Professor Kurt Weyland: Democracies Possess Inherent Defensive Mechanisms against Populist Challenges

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu's Judicial Coup in Israel. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

Arguing that democracy is less susceptible, less precarious, and less endangered by populist leadership, Professor Kurt Weyland of the University of Texas emphasizes, “Populist leaders inherently lean towards illiberal tendencies, aiming to consolidate power at the expense of democratic principles. However, democracy possesses inherent defensive mechanisms.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Kurt Weyland, a political scientist and Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, shared insights into the evolving nature of populist movements and their impact on democracies. The interview covered key aspects of his research, addressing the weaknesses of personalistic plebiscitarian leadership, the comparative analysis of populism‘s impact on democracy in Europe and Latin America, the role of charismatic leadership in damaging political-party systems, and the long-term impact of populist movements on the political landscape.

Professor Weyland emphasized the challenges faced by populist leaders due to their domineering and self-assured nature, which often leads to arbitrary policy decisions and a lack of systematic governance. He highlighted the difficulties in forming coalitions and the intentional polarization fostered by populist leaders to maintain plebiscitarian support. 

The comparative analysis of populism‘s impact on democracy revealed insights into the resilience of democratic institutions, emphasizing the significance of institutional frameworks, robust party systems, and the role of society. Weyland discussed conjunctural opportunities that populist leaders exploit, such as windfall rents and crises, and how these factors contribute to their mass appeal.

Addressing the impact on party systems, Weyland highlighted the corrosive nature of charismatic leadership, causing fragmentation within opposition parties and affecting the overall quality of democracy. He expressed optimism about the future of democracy, acknowledging its record of resilience despite populist challenges.

Regarding the potential re-election of Donald Trump in the United States, Weyland raised concerns about ongoing turmoil but maintained confidence in the strength of US institutions to prevent significant deterioration. He discussed the challenges faced by personalistic leaders in institutionalizing their rule, citing examples from Turkey and Bolivia.

Weyland’s analysis extended to the global perspective, critiquing alarmist findings on the decline of democracy by institutions like the V-Dem Institute. He emphasized the need for nuanced evaluations, considering potential biases in subjective ratings and acknowledging the historical context of democracy’s progress.

Weyland emphasized the significance of tackling representation deficits and addressing citizen concerns, pointing to proactive immigration systems as potential strategies for mainstream parties. He illustrated this point by referencing the Danish Social Democrats’ adoption of restrictive immigration policies, a move that had a profound impact on the populist Danish People’s Party.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Kurt Weyland with some edits.

Dr. Kurt Weyland, a political scientist and Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

Lacking A Systematic and Well-informed Approach, Populists Are Prone to Fail

In your research on “How Populism Dies,” you discuss the political weaknesses of personalistic plebiscitarian leadership. Can you elaborate on the key weaknesses and how they impact the ability of populist leaders to sustain their movements over time?

Kurt Weyland: When examining populist leaders, I often characterize them as embodying personalistic plebiscitarian leadership. Personalistic leaders tend to be domineering and self-assured, exemplified by their belief, as articulated by figures like Donald Trump, that "only I can do it." Consequently, these leaders often eschew extensive reliance on expertise, consultation, or collaborative decision-making, leading to haphazard and arbitrary policy decisions. Lacking a systematic and well-informed approach, they are prone to making numerous mistakes. 

This article primarily scrutinizes populist leaders in governmental roles, emphasizing their policy enactments. In many instances, these leaders struggle to accurately identify problems and design comprehensive solutions. While my focus is primarily on economic policymaking, recent events, such as the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, have underscored the bumbling responses of various populist leaders. Such shortcomings not only weaken their performance but also sow doubts regarding their charismatic prowess, potentially eroding popular support.

Another challenge stemming from personalistic leadership is the difficulty in forming coalitions due to these leaders’ desire to be number one. They want to be in command. They are domineering. Other politicians don’t easily cooperate and collaborate with leaders like that. Their domineering nature and preference for command make collaboration with other politicians challenging. Populist leaders, in fact, often intentionally foster polarization and conflict to bolster their plebiscitarian support. By antagonizing the political establishment and mainstream parties, they create an environment where cooperation becomes even more elusive. Predictably, mainstream parties seize opportunities to retaliate and attempt to remove these personalistic leaders. 

The article primarily concentrates on government performance, and among the approximately 30 populist leaders examined, about 8 to 10 are quickly ousted due to a combination of protest-driven upheaval, impeachment resulting from policy mistakes, and opposition from the elites they antagonize. The main focus of the article is on the intersection of policy performance and governance sustainability. This is encapsulated in the title "How Populism Dies," emphasizing that many populist leaders are swiftly ousted, particularly when their policy performance is erratic. A recent example is Pedro Castillo in Peru, who, after a year and a half marked by inexperience, lack of consultation, and various mistakes, was swiftly removed from power.

In "When Democracy Trumps Populism," you provide a comparative analysis of populism‘s impact on democracy in Europe and Latin America. What are the key lessons that can be applied to understand populism‘s interaction with democratic institutions globally?

Kurt Weyland: In my initial attempt to analyze the threat of populism to democracy from a comparative perspective, a topic I delve into more comprehensively in my upcoming book, the core message remains consistent. I argue that democracy is less susceptible, less precarious, and less endangered by populist leadership. Populist leaders inherently lean towards illiberal tendencies, aiming to consolidate power at the expense of democratic principles. However, democracy possesses inherent defensive mechanisms, which I term resilience in my forthcoming book.

I stress the significance of institutional frameworks in this early analysis, acknowledging the strength and character of these structures. Additionally, I underscore the importance of robust party systems. Nevertheless, upon further reflection, I now consider the nature of society to be a more pivotal factor than the strength of parties and established party systems, as highlighted in my initial work.

In societies characterized by relative prosperity, a strong middle class, and educated sectors, populist leaders encounter greater challenges in garnering widespread support. Conversely, in economically disadvantaged regions like Latin America, where material deprivation and lower education levels prevail, populist figures such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela find it easier to amass overwhelming mass support.

A pivotal aspect elaborated in my book is the role of conjunctural opportunities that certain populist leaders exploit to bolster their mass appeal. Surprisingly, these opportunities arise from two opposite directions. On one hand, massive windfall rents, as exemplified by Hugo Chavez’s oil revenues in Venezuela, enable leaders to purchase support broadly, achieving popularity levels of 65-70% that nobody can resist. This unchecked popularity can lead to the erosion of democratic principles. However, without such substantial windfalls, it becomes significantly more challenging for populist leaders to achieve the same level of support.

Another unforeseen conjunctural opportunity arises during deep, acute, yet resolvable crises. When populist leaders effectively navigate and combat such challenges, they can emerge as heroes or, as Max Weber described, "charismatic saviors" of their countries. This narrative is exemplified in instances such as Nayib Bukele in El Salvador overcoming the challenges posed by the banking sector and Viktor Orban in Hungary successfully addressing an acute economic crisis. Similarly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey which faced a profound economic downturn in 2001, discrediting mainstream parties. However, Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) managed to lead the country out of crisis, fostering economic growth and garnering substantial support.

These were the four factors I emphasized in the initial version of the upcoming book, set to be released in a few weeks. My primary focus revolves around institutional strength and conjunctural opportunities. I have streamlined the framework to zero in specifically on these key factors, making the analysis more concise and focused.

Disintegration of Opposition Contribute to the Corrosive Impact of Populism

Your research on "How Populism Corrodes Latin American Parties" highlights the role of charismatic leadership in damaging political-party systems. How does this phenomenon impact the broader democratic landscape, and what challenges does it pose for opposition parties?

Kurt Weyland: This question is interesting as it delves into the perceived danger of populist leadership. My primary argument contends that populist leaders pose less of a threat to the survival of democracy than commonly believed, even though their influence adversely affects the quality of democratic systems.

Populist and personalistic leaders exhibit domineering traits, seeking to bypass intermediaries and establish a direct plebiscitarian connection with large masses of people. Parties, along with their leaders and activists, become perceived obstacles in their efforts to reach followers directly. Consequently, populists tend not to invest in building strong parties of their own, preferring to undermine mainstream political structures. This approach makes it difficult for opposition parties to coalesce, resulting in a corrosive impact on party systems.

According to democratic theory, parties play a crucial role in maintaining the quality of democracy. Common citizens often find it challenging to form opinions on various issues, relying on parties to provide coherent policy packages from which they can make informed choices. Therefore, the corrosive influence of populism on party systems poses a significant challenge to the overall quality of democracy.

In the case of Turkey and Venezuela, for example, populist leaders with their overbearing and autocratic tendencies mobilize diverse opposition groupings. However, the opposition remains fragmented and lacks a cohesive organization due to the wide range of elements from various parties and new movements. The failure to build robust parties and the disintegration of opposition contribute to the corrosive impact of populism on the democratic landscape.

The Role of Institutional Weakness and Conjunctural Opportunity in the Rise of Populists

In your recent article, ‘How Democracy Survives Populism,’ you express optimism about the future of democracy, stating, "Democracy’s record tells us that it does not die easily." What factors contribute to your optimism, especially in the face of the rise and strength of populist movements?

Kurt Weyland: In examining the instances where populist leaders have effectively undermined democracy and propelled their countries toward authoritarianism, I conducted a comprehensive analysis of 40 cases in my book. Surprisingly, only in 7 of these cases did democracy really get strangled by populist leaders. This prompts the question: under what conditions does such a transformation occur? The article summarizing the book’s main argument emphasizes that this shift occurs primarily under two conditions.

Firstly, institutional weakness is a contributing factor, prevalent in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. However, institutional weakness alone is not sufficient. The second crucial condition is the existence of a specific conjunctural opportunity that enables populist leaders to bolster their mass support. As mentioned earlier, this can be a massive windfall, such as the petroleum revenues that benefited leaders like Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa, or the successful resolution of an acute crisis. These conditions are inherently restrictive. The era of the global commodities boom, particularly benefiting oil-exporting countries due to nationalized industries, has passed. Severe crises, such as hyperinflation, are infrequent. Moreover, not all populist leaders manage to effectively address these crises. Therefore, the circumstances under which a populist leader can truly destroy democracy are narrow and demanding.

Our perception of the threat posed by populism to democracy tends to be distorted, as we often recall emblematic cases. While figures like Chavez, Orban, and Erdogan are well-known, numerous populist leaders serve only one term or fail to succeed in destroying democracy, eventually getting ousted by Congress, mass protests, or impeachment. Examples like Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil, Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, or Petro Castillo in Peru are often forgotten. Populist leaders indeed have the potential to harm democracy, but success in this regard is far from guaranteed. Many fail, and even those who secure re-election, like Menem in Argentina or leaders in Colombia, often encounter institutional constraints that signal the end of their time in power. Examining the empirical record and the specific conditions required for the populist destruction of democracy reveals a more nuanced and challenging reality than the commonly perceived threat. It’s not that easy.

‘Javier Milei May Be Ousted from Office within One or Two Years’

Ultra-right-wing Argentine politician Javier Milei during the PASO elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 13, 2023. Photo: Facundo Florit.

When you wrote the article, we did not have the election results in the Netherlands and Argentina. Considering that Geert Wilders, known for his Islamophobic stance, won the elections in the Netherlands, and the populist libertarian Javier Milei emerged victorious in Argentina, would you still assert that democracies can survive populism?

Kurt Weyland: Absolutely. Initially, it’s important to note that populist leaders can indeed be elected, as seen in recent events. However, the victory of figures like Geert Wilders does not necessarily spell doom for Dutch democracy. In European parliamentary systems, the proportional representation and extensive party fragmentation make it exceedingly challenging for a populist leader to secure a majority vote. In the case of Hungary, an unusual scenario unfolded due to the 2008 crisis, which eradicated established government parties, enabling Viktor Orban to achieve a super majority and potentially undermine democracy. Yet, this is an exception.

Geert Wilders, for instance, won the election with less than 25 percent of the votes, requiring coalition partners. His populist and radical stance makes forming a governing coalition challenging. Even if he becomes Prime Minister, coalition partners will likely be skeptical and averse to his views, preventing any authoritarian tendencies. They’re not going to support Wilders becoming dictator of the Netherlands. This aligns with the nature of European parliamentary systems, where leaders like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy served three terms without destroying Italian democracy. In fact, during Berlusconi’s tenure, various rating systems, including Freedom House, indicated an improvement in the quality of Italian democracy due to heightened civic mobilization and participation stimulated by the populist government. So, even if Geert Wilders becomes Prime Minister of the Netherlands, he is not going to destroy Dutch democracy. 

Argentina presents a different scenario due to its presidential system, unlike European parliamentary systems. The institutional framework in Latin American countries, including Argentina, tends to be weaker. Javier Milei, despite having a small faction of supporters in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, relies on the backing of other parties. However, his political influence is limited, making it challenging to implement his proposed adjustment program.

The severity of the crisis in Argentina, marked by a staggering 150% annual inflation rate and the failure of his predecessor Mauricio Macri’s gradual adjustment program, adds complexity to Milei’s situation. While Milei aims to enforce a drastic neoliberal adjustment program, he lacks the necessary political strength. The legislative branch, exemplified by Congress, is likely to resist approving his ambitious Mega decree, leading to potential modifications or rejections.

Given the strong opposition, particularly from entrenched Peronists in Congress, unions, and among governors, Milei’s political standing appears precarious. Predicting outcomes in political science is inherently challenging, but it seems likely that Milei, compelled to pursue a drastic neoliberal agenda, will face significant opposition. My projection is that, within one or two years, he may be ousted from office. Comparisons to Fernando de la Rua, who was forced out after a two-year term about two decades ago, suggest a parallel trajectory for Milei’s political tenure.

‘Trump Has a Strong Chance of Being Reelected’

Former US President Donald Trump with a serious look as he delivers a speech at a campaign rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, PA – August 2, 2018. Photo: Evan El-Amin.

Drawing from your analysis in "Why US Democracy Trumps Populism," how do you assess the long-term impact of populist movements on the political landscape in the United States, especially in terms of institutional resilience and democratic norms? Considering the possibility of Donald Trump winning the 2024 elections, some suggest that the United States could lose its liberal nature and the system of checks and balances. What are your thoughts on the fate of American democracy if Trump is reelected?

Kurt Weyland: The United States is the problem case among advanced industrialized democracies. As seen in the case of Geert Wilders in European parliamentary systems, populist leaders typically don’t come close to winning a majority. Even if they attain the position of Prime Minister, their political strength remains limited. The US, however, stands out as an exception and a problematic case due to its two-party system.

In the United States, a populist figure, exemplified by Trump’s outsider status and minoritarian position in 2015 and 2016, can potentially secure a party’s candidacy through open primaries. If successful, he could then win the presidency, garnering significant political influence. This unique scenario makes the US susceptible to challenges, and I am genuinely concerned that Trump has a strong chance of being reelected.

The potential reelection of Trump raises concerns about ongoing trouble, turmoil, conflict, and unending convulsions in the United States. Democratic norms could once again suffer as Trump, fueled by a sense of grievance from the 2020 election, may seek revenge. Moreover, he has a committed support base that may be inclined to carry out his directives, adding to the potential challenges faced by democratic institutions in the country.

On the other hand, I maintain the belief that US institutions are very strong. Even within the Republican Party, although few openly oppose him, there is a notable amount of resistance. The challenges faced in selecting a House Speaker, revealing a divided Republican delegation with radical and far-right factions, indicate internal dissent. Moderates within the party are unlikely to support a substantial assault on the essence and core of American democracy.

The Senate, with its more independent senators possessing the authority to resist Trump’s influence, provides a check against potential abuses. Senator Mitch McConnell’s apparent distaste for Trump and his reluctance to see Trump wield unchecked power further reinforces this internal resistance. Meanwhile, Democrats are well-prepared to counter Trump’s potential assaults.

The US courts, in Trump’s first term, demonstrated a willingness to rein in his actions, issuing rulings that restrained certain presidential actions. Additionally, the strength of civil society in the US is a formidable force against the transformation of the country into an authoritarian regime.

While I acknowledge the likelihood of Trump’s reelection leading to considerable trouble and conflict, I believe American democracy will ultimately endure. The degradation of democratic norms and the assault on democracy will undoubtedly impact its quality, but the resilience of US institutions will prevent a significant deterioration. Trump’s actions, despite their negative effects, have had unintended positive consequences. His outrages mobilize civil society and politics, resulting in increased electoral participation, diverse candidate representation, and heightened political interest.

Despite the countervailing tendencies at play, the overall quality of democracy in the US is not expected to decline significantly. Contrary to some depictions by democracy rating agencies, which may have downgraded American democracy, I consider such assessments seriously mistaken. While acknowledging the challenges faced, including the damage inflicted by Trump, it is crucial to recognize the counteracting effects that have, to a certain extent, mitigated the decline in democratic quality.

‘Turkish Election Outcome Proves a Significant Disappointment’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı.

Referring to Turkey in your article, you highlight Erdoğan’s success as an authoritarian leader. Regarding the 2016 coup, do you view it as an ‘autogolpe,’ akin to those seen in Latin America?

Kurt Weyland: In Latin America, an autogolpe is typically defined as an incumbent president orchestrating a coup-like assault on political institutions to seize authoritarian power. An example is Fujimori in 1992, where, as the democratically elected president and the incumbent, he utilized the military to shut down Congress and the courts. In contrast, the situation in Turkey doesn’t precisely fit this definition, as the incumbent did not initiate the coup. Some analyses suggest that Erdogan may have intentionally provoked the coup or baited certain factions into attempting it, though the conspiratorial argument that he orchestrated the entire event is dubious.

I would not subscribe to the conspiratorial argument suggesting that he orchestrated the entire event to take advantage of it. However, there is evidence of shamelessly leveraging the failed coup, a tactic reminiscent of what occurred in Venezuela in 2002. In that instance, Hugo Chavez, who had been evicted by a coup for a brief period, made a triumphant comeback and exploited the failed challenge to purge the military, consolidate his command, and strengthen his control over the country. This approach involves an incumbent president with authoritarian tendencies taking advantage of a thwarted challenge to discredit the opposition, implement repressive measures, and augment their personalistic control by claiming more powers. So, it differs from an autogolpe as seen in Fujimori’s case but shares similarities with exploiting a failed challenge, reminiscent of Hugo Chavez’s actions in Venezuela.

Erdoğan won the last elections held in May 2023 again. What do you foresee for Turkish democracy and Erdoğan’s one-man rule?

Kurt Weyland: The outcome of the Turkish election proved to be a significant disappointment, as hopes were high for the opposition, especially after their unification. Erdogan’s handling of the economy and the revelation of corruption within his regime, highlighted by the earthquake and questionable building licenses, had fueled optimism for a potential opposition victory, as indicated by polls. However, Erdogan’s triumph signifies a greater political resilience than initially perceived.

In the short term I think the prospects are not good for Turkish democracy, which has been destroyed. I would classify Turkey as an authoritarian regime, especially after the self-coup and the big crackdown and the repressive turn of the Erdogan regime. The personalistic and charismatic leadership style common among populist leaders tends to lack institutionalization, creating inherent weaknesses. While these leaders assert absolute control in the short term, their dominance can stifle potential successors and generate latent discontent among those aspiring to power.

Populist leaders, by their nature, rarely institutionalize their rule, and the personalistic, plebiscitarian leadership they exhibit inherently creates weaknesses. A typical personalistic leader asserts absolute command, dominating the political landscape. However, prolonged dominance by a single leader obstructs the ascent of other potential leaders. In cases where a leader, such as Erdogan, holds unparalleled control, only a select group of loyal associates can rise, fostering latent discontent akin to a simmering volcano.

Aspirants to power desire roles beyond being mere cronies of the ruling leader. This discontent among those who seek influence creates the potential for a challenge to the leader’s authority. Over time, the leader inevitably confronts their own mortality and grapples with the issue of succession. Choosing a family member, like Erdogan appointing his son-in-law as finance minister, or cultivating one’s own successors may not be well-received, as it excludes other potential leaders indefinitely.

The succession issue, particularly if it arises abruptly due to health concerns or other unforeseen events, unveils the fragility of personalistic populist rule. While such leadership may project an image of solidity and stability on the surface, beneath lies a host of brewing challenges. The example of potential health issues, like a heart attack, underscores that personalistic populist rule may seem robust externally but conceals underlying complexities and vulnerabilities.

Consider the case of Evo Morales in Bolivia, who appeared firmly in control when seeking a third consecutive re-election. During my visit to Bolivia in 2018, I witnessed the transformative changes he had implemented in the country, leading me to believe that a significant portion of the population would express gratitude through a clear majority. However, Morales encountered a formidable challenge, and to my surprise, he was ousted. This example highlights the transient and precarious nature of populism. It lacks firmness, solidity, and institutionalization, relying heavily on personalistic leadership. Populism, as demonstrated by Morales’ experience, lacks firmness, solidity, and institutionalization; instead, it heavily depends on personalistic leadership. It’s more of a temporary and precarious phenomenon, akin to a rental arrangement. This characteristic instability may hopefully also be observed in the case of Erdogan.

‘Meloni’s Success Resulted from Failures of Populist Leaders’

Giorgia Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, attend a center-right coalition rally in Rome, Italy on March 01, 2018. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

In the article, when discussing Italy, you mention the late Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Interestingly, you do not refer to Giorgia Meloni and her neo-fascist party Brothers of Italy. How do you explain her success?

Kurt Weyland: I don’t categorize Meloni’s party as a populist party; rather, it aligns more with neo-fascist ideologies, indicating a distinct ideological stance. Ironically, I attribute her success to the failures of various populist leaders. Berlusconi, a dominant figure in Italian politics for two decades, faced decline due to age and scandals, rendering him ineligible for re-election. Following him, Matteo Salvini emerged as a prominent leader in 2018-19 but overplayed his cards, attempting to seize government power and eventually being excluded. This pattern mirrors a typical feature of populism—meteoric rise followed by a swift fall. Populist leaders often aim to grab power without solid support, and Salvini’s failed attempt to secure the Prime Ministership exemplifies this trend.

Additionally, the Five Star Movement, known for its amorphous and weak nature, served as the main coalition partner during Salvini’s tenure but eventually imploded. The failure of these populist figures created a political vacuum that Meloni filled. It’s crucial to recognize that the apparent strength of populist leaders like Salvini may not have substantial staying power; they often resemble shooting stars, dazzling briefly in the political sky before fading away.

The last sentence of your article is as follows: ‘While the threat of populism requires constant attention and energetic countermeasures, there is no need for global alarmism.’ Yet, the V-Dem Institute (Varities of Democracy) of Gothenburg University says in its 2023 Democracy Report: ‘Advances in global levels of democracy made over the last 35 years have been wiped out. The world has more closed autocracies than liberal democracies – for the first time in more than two decades.’ What is your take on V-Dem’s alarming findings?

Kurt Weyland: I think it’s exaggerated, which is why I titled my forthcoming book "Countering Global Alarmism." The prevailing alarmist sentiment, epitomized by phrases like "how democracies die," has been fueled, in part, by assessments such as those provided by V-Dem. While V-Dem is undeniably sophisticated and scientifically sound but it relies on subjective ratings by political scientists, which can be influenced by prevailing opinions and biases.

There seems to be a left-leaning inclination among political scientists, leading to a statistically significant bias against right-wing regimes in V-Dem’s assessments. This bias manifests in harsher grading and downgrading of right-wing governments. Considering the subjective nature of these ratings and the existing alarmism, I believe there is an element of exaggeration in the assessments made by V-Dem.

I have to admit I haven’t looked at that report specifically. But in 2023, the starting point of the advances in the last 35 years, would be 1988. At that time, we had Soviet Union and we had communism in Eastern Europe. That hasn’t been all reversed, even if Putin establishes an authoritarian regime, it’s nothing like the post totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. A good part of Eastern Europe is still freer than before. 

‘Mainstream Parties Should Bridge Representation Gaps and Address Concerned Citizens’ Fears’

Thai protester with face mask shows the sign “Listen To The People” at Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand against the government. Photo: Shutterstock.

Given the evolving nature of populist movements, what do you see as the future challenges and opportunities for democracies worldwide in dealing with the populist surge?

Kurt Weyland: You highlight the evolving nature of populist movements, a characteristic described as the "cameolionic nature" by Paul Taggart. This opportunistic flexibility allows them to exploit various opportunities, making it challenging to defend democracy effectively. Populist leaders can capitalize on any weaknesses, representation deficits, or unaddressed issues within the democratic system. However, what stands out to me is the resilience of democracy in the present era.

In my recent book, I explored the challenges faced by established democracies during the interwar years, a period marked by tremendous troubles and crises. Even in those challenging times, established democracies managed to survive. I am optimistic about the likelihood of their survival once again, given the considerable institutional strength, institutional interest, and democratic spirit present today. Populist movements, on the other hand, exhibit their own weaknesses and troubles, with some of them imploding when they assume governance roles due to inadequate performance.

I believe one unfortunate reality that democracies must confront, particularly in advanced industrialized countries, is the emergence of populists what we often perceive as eccentric or unconventional leaders like Trump. These leaders challenge the democratic system by exploiting inherent weaknesses, such as representation deficits. Certain segments of the population may feel unrepresented, excluded, and believe that their interests, needs, resentments, and fears are being neglected. In my view, when these segments constitute a substantial portion, around 20-30% of the population, mainstream political parties will be compelled to address, in some manner, the substantive aspects of these issues. I recognize that this perspective may be controversial.

Consider Europe, where migration is a significant concern for many. Paradoxically, European countries with low birth rates rely on migrants for sustenance. However, the apprehension often stems from the perceived loss of control, as people fear an unregulated influx of migrants. Both of us, residing in countries as migrants, understand the cosmopolitan perspective and empathize with migrants. Nonetheless, when a substantial portion of the population advocates for more restrictions and control, mainstream political parties will be compelled to address some aspects of this issue.

While it’s crucial to denounce illiberal and distasteful approaches, democracy necessitates responding to the concerns raised by a significant portion of citizens. Mainstream parties should not leave such issues solely for populist leaders to exploit. Instead, they should acknowledge and engage with the underlying substance of the issue. This doesn’t mean endorsing measures like building walls, as seen in Trump’s approach, but rather initiating reforms, changes, and improved control over the immigration system.

For instance, it appears that much of the immigration process is currently reactive, with individuals arriving at borders and claiming asylum. Countries tend to respond to these situations reactively. I believe a more proactive immigration system could involve countries selectively recruiting and welcoming certain individuals. This approach would prioritize legal migration while making illegal migration and verbal asylum claims more challenging. It’s a potential avenue that mainstream parties and governments may need to explore.

Consider the Danish case, where the Social Democrats made a move towards a more restrictive immigration policy. This shift significantly impacted the Danish People’s Party, which saw a decline in support from 21% in 2015 to around 8% in 2019, eventually becoming a minor outfit by 2022. Danish Social Democracy’s move, although distasteful and unpalatable for some, addressed the representation deficit on the right regarding immigration.

Mainstream parties might find themselves compelled to make such accommodations if there’s a significant representation deficit and considerable demands from sectors of the population. The specifics of how and to what extent this should be done remain unclear, but a responsive move, even if provocative, may be necessary in a democratic system.

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