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Populism, A Deadly Disease

Democracies of the Twenty-First Century

Sylvia Eyzaguirre
PhD en Filosofía, Universidad de Freiburg Santiago, Chile. Á - N.3

The death of democracy in Venezuela is an extreme example. But the weakening that various democracies in Europe and the Americas are suffering is evident, with the growth of populist parties both of the extreme right and the left. The democracies of Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Sweden are threatened by populist parties that are growing every day. Hungary, the Phillipines, Turkey, Russia and the United States have leaders in power with clear populist overtones and some even have authoritarian features. In all of these the retreat of democracy began at the polls.

We look upon what’s occurring in Venezuela with dismay. According to the UN, since 2015 around four million people have fled that country. According to the statistics of Maduro’s own government, 5,287 people were killed in police actions in 2018 for “resistance to authority”, and between January 1st and May 19th of that year there were 1,569 deaths. The “United Nations Human Rights Office Report On Venezuela” indicates that as of May 31st of this year around 800 people were arbitrarily deprived of their liberty and 22 members of the National Assembly, including the president of that body, have been stripped of their parliamentary immunity. To this political repression has been added the economic and social crisis of the country. The scarcity of foodstuffs, medicine, energy and medical specialists has brought Venezuela to a humanitarian crisis. In 2018, 3.7 million people were suffering malnutrition (United Nations Fund for Nutrition and Agriculture) and this number continues to grow. The health services work in impossible conditions. In the March 2019 blackout alone, 40 patients died in hospitals, and between November 2018 and February 2019 1,557 people died due to a shortage of medical supplies. Could anyone have foreseen this scenario in 1998, when Chávez won the presidential election for the first time? It seemed impossible.

Slow decay

How Democracies Die, the latest book from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, invites us to reflect on contemporary political developments. Both authors are reknowned academics at Harvard University and are dedicated to the study of democracy and authoritarianism; the former with special emphasis on Latin America and developing countries, while the second has concentrated on Europe. The question they raise is not by any means novel. History reminds us again and again how fragile democracy is. It suffices to look at our own history and realize that only 30 years ago we recovered our democracy. The interesting thing about this book is not the question, but the answers it offers after a meticulous study of the political events of the twenty-first century in the West.

We are accustomed to think that democracies die at the hands of armed men. According to these authors, three out of ever four democracies which fell during the Cold War collapsed due to a coup d’état. The losses of democracy in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Guatemala, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay are some examples. However, not all democracies die at the hands of dictators who usurp power by means of violence. Democracies can all die at the hands of democratically elected politicians who manage to subvert the very process that brought them to power; Hitler is a case in point. But democracies also die by a process of slow decomposition. This last form is that which proliferates today, and happens at a snail’s pace under our own noses.

What are the first symptoms that denote a weakening of democracy? According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the first sign is a polarization of the political elite. When elites see each other as enemies rather than opponents, when they do not recognize the legitimacy of their adversaries, when this polarization hinders agreements, a deterioration of politics begins that jeopardizes not only the political process, but the political class altogether. This environment is a petri dish for populist leaders. The incapacity of the political class to respond to the needs of voters leads democracy to lose its prestige as a regime, and citizens to seek new leaders outside the classical political spectrum. For the authors, there are two unwritten democratic norms that reenforce the mechanisms of balance and control, and which have been fundamental for the well-functioning of the United States: mutual tolerance and restraint. The first is the tacit agreement of the rival parties to accept each other as legitimate adversaries; that, by the way, was the spirit which prevailed during the Concertacíon governments in Chile. The second is the moderation that politicians must have when applying their political programs. Beyond the majority they may have in parliament, moderation is fundamental so as not to exacerbate political passions. Gradualism in change would thus be the second secret to success for keeping a democracy healthy; another characteristic of the Concertacíon period.

“Norms of toleration and restraint served as the soft guardrails of American democracy, helping it avoid the kind of partisan fight to the death that has destroyed democracies elsewhere in the world, including Europe in the 1930s and South America in the 1960s and 1970s”.[1]

It is not clear, however, whether the polarization of the political elite is a consequence or a cause of the weakening of these two norms.

Democracy, by its nature, must live with populist leaders: not simply censor them. The issue in question is not whether this type of leader will emerge —in fact, in every democracy there are populist or demagogic figures— rather, the question is whether political parties act like a containment barrier. For Levitsky and Ziblatt, political parties are the true guardians of democracy. They the dykes of contention, they ought to try and stop populists from taking power “by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them, and when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates”.[2]

“Democracy, by its nature, must live with populist leaders: not simply censor them. The issue in question is not whether this type of leader will emerge —in fact, in every democracy there are populist or demagogic figures— rather, the question is whether political parties act like a containment barrier”.

The greater part of populist leaders who have managed to kill democracy in their countries came to power with the backing of the political parties. Little short-term advantages can become costly errors. Such are the cases of Hitler, Mussolini, Fujimori and Chávez, among others, who counted with the support of political parties. The fact that we keep committing the same mistakes that history itself has tried to teach us is probably due to the ambition proper to human nature. The temptation to profit from charismatic leaders who challenge “the old politics” becomes irresistable when “the old politics” feels the loss of its power. Hence the importance of the unrestricted commitment of the parties to democracy. While the ideological rivalry of the parties is what gives democracy meaning, that should be set aside if democracy is under threat. Because there is no greater political difference than that which corresponds to the forms of political organization.

“The greater part of populist leaders who have managed to kill democracy in their countries came to power with the backing of the political parties. Little short-term advantages can become costly errors. Such are the cases of Hitler, Mussolini, Fujimori and Chávez, among others”.


Bury the elite

How can we identify politicians who are a risk for democracy, without falling into the error of labelling any rival as antidemocratic? Basing themselves on the work of Juan Linz, Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four traits which are characteristic of authoritarian politicians. These are:

1) The rejection of democratic rules. This could mean rejecting the Constitution, suggesting the adoption of antidemocratic means, restricting civil rights, suggesting the use of extra-constitutional means to change governments or undermining the legitimacy of elections, among other things.

2) Denying the legitimacy of their opponents. This manifests as labeling their opposition as subversives , contrary to constitutional order, threats, criminals with links to drug trafficking, terrorists or foreign spies, for example.

3) Tolerating or fomenting violence. This is especially evident when they have links to terrorist groups, armed gangs, militias, paramilitary forces, guerrillas or other violent illegal organizations. Also when they support violence against their adversaries or stay silent in the face of such violence; and when they praise acts of violence, even if there were in other places or in the past.

4) Showing a willingness to restrict the civil liberties of their opponents, including the media. Caution is advised when leaders support policies that restrict civil liberties, threaten to take legal action against people critical of the government, or praise repressive measures adopted by other governments.[3]

For the authors, if a politician meets even one of these criteria it is cause for concern.

“Very often, populist outsiders [tend to score positive on this litmus test]. Populists are antiestablishment politicians —figures who, claiming to represent the voice of “the people”, wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to ‘the people’”.[4]

Protecting democracy from these potential dictators is the responsibility of the parties. Hence their first task is to keep such figures off their election tickets. In the second place, they must eliminate extremist members who support figures with authoritarian qualities from their bases. In the third place, they must avoid making alliances with antidemocratic parties and candidates at all costs. Finally, pro-democratic parties must forge broad alliances to defeat extremist political opponents who have serious chances of electoral success.

The authors’ warning about the eventual threat of populism might seem paranoid or exaggerated. Nevertheless, if we consider the latest social and political occurrences in Europe (Brexit, Vox, Podemos, Orbán, far-right parties in Austria, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden), we realize that these warnings are valid. They take on even more strength when we look at the challenges that globalization and technological advances are bringing to liberal democracies. The globalization intrinsic to liberal democracy has brought with it the relocation of different industries to countries with greater competitive advantages, often provoking layoffs in some local economies in the short-term. This is compounded by the large waves of migration that have created serious social conflicts, shown by the growth of nationalist sentiment. Both phenomena create tension for liberalism, which still has not managed to formulate a response that calms voters’ fears and worries. Automation will increase social conflict to proportions we cannot predict.

Liberal democracy should face its own consequences, and it is important that it does not fail in the attempt. And it is precisely in this aspect that the book falls short. Levitsky and Ziblatt offer us a battery of tools to detect potential populist leaders who might plot against democracy, and they also offer a series of formal recommendations for political parties to stop such leaders from taking power. But none of this is enough if it doesn’t address the causes of the social conflicts that foster the polarization of political elites, and the authors say nothing on the subject. It is essential to reflect on the challenges that liberal democracies are facing, so as to return to pro-democratic politicians the compass that will allow them to navigate these rough waters. The book tells us there is no time to lose.

[1] Levitsky, S. and D. Ziblatt (2018). How Democracies Die. USA: Crown, p. 22.

[2] Ibid. Page 19.

[3] Ibid. Pages 44-47.

[4] Ibid. Pages 39-40.