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.

Reader Discussion

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on June 04, 2018 at 09:53:48 am

Small quibble. The Revolt of the Masses wasn't about the working class. It was a critique of the celebration of shallow culture and self-satisfied people. Ortega defined anyone who felt they did not need to improve themselves or strive to be more than they were naturally as "mass." It was certainly an anti-populist book. However, and more importantly in my opinion, Ortega's insights apply to our self-sure elites just as much if not more. Our intellectuals who by and large know nothing beyond the narrow scope of their research. Our journalists who are patently ignorant, dependent on the press release, and so easily manipulated. Our bureaucrats whose priorities are 1) career maintenance, 2) protecting the institution, and somewhere way down on the list 3) the job they were actually hired to do. Don't even get me started on our "artists." These people are all "mass." The reason why populism is needed is because all of these cretins propose to rule us, despite their manifest incompetence to do so.

In any healthy society you will have populism when people feel remote, unaccountable power coming down on them. The place to start, and where most authors dealing with this issue never start, is with an analysis of the remote power. Begin with the EU, or Merkel trying to boss eastern Europe around, or the Obama Administration ruling with a "pen and a phone," and you will be on the right track.

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Image of XianLSE
on June 04, 2018 at 14:52:38 pm

I find the definition of "populism" rather vague and slippery. Donald Trump was elected by a majority of the electoral college, as our Constitution requires. His election reflected a dissatisfaction with the Republican party, which claimed to oppose the overreach of Obama, but never seemed able to muster an effective opposition. Was it populism that elected Obama twice, or is the difference that the professional ruling class felt like Obama was one of them, which Trump is not?

I am even more satisfied with Trump's actual performance than I was expecting on election day. I suspect that most of his voters feel the same way, and that he is also picking up some of the skeptics (including some of our black countrymen). Trump is a breath of fresh air and he is getting things turned around rapidly.

BTW, I also second XianLSE's comment.

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Richard Berger
on June 04, 2018 at 16:06:56 pm

Populism is democracy misliked.

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Image of Mike Del Sol
Mike Del Sol
on June 04, 2018 at 16:33:28 pm

I, too, agree with XianLSE. If this review is a fair summary of Galston's book, then he used all of his powers, all of skills, and still his reader sees only a bullet-ridden corpse. I have read dozens and dozens of articles in the last 2 years making the same generic ipse dixit claims as Galston. The pretense of analysis in service to patent partisan preference by these intellectuals would be risible if it weren't so dangerous. Disagreement with their sophomoric "analyses" (I doubt Galston would accept his own book if submitted to him by one of his grad students) amounts to "anti-intellectualism." The self-regard of these people knows no bounds.

In this country, illiberalism is represented by those who tread the actual Constitution under foot as they venerate the fictional Constitution given us by the SCOTUS these last 80 years. Lincoln would weep at their sophisms.

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on June 04, 2018 at 16:42:42 pm


Hopefully the "LSE" stands for what I imagine.

One may question whether the articulations of William Galston merit meaningful intellectual analysis - although the subject matter touched upon certainly does;thus, your correct observation of Otega y Gasset's concerns are appropriate.

More in key with this essay would have been a reference to Oakeshott's 1961 essay "The masses in representative democracy" (Pp. 363 - 383 in "Rationalism in Politics" Liberty Fund 1991). While a bit more subtle, The references of Jacques Barzun to "Emancipation" in his "From Dawn to Decadence" (Harper Collins 2000) provide a penetrating insight into the decadence of social order(s) of increasingly "mass" (not necessarily "populistic") culture.

Indeed you strike at the major deficiencies of Galston's and the bulk of other writers, avoidance of the issue of the the authenticity of POWER, when and how aggregated, by what processes, for what purposes; and, how the purposes come to be determined - in those social orders that have developed the **dispersal of power** over a range of the populace, which is the function of democracy.

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on June 04, 2018 at 17:05:51 pm

Mr. Berger,

You touch upon Humpty Dumpty's position, that wordsmiths use the terminologies of Democracy, Democratic, Populism and Populist to "mean" (convey an intent of thought??) whatever they say it shall "mean."

In so much of the writing, including portions of the efforts in this review, the term
"populist" is used adverbially and adjectively, as well as a subject noun ("the populist," or "a populist"); then it is inter-mixed with popul-ism where suitable to the wordsmith's objectives.

In the American experience "populism" is identified as widespread *public* dissatisfactions or preferences (see, the "Great Awakenings"), which the popul-ist individual or groups may seek to engage or deploy for advancement of particular individual or group interests.

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on June 04, 2018 at 17:30:12 pm


Perhaps that could be explained a bit.

It may not be "disliked" so much as it reflects dissatisfactions with *how* (and by whom) the processes, necessary for the aggregation of some the power that is dispersed (by the nature of democracy) over a range of the populace, occurs - and the results of those processes.

More recently we have seen dissatisfactions in societies having "representative" forms of governments with the "establishments" (oligarchies) that have determined the choices of governmental functions, the choices available for "representation;" as well as dissatisfactions with the political classes who have insinuated themselves into the roles of a former (now almost extinct) elite (those who placed their obligations ahead of their privileges and immunities).

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on June 04, 2018 at 19:19:19 pm

The role of an underlying worldview is characteristic of politics in the United States and Europe. But when forces are impacting (physically or psychologically) consensually held worldview, challenge and reordering may come to play (Populism). Nonetheless, "populism is not a novel phenomenon as populist resentment is an enduring staple of democratic politics" (now why is that?).

The populist explosion, indeed, may be societal stress signals. The liberal market economics, the coordinated market economics, the state led market economics, and the geographic populist iterations are reflecting citizen sense of Herbert Stein's "things that can't go on forever don't." From the American point of view, Lincoln has it just right: "the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present."

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Image of Anthonyk
on June 04, 2018 at 19:24:35 pm

What happen to my Post?

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Image of Anthony
on June 04, 2018 at 19:50:30 pm

The role of an underlying worldview is characteristic of politics in the United States and Europe. But when forces are impacting (physically or psychologically) the consensually held worldview, challenge and reordering may come to play (Populism). Nonetheless, "populism is not a novel phenomenon as populist resentment is an enduring staple of democratic politics" (now why is that?).

As has been written, here we are. Perhaps, the populist explosion indicates societal stress or something more simpler. Nevertheless, liberal market economics, coordinated market economics, state led market economics, and geographic populist iterations are immeasurably reflecting citizen responses akin to Herbert Stein's "things that can't go on forever don't." From America's point of view though, Lincoln has it just right: "the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the strong present."

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on June 04, 2018 at 21:02:45 pm

It stands for London School of Economics (I always appreciate an Oakeshott shout out!). Hopefully that's what you were imagining!

Good comment. It never ceases to amaze how the wheel turns in human affairs, so that we today stand to re-learn a great deal from thinkers like Ortega and like Oakeshott who were confronting the dissolution of their society (European society writ large) as many of us feel that we are now. It's sad but I guess it shouldn't be surprising that we find it so hard for the center to hold in our political disagreements. Liberalism is a hard discipline, and takes a lot of work to maintain. I see the movements of today which are derided as "populist" as important correctives to centralizing tendencies in the West. Incidentally Oakeshott's student Kenneth Minogue had a lot to say about this. It's pathetic to see so many thinkers miss so badly what is happening, especially so many conservative thinkers. Peter Lawler was making his way there, and I for one sorely miss his voice in these debates.

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Image of XianLSE
on June 04, 2018 at 22:25:01 pm

Thanks for your comment. the conclusion of the review seems to be in line with the final point in your comment. I am glad that the name of Ortega y Gasset is not entirely forgotten today. My reference to the revolt of the masses was a rhetorical point meant to spice up the text.

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Aurelian Craiutu

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