.” How have you come to this conclusion?
This is an assumption and not a conclusion. I think we need to consider populism as objectively as we can. The fact that it is “thin-centered” and fuses with other ideologies means that we need to be careful about generalizing about it without considering whether we are focusing on populism or on the ideas that it attaches to.
Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously. That does not mean to say that we should uncritically accept whatever populists say. But it also means that we should not automatically dismiss populist critiques of democracy. Instead, we need to be alive to the possibility that populism may be correct to assert that politics is not working well.
Liberal democracy has two elements. On the one hand, it embraces the idea of popular sovereignty, and this means representation and majority rule. But it also stresses the importance of process, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities, and of core rights. There is often, in liberal democracy, a tension between these two aspects. Populism is a challenge to liberal democracy in that it focuses on the first aspect of liberal democracy—popular sovereignty and representation—at the expense of the liberal aspect. Populism rarely talks in terms of rights or minorities. You need both for liberal democracy. Suppose popular sovereignty—and the representative connection—is weak. In that case, populism might be useful to call for that link to be strengthened, and so it can potentially be a corrective for democracy. But if this is at the expense of rights, the rule of law, and minorities, this will undermine liberal democracy.
Is there a magic formula to deal with or contain populist parties once they are in power?
No, there is no magic formula if you want to combat populism in power. Populists in power do not all behave the same way. They tend to pursue one of three strategies —moderating their populism, reshaping political institutions to suit their populism, or behaving like an opposition in power. These different approaches to power mean that any response needs to be tailored to whatever approach is being used.
It seems the EU is not very successful in dealing with populists when they are in power. What is Brussels’ problem?
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a flurry of articles predicting that liberal democracy had won and would spread worldwide. Yet we see a surge of populism and populist parties. What went wrong? Why are illiberal democracies gaining ground, in particular in Central Europe?
It was wrong to say that liberal democracy had “won.” Politics is not a sports game in which a result is clear—it is an ongoing process and to expect a clear “score” is naïve. We are seeing a lot of populism around at the moment. But we are also seeing a lot of other forms of politics. Populism is spectacular, which means that it commands attention and that some people tend to over-generalize it.
Looking at the massive surge of populist leaders worldwide, shall we start talking about “the end of liberal democracy” and the “dawning of illiberal ones”?
There is no massive surge of populist leaders. There are a few around the world, but most leaders are not populist. We need to consider populism in perspective.
Populists usually and inevitably fail because they do not know how to govern. However, some populist leaders like Erdogan, Orban, and Putin have kept the power for a long time. How can their extended stay in power be explained?
I don’t agree that populists inevitably fail. Some populists sustain themselves in power by resorting to authoritarian means.
Are there any tested successful ways to fight against populist leaders and populist movements? Will they keep gaining ground?
If you want to fight populism, then there is no magic formula. The one thing that does not seem to work is to pretend it does not exist or completely shun it from political life as this only feeds the idea that populism represents the excluded. Historically, populism has usually had a limited shelf-life. It has not built lasting political families as other ideologies have done. I suspect that it will fade—but that it will also re-emerge later.
Who is Paul Taggart?
Paul Taggart is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex. He has previously served as the Director of the Sussex European Institute, Head of the Department of Politics, and Deputy Head of the School for Law, Politics, and Sociology at Sussex. He has acted as an external examiner for Strathclyde University, Birkbeck College, Aston University, the University of Bath, and Goldsmiths College, London. His focus is on comparative politics, and his research focused primarily on populism and on Euroscepticism, and more broadly on the domestic politics of European integration. He has published six books and numerous articles in these areas.
Professor Taggart is also a former editor of the journal Government and Opposition and is now chairs the journal’s Board of Directors. He is the former editor of the journal Politics and co-Convenor (with Prof. Aleks Szczerbiak) of the European Referendums, Elections and Parties Network (EPERN). He has been a visiting scholar at the University of Gothenburg and the University of Sarajevo, a visiting scholar at the Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University, and a visiting professor at King’s College London. Taggart is a regular commentator on British, European, and US politics for BBC local radio.