🔮 Deliberation is no silver bullet for the ‘problem’ of populism

Kristof Jacobs addresses the ‘myth’ that deliberation will counteract populism, arguing that there seems to be a crucial difference between populist citizens and populist parties. There are indeed reasons to be optimistic when it comes to populist citizens, but far less optimism is warranted when it comes to populist parties

Populism and deliberation: high expectations

Populists are not satisfied with the way democracy works nowadays. They do not reject liberal democracy outright, but want it to change. Indeed, they feel the political elite is unresponsive. Not surprisingly, then, populist parties thrive in settings where there is widespread feeling that politicians do not listen to the people.

What if… decision-makers gave citizens a voice in the decision-making process? In fact, this is happening across the globe. Democratic innovations, that is: decision-making processes that aim to deepen citizens’ participation and engagement in political decision-making, are ever more popular. They come in many shapes and forms, such as referendums, deliberative mini-publics or participatory budgeting. Deliberative democratic innovations in particular are popular, as is evidenced by the many nation-level citizens’ assemblies on climate change. We have seen such assemblies not only in France, but also in the UK, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Spain and Austria.

Several prominent scholars of deliberation contend that deliberation promotes considered judgment and counteracts populism

Scholars of deliberation are optimistic about the potential of such deliberative events. In one often-cited piece in Science, several prominent scholars of deliberation contend that '[d]eliberation promotes considered judgment and counteracts populism'.

But is that optimism warranted? What does the available empirical research tell us? To examine this, one must distinguish between populist citizens and populist parties.

Populist citizens and deliberation

Much research has examined the effect of participation in deliberative mini-publics on political attitudes in general. Review studies on the effects of deliberation have found that mini-publics can influence trust in political institutions or faith in the efficacy of governance, for example. But what about populist attitudes? While empirical research on this topic is still in its infancy, several patterns are starting to emerge.

To begin with, it seems that populist citizens are more likely than their non-populist counterparts to support the use of deliberative democratic innovations. When participating in democratic innovations that involve an element of deliberation, they are just as satisfied with the process as non-populist citizens. Moreover, populists evaluate the quality of the deliberation as positively as their non-populist counterparts.

Populist citizens are more likely than their non-populist counterparts to support the use of democratic innovations

After taking part in deliberative democratic innovations, citizens' populist attitudes even decreased. While populism is sometimes equated with anti-pluralism, these results suggest that for populist participants, the picture is more nuanced.

Effects on the broader public are less clear. In general, studies examining such effects are very scarce, and to the best of my knowledge, no such research exists regarding populist citizens’ reactions to deliberative democratic innovations. Citizens with more populist attitudes were likelier to accept their loss after a referendum. However, we do not know whether this type of effect also occurs for deliberative democratic innovations.

Populist parties and deliberation

For parties, however, the picture is different. In general, political parties are more instrumental when it comes to democratic innovations. They support such innovations when they are in opposition, or when they believe they produce the outcomes they themselves prefer anyway. When looking at the outcomes of deliberative democratic innovations, political parties, especially those in government, tend to cherry-pick the ones that align with their policies.

When looking at the outcomes of deliberative democratic innovations, parties tend to cherry-pick the ones that align with their policies

One would perhaps think that populist parties are different. After all, populist parties are often seen as credible change agents who say they want more power for the people. Yet research on when populist parties support referendums already suggests that they may not be that different after all. The scarce research on populist parties’ reactions to deliberative democratic innovations also corroborates this.

In the case of the French Climate Assembly, for instance, I found that the two main populist parties, La France Insoumise and the Rassemblement National, reacted completely differently to the assembly's outcomes. The former was positive, the latter negative. And both reactions were in line with their prior positions.

Moreover, even La France Insoumise, while positive, still clearly indicated that where the outcomes of the assembly did not align with its own election manifesto, the manifesto was superior.

Populist citizens versus populist parties

All in all, then, the available empirical research tempers the optimism of some deliberation scholars. It is thus better to have realistic expectations of the potential of deliberation.

There may be effects on populist citizens, but populist parties are very instrumental in their use and reaction to deliberative democratic innovations: they support such innovations only when they deliver the outcomes the populists like.

This is a sobering message for reformers hoping to win over populist parties by implementing deliberative democratic innovations. Again, it seems that populists are no outsiders, but rather simply very similar to other parties: they are not different from other parties just because they say they want more power to the people. 

No.42 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Kristof Jacobs
Kristof Jacobs
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Radboud University of Nijmegen

Kristof has specialised in populism, democratic innovations and democratic challenges.

His articles have appeared in journals such as the European Journal of Political ResearchBritish Journal of Political SciencePolitical Behaviour and West European Politics.

He tweets @kristofjacobs1

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