The End of History? Not quite.

In recent years, there have been numerous papers written by Western scholars on what they describe as the decline of liberal democracy in the world. They have noted this phenomenon in various countries around the world, some of which have long been considered the most stable democracies in the world.[1] They often disagree about what causes this disruption of what was considered the most promising political model in human history[2], with Applebaum explaining that the dramatic divide in present-day Poland results from preexisting incompatible conceptions of the nation’s identity[3], while Galston attributes the increasing disillusionment with democracy to an unequal distribution of wealth.[4] Despite these differences, however, these scholars generally agree that populism is ultimately a dangerous threat to liberal democracy.  

There are two assumptions that limit our discussion of how exactly populism poses an existential danger to liberal democracy. The first is that ‘democracy’ necessarily entails liberal democracy. This unspoken consensus results from the normalization of Western liberal values, and it hinders the understanding of the definitions and implications of these separate terms.  

The second assumption, frequently included as a hopeful projection to conclude an otherwise bleak outlook on the current rise of populist movements, is that despite everything, liberal democracy will endure because it promises to fulfill fundamental human needs in a way that other political models simply cannot. It is the “only legitimate form of government”[5] and the end of history.[6] Events in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, and, perhaps most disturbingly, in the United States have cast doubt upon Francis Fukuyama’s optimistic prediction[7] that liberal democracy is the ultimate political system to end political strife.  

In this paper, I establish definitions of three key term: democracy, liberalism, and populism. Distinctions between these terms are critical to understanding how they relate to and affect one another. I explain that liberalism and democracy are very separate entities, and at times entail directly opposing actions. I then argue that the danger of populism comes from the fact that it falls under the umbrella of democratic ideals. Its unique alignment with democratic values forces us to consider the possibility that liberal democracy could in fact simply be one of history’s many tried and failed ideologies.

I understand democracy as the belief in and appeal for popular sovereignty. It is centered on the idea that the people of a polity hold the ultimate authority to make decisions. The democratic spirit therefore entails the belief in the direct rule of the people, and in their ability to freely exercise their will. Along with this is the implication that what the people want is one and the same as what is best for them. In a pure democracy, the government exists solely to carry out the will of the people. Public officials acting in their own selfish interests and not in that of the people would be removed and replace. 

Liberalism, though commonly thought of as a feature of democracy, actually encompasses an entirely separate system of viewpoints. For one, liberalism believes that certain unalienable rights exist for all people. Liberalism believes that the power of the people needs to be systemically tempered to protect them from themselves. “Unchecked rule by the people can easily lead to illiberalism—or worse.”[8] In the case that a majority of the population wants something illiberal, the role of a liberal government would be to act against the will of this majority. A truly liberal society is one in which liberal values supersede the will of the people. Importantly, moral judgement is not left, to the people, but rather allocated to established authorities who will properly define the true public good. 

Liberalism and democracy are separate entities, that certainly work towards the same objectives at time, but also oppose one another at other. They are not automatically linked in the way that we in Western societies have grown accustomed to thinking. It is because of this that while liberalism can certainly be conducive to the formation of a functional democracy, it is neither an integral part, nor necessarily and effortless addition to a democratic system. 

Having established definitions for both democracy and liberalism, I will turn my attention to populism—an ideology that threatens both the aforementioned terms, as well as the precarious balance that we have struck between them in liberal democracies. Most of the principles underlying populism are democratic ones. Populism also emphasizes the right of the people to rule directly, and exercise control over their government. An addition, however, is that populism includes a criticism of the institutions of the state: what makes a populist is his “reaction to the structure of power.”[9]Populism stems from a perceived shift away from democracy, and presents itself as “an appeal to ‘the people’ against both the established structure of power and the dominant ideas and values.”[10]  Populist leaders advocate for the abolition of obstructive establishments that hinder the people from translating their will into policy. Populism is therefore able to present itself in a far more romantic fashion, as a return to true democracy.  

In practice, populism also necessarily includes a certain anti-pluralism, which stems from the fact that populists believe in the existence of only one true group that constitutes ‘the people.’ In this paper, however, to avoid delving into the specifics of how ‘the people’ have been defined, I treat populism as a theory, and discuss how the aspects of populism are harmful to our liberal democratic system, as well as to its underlying democratic values. 

The danger of populism is twofold: populism is dangerous to a liberal democracy because it exploits the preexisting incompatibility between democratic and liberal ideals, and it also calls into question the viability of liberal democracies for the future. 

To read the full paper, get in touch with me!