The greatest threat confronting democracies around the world is not from without but from within. While we need vigilant and resolute responses to the escalating efforts of Russia, China, and other dictatorships to penetrate and subvert our democratic institutions, they cannot on their own reverse the extraordinary democratic progress of the last several decades. It takes homegrown autocrats to do that. And unfortunately, they are growing in number.
In my last column, I explained the twelve-step program illiberal populists pursue as they seek to drag democracies down to fit their authoritarian personalities and ambitions. Populists move in incremental fashion to gradually erode and then eviscerate democratic norms and checks and balances, reducing democracy to a hollow shell of majoritarian domination while running roughshod over the rights of political opposition and ethnic minorities. “Tyranny of the majority” is what the constitutional framers of American democracy feared when they crafted in the late 1780s an unprecedented governmental system of popular sovereignty. Hence, they leavened the purely democratic features of our constitutional system with liberal guarantees (such as the Bill of Rights) and republican constraints both on executive power (through legislative and judicial checks) and on popular passions (through the antiquated modes of indirect election of the Senate and the President). The result was what the framers called “a republic”—or, in the famous quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “a republic, if you can keep it.” Over time, this would mature into what we now call a liberal democracy (though still an imperfect one).
The web of institutional and normative checks on pure “majority rule” has come to be considered foundational to a liberal or “high quality” democracy. It is these formal and informal checks—the political independence of the courts, the parliament, auditors, inspectors general, the civil service, the media, universities, businesses, and other elements of civil society—that populist presidents and prime ministers attack in their quest for untrammeled power. Once they have leveled these sources of scrutiny and restraint, the populists’ final step is to take effective control of electoral administration, so that even the purely democratic aspect of the system is degraded and their reelection largely assured.
This is the process of creeping authoritarianism by which vibrant democracies have been ravaged in countries such as Venezuela, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bolivia, and now the Philippines. It now seriously threatens the quality and even the survival of the world’s largest democracy, India. It has afflicted post-communist democracies such as Hungary and Poland, with the former descending into an electoral authoritarian regime. And, with the rise of xenophobic and illiberal parties like Alternative for Germany, the Sweden Democrats, the National Front (in France), and the League (in Italy), it now stalks the landscape of a number of advanced democracies in Western Europe.
Once in power, there is no self-imposed limit on how far populism will go to erode democracy. It starts by assaulting the liberal elements—tolerance, accountability, and the rule of law. Once it has gutted those, it seeks to rig the electoral component, until and unless it meets insuperable civic resistance or is defeated at the ballot box. Logic and history show that the safest and most decisive way to contain the threat that populists pose to democracy is to defeat them in an election—while elections remain democratic. But how can populism be defeated?
Defeating populism requires a clear analysis of its structure and logic. As the Greek political scientist Takis Pappas has observed in the Journal of Democracy, “Populism typically displays four interrelated—and mutually reinforcing—characteristics.” These are, first, charismatic leadership; second, a strategy of bitter and incessant political polarization (separating the “good,” deserving majority from the corrupt ruling elite and their decadent and undeserving supporters); third, efforts to take control of the state and “emasculate liberal institutions;” and fourth, “the systemic use of patronage to reward supporters and crowd out the opposition.” In addition, contemporary populism mobilizes fear and resentment against ethnic, religious, or nationality minorities, and xenophobia about foreigners and global institutions. Through the demagogic distortion (and manufacturing) of “news” and images, it blames the declining social and economic status of traditional groups (and even the country at large) on dangerous “others”—immigrants, minorities, and foreign powers (or some conspiracy among them). Hence, it vows to purify the nation and make it “Great Again.”
This is a potent and combustible mix. People who are angry, frustrated, or afraid will rationalize a lot of bad behavior from a leader who they believe has their back. It may appear a formidable task to defeat an incumbent populist who is bullying critics in his party and the larger society while vitiating the rule of law. But diverse recent elections—from municipal contests in Istanbul, Budapest, and Prague, to the elections of anti-corruption activist Zuzana Čaputová as president of Slovakia and liberal centrist Kyriakos Mitsotakis as prime minister of Greece—show that liberal democrats can defeat populist parties and leaders if they have the right strategy. And the sooner this happens, the better—for the more time populism has to settle into power and reshape its institutional contours, the more that liberty and democracy are at risk.
Political learning must now move in the reverse direction from its normal “flow”—older, advanced democracies need to carefully study the experiences of younger and less stable ones. For it is the newer and more embattled democracies that have the greatest experience with illiberal populism, and who know its strengths and its vulnerabilities.
Here is what I have learned from the experience of democrats who have tried to turn the tide against populism in these countries, and from scholars who have analyzed their successes and failures.
- Don’t try to out-polarize the charismatic “polarizer in chief,” either in style or program. If you do, you will be playing by his logic and rhetoric, and on his psychological turf. It’s likely to be a losing game, because he is better at it than real democrats are, and because a campaign strategy centered on strident denunciation of the populist and his misdeeds will harden and mobilize his base and alienate some swing voters. Therefore:
- Pursue an inclusive electoral strategy that reaches out to doubting elements of the populist’s support base and mobilizes the broadest possible constituency for change. Don’t consign people who voted for the populist last time or who once “approved” of his performance to a “basket of deplorables.” Don’t question the morals or motives of his sympathizers, but rather appeal to their interests and positive values. And therefore:
- Avoid tit-for-tat rhetorical slugfests that mimic the populist’s penchant for name-calling and the politics of personal destruction. Don’t descend into the muck of ridicule or invective; stick to principles and behavior. You can’t one-up a populist in verbal abuse. If you try, you look smaller. You descend to his moral level, and, by implying that his supporters were morally depraved to have ever supported him, you lose the ability to pry some of them away.
- Show some humility, empathy, and even love to neutralize the populist’s poisonous politics of resentment and division. (In Turkey’s municipal elections last year, the opposition’s winning campaign was based on an electoral strategy called “radical love.”) To triumph at the ballot box, a populist must win over voters who are not racist or authoritarian but are angry and insecure. The populist connects with anxious voters on an emotional level. To connect on an emotional level with voters who are hurting, democrats do not need to exploit emotions, but they do need to understand them and show empathy for them, as the Polish scholars Jaroslaw Kuisz and Karolina Wigura argue in an incisive essay in the forthcoming (April) Journal of Democracy. What has unhinged these voters from their traditional political attachments and values? Why did they answer the siren song of illiberal populism in the last election? What populist critiques of “the establishment” (and its distance from ordinary people) might have a kernel of truth? What could be a better way of addressing these voters’ grievances—whether they be cultural (feeling disrespected for having more traditional social or religious values), political (not being heard by representatives), or economic, as they worry over the security of their jobs, their health insurance, their retirement savings, or their children’s economic futures? Therefore:
- Craft a positive, issues-based campaign strategy focused on the policy failings and vulnerabilities of the incumbent populist administration. Offer substantive, practical, non-ideological policy proposals that not only rally the political opposition but also induce some supporters of the populist to defect to a broad-based campaign for the future.
- Don’t let the populist hijack nationalism. Democracy requires “a sense of common belonging.” Offer a liberal, democratic version of unifying pride in the country as a democracy. To be effective, such a liberal nationalism has to be credible, and to be credible it has to be sincere. You don’t have to trash the United Nations, the Paris Climate Accords, or foreign aid and international trade in order to stand proud of your country, its people, culture, and accomplishments—and to firmly proclaim freedom, democracy, and the rule of law as cornerstones of what has made the country great.
- Offer hope and an optimistic vision of a better future. A democratic alternative does not have to be charismatic or radical to motivate people. But it does need to articulate more than a rational appeal to interests or a technocratic future of smart government. It has to offer what Richard Nixon (of all people) called, in his first State of the Union address, “the lift of a driving dream.” Populists typically look backwards, divisively, to promise that lift. But a “driving dream” is more uplifting if it looks forward. The key—at both the emotional and programmatic levels—is to offer hope and even excitement. There is no reason why Democrats can’t offer an alternative vision for the country that is not only more inclusive and forward-looking but also more hopeful.
- Don’t be boring. Kuisz and Wigura also urge liberal democrats not to ignore the stylistic element of electoral politics. Our era is saturated with constant streams of information, pulsating rapidly from multiple sources. Populists dominate this space through shock and awe: insult, outrage, derision, and disinformation—the politics of “infotainment.” In these ways, they rivet people to their social media sites and intensify their anger and commitment. Democrats don’t need to peddle in falsehood or invective to find lively and creative ways to communicate their message of hope, inspiration, and concrete policy alternatives, and to do so with passion and conviction.
I wish these were merely lessons for the challenged democracies of Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. But unfortunately, they present an increasingly urgent imperative for the country that will matter most for the global future of democracy, the United States. With every passing day, the populist president of this country is escalating his assaults on accountability, civility, and the rule of law. If his recent acquittal in the Senate has unleashed such a tirade of abuse and retribution, what would his reelection bring? The future health of American democracy now depends on how well the Democratic Party can learn—with humility and savvy—the global lessons of how to beat a populist.