It is undeniable that anti-politics sentiments are on the rise all over Europe and that these trends also mirror the equivalent rise of support for anti-system actors. While there seems to be a certain consensus among academia, politics and the media on acknowledging a widespread crisis of representative democracy in Europe and beyond, agreement on causes and effects of the phenomenon is still lacking. To this regards, populism provides a interesting conceptual tool to better understand the current crisis of representative democracy, in that it channels, mobilizes, voices and fuels citizens’ disaffection to democracy. To put it differently, populist actors play a crucial role in every step of an imaginary climax to the crisis.

 What is populism?

Even though academics do not exactly agree on how to define populism, if as a political strategy, a style or an ideology, they do at least seem to agree on two crucial facets of the phenomenon: its “people-centrism” and “anti-elitism”. Populists usually build up a vision of politics – and of the world in general – by appealing to a rather vague and undefined “we the people”, which are then put in open confrontation with the established structures of power.

The people are supposed to represent the electorate, the ordinary citizens, the hard working but “silent majority”. As Margaret Canovan pointed out, the notion of people is so general and its conceptual horizons so vague, that the appeal to the people may be both inclusive and exclusive, integrative and divisive at the same time: it may in fact refer to a united people (the nation) or to our people (the ethnos). What matters the most, in the populist argument, is that the ordinary people are decent and inherently good, while the elites in power are corrupted and self-interested. Here is where the core ideas of populism rely, in this struggle people/elite, which sees the former as ultimately defeated and humiliated, albeit being the actual sovereign. Populism is thus inherently anti-systemic in that its raison d’être is precisely to revolt against the establishment and return the power to the legitimate authority, the people.

Populism is particularly hostile to representative democracy – because of the inner complexity of its institutional architecture – and to the type of politics that surrounds it, characterized by a plurality of actors that are essentially endangering the true spirit of democracy: the relation with the people. The critic to representative politics thus comes hands in hands with the courtship to direct democracy. In the populist ideology, there is a clear, straightforward and coherent reason for its anti-politics stand: it all goes back to the people. The people, and the issues the people are concerned about, are essentially simple: simplicity is declined as simplification, in opposition to the technical language of experts; directness, in contrast to politicians’ evasiveness; honesty, in contrast to shady compromises; modesty, against the arrogance of the elites; sympathy, in opposition to the careless and indifferent behaviour of the political class. Building on these premises, populism rejects not only complexity but also – and especially – intermediation, as both simply diverge the attention from the wishes of the people, thus serving the divisive interests of the elites. It is for this reasons that populist leaders fancy direct democracy and its instrument par excellence, the referendum, as this would finally allow an unmediated and direct transposition of people’s wishes into action.

Is populism dangerous?

Populism is a controversial political phenomenon not only because it is hostile to representative politics, but also to liberal democracy. Indeed, populists’ claimed frustration over check and balances procedures, overemphasis on crude majoritarianism and tendency for strong personal leadership clearly show their illiberal stands. In addition, its ideology fosters an unreasoned, emotional approach to politics, one that is informed by a radical Manichean understanding of social affairs, in which “us versus them” narratives are exploited and dangerously weaponized, leaving no space whatsoever for tolerance and compromise. As if this was not enough, populism resolutely disregards the existence of a plurality of opinions, interests and perspectives, which are key ingredients to a lively democratic arena.

Far from being the exclusive promoters, populist actors also represent crucial players of what has been labelled “post-trust politics”. Post-trust politics is not a simple sceptical view of politicians, but a rejection of facts and knowledge in favour of what “sounds and feels” convincing. If contemporary society has started to place truth in a secondary position, then our democracies run the risk of further spiralling down to an emotionalized politics of appearances, which would provide populism with the perfect ground to further thrive and capitalize on citizens’ disaffection, fear or resentment.

Finally, there is something even more concerning than such controversial “positions”. As Paul Taggart interestingly noticed, populism’s chameleonic nature and thin-centred core of values assure its potential ubiquity, as it may come together with a countless number of other ideologies. The problem is that no democratic regime is immune: populism actually results from the friction between an idealized vision of democracy and the practical functioning of popular sovereignty, constrained by the rules and procedures of representation. To say it with Margaret Canovan, populism inevitably follows democracy as a shadow.

Image source: Victor Bezrukov