Galston on the New “Revolt of the Masses”

A new specter is haunting the world. Two hundred years ago, it was communism. Today, if one judges by the titles of recently published books that have caught the attention of the general public, it is populism. Works such as Illiberal Democracy, Why Democracies Die, What is Populism?, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, The People vs. Democracy, and Why Liberalism Failed have sold thousands of copies within few weeks of their publication. Our liberal democracies seem to be in trouble and the optimism that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is now largely gone. We may disagree, of course, on the nature and degree of our problems, but we can no longer dismiss the serious challenges to the survival of liberal democratic principles and institutions.

The “revolt of the masses” is again on our radar screen, in populist form this time, even if the industrial working class is no longer what it used to be in the heyday of Marxism. All around us, from Russia, Hungary, and Poland to Venezuela, Ecuador, and beyond, we can find autocratic regimes, illiberal democracies, and populist leaders consolidating their power and challenging the core tenets of the liberal consensus promoted by organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Union. Political analysts warn us that demagogy, authoritarianism, democratic deconsolidation, and the erosion of democratic norms are slowly becoming the most pressing questions affecting the political life of many countries, including the United States. Something serious is happening under our very eyes.

William A. Galston’s Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy joins the list of these recent studies that have struck a deep nerve in the general public. Coming from the pen of one of the most respected of American political theorists, it offers a lucid and balanced analysis of the current crisis of our liberal democracies. The main topic of this slim 149-page book is populism which, in Galston’s view, poses a serious threat to democracy around the world. The eight chapters explore the ways in which the rise of populism and authoritarianism bring about the slow deconsolidation of liberal democracies by undermining their foundations.

Galston, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who was one of President Clinton’s principal domestic policy aides, notes that key liberal principles such as freedom of the press, the rule of law, and the rights of minorities have suffered serious setbacks at the hands of populist leaders. He is equally concerned by the deepening social divide between educated, mobile, and cosmopolitan elites (living in bubbles and super zip codes) and less educated citizens who are facing declining wages and imminent unemployment due to globalization. No wonder that a revolt has been brewing for a while against the norms and policies that have shaped the international scene.

The main face of this revolt, as Galston and others have pointed out, is populism. According to some experts, the latter is a thin ideology and a slippery concept that defies simple analysis.[1]

Populism can be both democratic and anti-democratic; it is mistrustful of anything less than full transparency and demands full accountability from politicians. If indeed there is a democratic energy behind populism, it is not exactly clear what that amounts to in reality. Moreover, a distinction must be made between being a populist in the strong sense of the term and merely invoking populist themes for political purposes. Hence, populism seems to suffer from a new form of Cinderella’s problem: If there is a shoe in the shape of populism, it seems to fit too many feet. How can we distinguish between them and what do they have in common? Can we differentiate between dangerous forms of populism and justifiable forms of populist rhetoric?

Galston is right to remind us in one of the core chapters of the book (“The Populist Challenge”) that populism is not a novel phenomenon. Demagogy, a distinctive trait of populism, has been a shadow of democracy since ancient Greece. A populist politician, Andrew Jackson, appears on the $20 bill, reminding us that populism, in one form or another, has deep roots in modern America. More than a century and a half ago, the so-called agrarian populists opposed monopolists, mechanization, and modern division of labor that threatened craftsmanship and localism. The populist spirit may have been in abeyance during the Civil War, but did not end, continuing well into the Progressive Era, fueling suspicion of intellectual elites and emphasizing predominantly the destructive side of economic progress.

Some populist movements put a premium on fostering economic cooperation and personal independence as essential preconditions of citizenship. In so doing, they sought to promote political education and saw themselves as instrumental in maintaining a vital public life. Others, however, were more openly hostile to the principles of liberal democracy.

In Galston’s view, populism is always accompanied by a distinctive set of well-defined policies and a certain art of governance with a clear inner logic.[2] It cuts across the Left and the Right, and is semantically eclectic. Rightwing populists tend to attack immigrants and scapegoat minorities, foreign countries, or independent NGOs, while leftwing populists attack the banking system, large corporations, and, more recently, denounce police or state brutality. Either way, populism appears as a form of politics “that reflects distinctive theoretical commitments and generates its own political practice,” writes Galston. It is based on a “dyadic” and Manichaean vision that divides society into two opposing forces and pits an allegedly homogenous and virtuous “people” against a corrupt and ill-intentioned elite, identified with the establishment.

Populist leaders uniformly claim that only they represent the “true” voice and will of the “real” people or the “silent majority,” and stigmatize all other politicians as illegitimate or corrupt. Moreover, populists view themselves as arch-democrats who challenge establishment values and elites. They believe that ordinary citizens are better suited than experts or politicians to make key decisions about most aspects of their lives.

This explains in large part why populists can easily gain popular votes in times of economic hardship, as happened, most recently, with the financial crisis of late 2007 to 2009. The sour mood after the crash of the market a decade ago certainly has something to do with the poor performance of our economies. Stagnant wages, rising inequality, and political gridlock are clear signs of the dysfunctionalities of contemporary democracies, along with the complacency of our elites.

Yet Galston insists that the appeal of populism cannot be explained solely by economic factors. Populism today stems from a deficit of democracy, and from the need for recognition on the part of those who have been declared “deplorables” by the elites. As he puts it, “An explanation that places economics at the base and treat other issues as derivative distorts a more complex reality. Alongside other economic difficulties, other problems weakened the foundation of popular support for established institutions.”

He designates anti-pluralism as the most important aspect of populism. Anti-pluralism is divisive and inhibits compromise among the many groups that contend for power in society. By endorsing an idiosyncratic view of virtual representation, populists slowly undermine the general confidence in democratic norms, procedures, rules, and institutions. They adopt—and encourage their supporters to adopt—conspiracy theories and constantly look for scapegoats on which to blame all of the problems their countries face. Genuine debate based on solid evidence and reasoned argument is gradually replaced by alternative facts and loud denunciation of one’s opponents.

Relying on a nice quote from Lincoln—“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. … As out case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew”— Galston urges a  new way of thinking as we try to grasp the roots and the nature of our present discontent. He is concerned that the concept of populism has become a dangerous weapon, especially if one takes into account how it seeks to undermine key liberal principles. The fact that populism seems to be more an emotion-laden stance than an ideology only contributes to its heightened appeal in times of crisis. But, Galston insists, “populist resentment is an enduring staple of democratic politics,” and we must learn how to live with it and neutralize it as best as we can.

One way to achieve that is by remembering that that there is significant “difference between proper democratic caution and the populist culture of suspicion.” We should therefore cultivate the first—that is, proper democratic caution, a stance that keeps our representatives honest and efficient—and resist the second, the populist culture of systematic suspicion toward the establishment.

This may be easier said than done. Reading Galston’s book I was reminded of a statement made by Steve Bannon, who has recently warned us that the populist surge is not over, it’s only beginning. What are we to make of his bold claim? First, we must try to understand it properly before denouncing populism. To this effect, we should explore what functions populism fulfills, as well as who uses it and to what purpose. Second, we should remember that populism is part of a larger semantic field that includes anti-establishment movements, globalism, and elitism. And third, we should also ask ourselves whether or not populism might be able to play a certain role in invigorating liberal democracy and whether, in its more democratic forms, it might serve as an effective instrument of what Pierre Rosanvallon once called “counter-democracy.”[3]

These are, to be sure, difficult questions to answer. When analyzing populism we also need to examine the varieties of liberalism and capitalism which populists criticize and against which they react. Populism takes one form if directed against liberal market economies such as the United States, and another in more coordinated market economies and state-led market economies such as in Western Europe.[4] It also differs geographically, with, for example, the French supporters of Marie Le-Pen or the Italian fans of Beppe Grillo inevitably focusing on a different set of priorities and concerns than Trump’s supporters in America.

What all these forms share, however, is the key fact that they are stress signals. They are not necessarily antidemocratic, in spite of populists’ embrace of tribalism, Manichaeism, and constant conflict.

How can we use these signals to make our liberal democracies work better is the big question that Galston’s book invites us to think about. Its final chapter reiterates that liberal democracy is fragile, constantly threatened, and always in need of repair. I cannot agree more. Liberal democracies do not always have strong leaders, and do not always pass good laws. But as Alexis de Tocqueville would remind us, liberal democracies also have the power of self-correction and this is not a negligible advantage. The only problem is that independent institutions that might ensure self-correction do not always work well and are under attack by populists of all stripes.

Whether we like it or not, populism lives in democracy’s shadow. It is time to stop asserting that democracy is the only game in town. It is not. In order to survive, Galston suggests, liberal democracy needs leaders who eschew the extremes of populism and elitism, and promote compromise and moderation. But these are rare virtues for courageous minds like Lincoln, who had the audacity to think anew and act anew in difficult times. Since we, too, live in extraordinary times, we should not shy away from emulating his example in defending the values and principles of the open society.

[1] Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[2] A similar perspective can be found in Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

[3] Pierre Rosanvallon, Counter-Democracy: Politics in An Age of Distrust (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Rosanvallon is, however, definitely critical of populism.

[4] See Jan Nederveen Pieterse, “Populism Is a Distraction,” paper presented at a conference on “The New Populism: The Politics of Dissensus,” Indiana University, Kokomo, Indiana, March 29-30, 2018.