Demophilia demolishes democracy?

Populism stirs up emotions. This claim holds true not only in the relations between politics and society or the media but also in the academic community which, for many years, has studied this multidimensional and dynamic phenomenon at the interface of the political and the social. Participant of the conference "Current Populism in Europe: Impact on the Political Landscape” reports how sources and consequences of this political phenomenon were analysed in the context of Europe's future.

Dominika Kasprowicz, Ph.D.

In face-to-face encounters with the electorate, populist politicians spur PEOPLE into political fight and promise confrontation with the ruling elites. The term ‘populism’, used in all forms, with various adjectives added to it (agrarian, political, entrepreneurial etc.), hits the headlines over and over again. Populism also enjoys continuing popularity within the walls of universities, even though, as vividly put by one expert, the study of populism is like clay pigeon shooting in dense fog. However, the ambiguity of this notion and the difficulty in capturing the universal characteristics of populism cannot change the fact that the different varieties of populism have been growing in popularity again, exerting influence on the political landscape.

This phenomenon was the focus of the conference held in Prague on 23 and 24 May 2006. The meeting, co-organised by the Charles University in Prague and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, as well as the Goethe Institute in Prague, was attended not only by recognised scholars dealing with this topic, such as Paul Taggart, Takis S. Pappas, Daniele Albertazzi or Michael Freeden, but also by speakers from non-governmental organisations and the media. The latest wave of political populism, initiated by the collapse of the U.S. banking system and the credit crunch of 2008, became the main theme of the conference.

Keynote speeches and panel discussions were divided into two categories: general sessions dealing with the phenomenon of populism in politics and national case studies. The analysed cases included the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary as well as France, Italy, Greece and German-speaking countries. Each of these countries has examples of movements or parties which use populism as an effective way to win electoral support. The conference participants devoted particular attention to the hot example of Austria, where Norbert Hofer, a candidate from the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPO), made it into the second round of the elections, and to the U.S. presidential campaign with Donald Trump playing a leading role.

Worth noting is that the examples of parties or their leaders described during the conference were based on different ways of understanding ‘populism’ as a phenomenon between a political style and an extended vision of a new political order.

In the former approach, populism (viewed as a political style or strategy) meant nothing less than the demagogy used to gain and maintain power. It is manifested through the use of social engineering and direct relations in communication with the electorate and often creates a clientele (in extreme cases, it would involve vote buying and job selling). From this perspective, populism is an inseparable part of electoral democracy and an inherent feature of the political class.

In another approach, populism has been described by the conference speakers as a more universal political doctrine which can be understood as ‘a litmus test of democracy’. In other words, this approach deals with visions of political movements which reveal the weaknesses of democratic procedures and poor quality of the elites, thus accumulating political capital.

In this broader sense, populism and populists propose more or less coherent solutions to transform the democratic order, aiming to exchange the elites and/or increase the representation of the sovereign, or the mythical ‘people’.

It is precisely the ‘demophilia’, the alleged ‘love of people’, that is common to doctrinal populists and political opportunists. Both want to be seen as ‘the voice of the electorate’, purportedly effective in the fight against the corrupt and inefficient elites.

When speaking about the key weaknesses of European democracies, which are also the driving forces behind the populist discourse, conference participants mentioned, among others, the deficit of trust in social relations, the role of the media and the mediatisation of politics.

A large part of the conference was devoted to the use of populism by extreme movements and parties, especially far-right ones, which have gained new momentum in the face of the refugee crisis and the threat of the decomposition of the EU (Brexit). Their understanding of ‘the people’ as an ethnically and culturally cohesive national group, permanently under threat from external and internal factors, has turned out to be a quite convincing alternative (in countries of Western, Central and Eastern Europe) in the context of the leadership crisis and value crisis on the old continent. The place which those parties and movements received in public discourse in recent years, and the space which they have captured in the virtual space, has also impinged on mainstream politics. Politicians from traditional parties, many of whom are often unable to take alternative steps, are happy to adopt the rhetoric which is extreme in its form and populist in its content.

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.