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ASU prof on how an engaged civil society can prevent the erosion of democracy

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August 16, 2019

In recent years, political scientists across the globe have taken note of an alarming rise in the number of populist candidates in democratic elections. This summer in the Czech Republic, more than a quarter-million people assembled in Prague’s Letna Park to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a move that Arizona State University School of Politics and Global Studies Associate Professor Lenka Bustikova and colleagues wrote in a Washington Post Monkey Cage article sought to defend liberal democracy against a populist political approach that threatens to undermine it.

Bustikova co-wrote the article “Czech protesters are trying to defend democracy, 30 years after the Velvet Revolution. Can they succeed?” along with Petra Guasti, interim professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and a 2018-2019 Democracy Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation; and Michael Bernhard, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.

In particular, the article explores technocratic populism and how social movements like the demonstration in Letna Park have the power to protect liberal democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

“Technocratic populism is an understudied form of populism that is a sophisticated threat to liberal democracy in many places around the world,” said Bustikova, whose research focuses on party politics, voting behavior, clientelism and state capacity, with special reference to Eastern Europe.

“Civil society and demonstration do not and cannot replace political parties and elections,” she added, but “what they can do … is increase pressure on elected representatives to act responsively.”

ASU Now asked Bustikova and Guasti to share more of their insights on populism, how it threatens democracy and what can be done about it.

(Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

headshot of ASU professor

Lenka Bustikova

Question: The general definition of populism (a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups) doesn't sound that bad. So when does it become a problem, and how can populism undermine democracy?

Answer: Populism can undermine democracy in multiple ways:

1) Populist leaders create a direct relationship between themselves and the “people” — the electorate. This direct relationship bypasses traditional institutions of representative democracy, such as political parties and intermediary institutions of representations. These institutions constrain political leaders and create a system of checks and balances. Populism dissolves them.

2) Populism embraces majoritarianism — the majority will of the “people.” As such, it suppresses plurality and minority voices in politics. Populism is compatible with majoritarian democracy, but it is not compatible with liberal democracy. Liberal democracy protects minority voices in politics and policymaking.

3) Populism can have many forms. Some populism(s) polarize the electorate. Polarization diminishes the ability of political representatives to seek compromise. Populism that uses nativism and xenophobia is especially polarizing. It hollows out the moderate center.

4) Populism’s three primary forms are nativism, economic populism and technocratic populism. Each form of populism represents a different problem for democracy. Nativism is exclusionary — hostile to migrants and minorities. Economic populism expresses intense hostility to economic differences. Technocratic populism glorifies simple life and offers the ideology of economic efficiency and technocratic solutions. Technocratic populism is not a rule by efficient technocrats, but a strategy to delegitimize traditional political parties and civil society. Me and my co-authors describe this form in the Washington Post Monkey Cage article, and Petra Guasti and I explore it further in our paper “The State as a Firm: Understanding the Autocratic Roots of Technocratic Populism.” Technocratic populism is an understudied form of populism that is a sophisticated threat to liberal democracy in many places around the world, and therefore merits further attention and comparative analysis.

Q: Why are populist candidates appealing to some voters?

A: In the era of globalization, all advanced industrial democracies are subject to uncertainty, which transforms fear into resentment against the “other,” often drawing on negative emotions linked to historical stereotypes. Populism offers hope: “that where established parties and elites have failed, ordinary folks, common sense, and the politicians who give them a voice can find solutions” (Spruyt, Keppens and Van Droogenbroeck, 2016). Therefore, traditionally egalitarian countries in northern and central Europe are just as prone to populist appeals as societies that experience economic divisions.

Q: What parallels are there between the current state of politics in the Czech Republic, the U.S. and other countries? Is democracy in danger?

A: Democracy, defined as liberal pluralism, is under stress worldwide. Liberal democracy is built on democratic institutions and engaged citizens with shared democratic values. Pluralistic democratic institutions, free press, civil society and the rule of law are under attack. The culprits, however, are not anti-democratic forces that want a regime change (which often involves military coups and crude electoral fraud). Instead, as Nancy BermeoNancy Bermeo is an American political scientist and professor and Nuffield Chair of Comparative Politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. argues, the changes are incremental — elected leaders who seek to aggrandize executive powers undercut democratic institutions (judicial autonomy, media freedom, transparency in elections). By attacking the press and civil society, they seek to limit accountability to pursue their agenda. Populists in power seek to limit the ability of citizens to demand that elected representatives act responsibly and responsively. Therefore, democracies are not endangered by reversals, but by hollowing out — erosion and decay — while preserving the facade of electoral democracies.

Q: What accounts for the apparent rise in populism globally?

A: It is tempting to associate the rise of populism with the global economic crisis. Economic anxiety can lead to the destabilization of political systems and prompt voters to punish parties by opting for anti-establishment, populist challengers (Hawkins, Read and Pauwels, 2017). However, with the data in hand, we can say that while economic crises certainly fueled the rise of populism, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for it. Populism is associated with: 1) growing uncertainty connected but not limited to changes in labor and globalization (ie; the gig economy, automation, etc.), and 2) changes in societal relations (i.e., emancipation of women and minorities) that generate grievances among large segments of society — in particular white males and the working class — who face increased uncertainty about maintaining and reproducing their social status.

Q: What evidence do we have that demonstrations can prevent the erosion of democracy? Why/how do they work?

A: What prevents democratic erosion are not demonstrations per se. Large-scale demonstrations that are called to protect liberal democracy, the rule of law and human rights are an expression of a robust civil society. Protests signal that civil society is able to mobilize significant segments of the population. This increases pressure from below on elected officials and expands horizontal accountability. Civil society and demonstration do not and cannot replace political parties and elections. What they can do, however, is increase pressure on elected representatives to act responsively.

Q: How can we ensure an active and engaged civil society?

A: Civil society is an autonomous sphere outside the state, business and private life. As Robert Putnam, in his seminal piece “Making Democracy Work,” puts it: Civil society is crucial for the fabric of democracy, as it is a place where shared values, trust and social capital are built. For Jurgen HabermasJurgen Habermas is a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism, best known for his theories on communicative rationality and the public sphere., civil society is a precondition for political society — space where rational will-formation takes place.

In a democracy, civil society is a watchdog of the political sphere, ready to challenge the authority of elected officeholders and public servants if they do not act responsively and ethically. The survival of any political system depends on legitimacy — on the acceptance of the rulers by the ruled. An active civil society depends on active, engaged citizens committed to liberal democracy. Citizens who care about norms and values need to be willing to organize, stand up to power and use their voice to express discontent and hold elected representatives to high moral standards.

Top photo: Protest in Prague's Letna Park against Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis on June 23. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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