Populism does not necessarily pose a threat to democracy

Populism does not necessarily pose a threat to democracy

1 Mar 2017

Is populism a threat to modern democracy? Academy-funded researchers of populism and democracy view this problem from a number of angles – some view it as a threat and some do not. Although many issues remind us of the 1930s, citizens are much more aware nowadays. However, democracy can no longer continue in the traditional way.

According to Academy Research Fellow, Juha Herkman, much depends on how populism is defined.

“Populism seems to be on a roll at the moment. In addition to pointing to the elite, right-wing populism in particular is appealing to ‘national roots’ and singling out immigrants. After a long period of stability, many people want political change and are expressing their dissatisfaction with politics and politicians by supporting populism. They seem to be yearning for a return to strong leaders, in addition to candidates from outside politics,” Herkman explains.

“I have to admit that I’m a little alarmed when I look back at the historical forces that shaped the 1900s. Our era has many features in common with the 1930s. In some countries, huge support for right-wing populism has led to authoritarian models of government. The situation is very worrying in Hungary, where the opposition, media and other dissenters have been backed into a corner. In Poland, the opposition still seems somewhat effective and may even be able to prevent the worst legislative reforms and concentration of power. Most people in the US and other western countries still believe in democracy, and will defend it against authoritarian impulses.”

For this reason, Herkman does not see a new totalitarian era lying ahead, but believes that we should be vigilant and try to counteract attempts to pit nations, ethnic groups and cultures against each other, and resist resurgent nationalism, the closing of borders and protectionism. On the basis of Academy of Finland funding, he is researching Nordic populism in the media as an employee of the University of Helsinki.

Background of genuine economic uncertainty and increasing multiculturalism

“Trust in traditional representative democratic institutions, particularly political parties, has diminished, but not nearly as much as is often claimed,” says Professor Tapio Raunio of the University of Tampere. He believes that economic uncertainty and the transformation towards a multicultural society are probably fairly strong factors in the surge in support for populism. At the same time, power has moved further out to international organisations such as the EU and ‘market forces’.

“It’s utterly logical for those sections of society that are more concerned about internationalisation to express their fears by swinging towards more nationalist political forces at the ballot box.”

Raunio believes that political parties still lie at the heart of European power politics. He thinks that we should be more worried about countries outside Europe, where democratic institutions are often fragile and the political culture is centred on strong leaders. He points out that there is clear support for rule by strongmen in the EU’s more eastern states and that this can benefit presidents elected by a direct majority vote in particular, who are only too glad to emphasise their role as defenders of citizens’ interests.

“One of my current studies focuses on the presidents of EU member states. It suggests that low levels of trust in governments and party politics, in general, tend to promote the use of power by presidents. Presidents often appeal directly to the people, while calling the actions of their governments into question,” says Raunio. He has used Academy funding to conduct research on Nordic parliaments, citizens and democracy.

Democracies are resilient

Urpo Kovala, a researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, points out that protest movements tend to have been short-lived, their support being eroded by economic recovery, disappointment with the achievements of populist parties and opposition to such movements. “But we need to add the caveat that this general tendency could be changed by the political situation – the immigration crisis, the mutual reinforcement of populist movements,” he explains.

Kovala thinks that democracies will prove resilient in general. “On the other hand, history does not obey the law of probabilities: how many people predicted the success of The Finns party, or Trump’s election in particular?” he reminds us.

Kovala also observes that research on populism has taken little account of the way in which populist movements and their achievement of power tends to be mutually reinforcing. “The latter, achieving power, is often thought to be fatal for such movements, but the populist agenda can gain ground from this, as occurred in Finland in the case of immigration policy in particular.” He is particularly interested in seeing to what extent Trump is forced to give ground on his demands. Kovala has used Academy funding to study the relationship between rhetoric and the formation of populist movements.

A great transformation lies ahead

Postdoctoral researcher Lotta Lounasmeri doubts that the party-based parliamentary system can continue in its current form: “In the best-case scenario, elements of so-called direct democracy will increase in the political system and many issues will be decided at local level. Of course, this could happen via a major crisis, where there is no alternative.”

Lounasmeri, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, says that the social and intellectual awareness of citizens is continually growing and various kinds of wrongdoing and world events in general are being brought to their attention faster and on a broader basis.

“Another tendency is the increase in extreme phenomena and thinking, to which populism is also related. This signals growing fear of loss and a feeling of being threatened, and that some choose isolation and protecting their own interests over openness.”

Lounasmeri believes that the tendencies arising from such fears can be opposed by seeking positive change through gradual changes in the system. Broad comparisons with the 1930s are easy, but the education and awareness of citizens, and the opportunity to find out about issues, is now on a wholly different level to then.

“I view the electoral success of Trump and other extreme nationalist politicians as a sign of the system and western society reaching the pain barrier; the current approach has reached the end of the road and a major transformation lies ahead. Of course, the elites and the small group of insiders benefiting from the current system will want to maintain their position and privileges, which could lead to major conflicts,” says Lounasmeri, who, in her Academy-funded research, is analysing the wielding of political power by interviewing political and media decision-makers about the roles, responsibilities and relationships they view as important in their work.

Things could go wrong

Professor Marja Keränen believes that, in relation to citizens, the feedback mechanisms of representative democracy have clearly weakened or even changed direction since the 1980s. The ability of civic organisations and political parties to provide political decision-makers with feedback on the interest and aspirations of citizens, while activating people to get involved, have weakened while the related channels have been blocked. People’s ability to take an influential stand on decisions have diminished, party memberships have shrunk and there has been a change in the position of civic organisations in the consideration of issues.

Based at the University of Jyväskylä, Professor Keränen is using her Academy funding to investigate the participatory turn in democracy. The idea behind the turn is to increase direct participation by citizens, in place of representative democracy. From this perspective, she believes that – with respect to populism – western democracy could fall into crisis if no improvement is made in the feedback mechanisms between citizens and political decision-making, or if clear relationships built on responsibility and accountability cannot be found. She views populism as a reaction to the crisis in representative democracy, which is due to the blockage of feedback mechanisms between citizens and political decision-making.

“It can also be viewed as a reaction to the fact that power-responsibility relationships are difficult to grasp and distinguish in a world with multiple administrative tiers. In such circumstances, calling for more self-activation is not guaranteed to counterbalance the mechanisms creating inequality. The participatory turn is unlikely to resolve this crisis, but is more likely to see the marginalisation of already marginalised citizens from participative projects,” Keränen emphasises.

Original Finnish text by Leena Vähäkylä

Last modified 1 Mar 2017
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