Maurits Meijers and Andrej Zaslove address the ‘myth’ that populist beliefs among citizens are harmful for liberal democracy. Using insights from recent research, they argue that highly populist citizens are not more likely than other citizens to reject the principles of liberal democracy
Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti identify three hard die-hard myths about populism. Another myth concerns the relationship between populism and liberal democracy. Most research on this subject has focused on political parties and leaders, but not on populist citizens themselves. For example, Nadia Urbinati and Jan-Werner Müller argue that populism is antithetical to liberal democracy.
As a defining worldview, populism posits that political power should reside with the people, and with the people alone. Popular rule, the argument goes, is hampered by the efforts of corrupt elites. Hence, populists believe that the interests of ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ are in essence incompatible. To these scholars, politics is a struggle for power between the ‘virtuous’ ordinary people and the deceitful elites.
‘The people’, moreover, are considered a homogenous group with similar interests and preferences, and with a joint ‘general will’. This essentialised, uniform view of ‘the people’ is at the heart of the argument of theorists such as Urbinati and Müller, who write that populism, by definition, remains incompatible with pluralistic forms of political thought. After all, if ‘the people’ are unified in their interests, there is no need for debate and accommodating diverse interests.
Populist governments have eroded checks and balances on the executive, attacked media freedom, and have targeted minority rights
Contrastingly, liberal democracy centres around the idea of safeguarding pluralism in politics. On the one hand, liberal democracy entails free and open competition between different political parties in a public sphere with free and open debate. On the other hand, liberal democracy underlines the importance of the separation of powers and the rule of law, which constrain the executive branch vis-à-vis the legislative and judicial arms of government.
And indeed, comparative research has shown that populist movements do not bode well for liberal democracy. Populist governments have eroded checks and balances on the executive, attacked media freedom, and have targeted minority rights.
While populism was initially studied at the party level, the degree of populist beliefs can also be measured among citizens. Research on ‘populist attitudes’ has found that some citizens hold a set of populist beliefs.
Previous research has found that highly populist citizens were equally, or even more, supportive of the principle of democracy. Given the emphasis on popular rule in populist beliefs, this is perhaps not surprising.
But how do highly populist citizens see liberal democracy? In recent research, we examined whether the incompatibility between populism and liberal democracy is also true for citizens. Concretely, we examined, for a representative sample of Dutch citizens, whether high levels of populist beliefs correlate with the rejection of key principles of liberal democracy pertaining to political pluralism and the separation of powers.
While highly populist citizens tend to reject the idea that political parties are important for a democracy, they were just as likely to support liberal democratic principles as citizens with no or low populist beliefs
We found no evidence that populist citizens reject liberal democracy. However, we found that highly populist citizens tend to reject the idea that political parties are important for a democracy. Highly populist citizens were equally likely to support most liberal democratic principles as citizens with no or low populist beliefs.
What is more, our evidence suggests that populist citizens are more likely to embrace liberal democratic principles. This includes the idea that everybody should be able to express their opinion, that governments follow set rules and procedures, and that courts treat all citizens equally.
While our study focused on the Netherlands, our evidence aligns with the findings of multiple other recently published studies. Alexander Wuttke and colleagues find that populist citizens in France, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are, overall, not more likely to reject the rule of law than non-populist citizens. Wouter van der Brug and colleagues, moreover, show that people who vote for populist parties are not less supportive of most liberal democratic principles than voters for other parties.
Our evidence suggests that populist citizens are not any less supportive of most principles of liberal democracy. However, Andrej Kokkonen and Jonas Linde found in recent research that citizens with nativist views are more likely to reject key elements of liberal democracy. As Cas Mudde explained, nativism introduces the idea that all ‘non-native’ elements in society form a threat to the ‘nation-state’. Hence, if we want to point to political beliefs that form a precursor to anti-liberal democratic ideas, radical-right nativist beliefs should be of greater concern than populist beliefs.
Recent research suggests that the negative relationship between populism and liberal democracy does not directly affect citizens with populist beliefs. On most indicators, our evidence suggests that populist citizens are no less supportive of liberal democracy than non-populist citizens.
At the same time, that does not mean that all is well. Despite widespread support for the principle of democracy among populist citizens, research has found overwhelmingly that citizens with strong populist attitudes are very dissatisfied with how democracy works. Rather than a principled rejection of the system of liberal democracy, populist citizens are unhappy with what governments deliver.
Our evidence suggests that populist citizens are no less supportive of liberal democracy than non-populist citizens
As such, it should come as no surprise that such dissatisfaction increases the appetite for unorthodox political solutions. Marcel Lewandowsky and Michael Jankowski find that populist citizens are willing to vote for a candidate with illiberal positions if those positions are associated with ‘better’ policies. At the same time, Eelco Harteveld and colleagues find that nativist voters become much more satisfied with democracy once governments include radical-right parties.
Populist citizens are no less supportive of key liberal democratic principles. But they are discontent with the way politics works, and with the policies that governments pursue. Ultimately, it is this factor that might prepare the ground for anti-democratic movements to take root. We should therefore advise mainstream political actors to take citizens’ discontent seriously, while safeguarding key liberal democratic principles in office.