Right-wing Populism vs. Liberal Democracy

Mark A. Siegel

Center for Global Affairs, New York University, Midway to the Midterms: Politics, Priorities and Policies. Lecture 5, October 25, 2021

The opinions expressed in this lecture are solely those of the author.

People often believe that one of the keys to understanding history and politics is human nature. How people act in part depends on how people feel. And — to all people — one of the most important components of human nature is how to protect oneself and one’s family — what’s best for me? — emotions of hope and fear, love and hate. It is also an element of human nature to be more comfortable around people who are like you, and to be suspect of others, even to fear people who are different. Anger is part of human nature, as is rage and envy. I think this approach may be the most potent methodology to evaluate the disturbing threat of what we can call “right-wing Populism” in Europe, in South America, in Asia and now, unfortunately in the United States.

We are dealing with two competing political movements — populism and liberal democracy. Let’s define them, operationalize them, see where they clash and explore why they may be irreconcilable.

Most people think that right-wing populism was born in Europe with Mussolini and Hitler. That is not correct. The first populist political party was created in 1891 in the United States. It was called the Populist Peoples Party, an agrarian movement that challenged the status quo with critiques of “moneyed interests.”

Although the Populist People’s Party lasted for only two decades, it played a significant role in American history. It merged into the national Democratic Party and shifted the Democratic Party’s ideology decidedly to the left where it has remained.

But in Europe in the 1920s we saw the spread of a different kind of right-wing political party that weaponized politics across the continent, first by Mussolini in Italy. General elections were held in Italy in April 1924 to elect the members of the Chamber of Deputies, the Italian Parliament. Mussolini’s National List was a multi-faceted coalition that even included the Catholic Church and successfully used intimidation tactics against voters that resulted in a landslide victory.

There was an Austrian who was so impressed with how Mussolini consolidated political power by mobilizing the common man that he went on to create a German party in Mussolini’s image. That man was named Adolf Hitler.

Let’s list some of the characteristics of right-wing populist movements, then and now:

— They are anti-Establishment

— They attempt to divide

— They attempt to alienate populations from their leadership

— They define their enemies as elites

— They are xenophobic

— They are nationalistic

— They are anti-immigration

— They are anti-minorities

— They are Islamophobic

— They are often openly antisemitic.

— They are ethnic centered

— They are tribal

— They speak of their societies as homogeneous

— They manipulate and provoke class divisions

— They use education level to incite division

— They rarely have consistent ideologies or programs

— They are authoritarian

— They have aggressive leadership

— They often use religion to incite division

— They use incendiary, hateful rhetoric

— They speak in plain, simple language using stark generalities

— They attack the press

— They spread conspiracy theories

— They spread information that is often outright and undisputed lies, and usually can convince their supporters that the lies are the truth

— They draw press attention and coverage by agitation and flamboyance

— They revel in intentional bad manners, behaving in a way unlike other politicians

— They endorse protectionist trade policies, isolating their countries and coopting the working class to turn against mainstream parties

— They reject multicultural values

— They denounce international organizations

— They are isolationist

— They attempt to perpetuate a state of crisis and emergency

— They reject representational democracy and endorse what they call direct democracy

— They reject separation of powers. checks and balances and limits on authority

— They encourage chaos as a rationalization to impose order

— They use the digital revolution to organize and promote division

— They are climate change deniers

— They claim climate change is an elitist creation and is a job killer

If this sounds familiar, it should. Donald Trump is working from a playbook. Clearly, the United States is not alone.

Now let’s define the target of populist rage — liberal democracy.

Liberal democracy is a representational and governing system that is characterized

— by elections between multiple, but at least two distinct political parties elected under free and fair rules

— by elections whose results are accepted by the people irrespective of outcome

— by adherence to the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open, pluralistic, inclusive society,

— by a market economy with private property

— by a free press

— by the equal and universal protection of human rights, civil rights and civil liberties

— by the equal protection of political freedoms for all people

These are the values and institutions that are under assault by right- wing populist movements around the world and in the United States today.

If you look up populism in a dictionary you see it described as a political movement premised on appealing to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by the establishment, or the elite. That doesn’t sound bad at all. It sounds kind of nice. But now let’s see how this goal is operationalized, distorted and manipulated.

The political key to populism and the way it captures political power lies in how people are divided, in the broadest sense into people and elites, manipulating the more negative qualities of human nature.

Right-wing populism across Europe and the United States takes different forms and paths depending on specific factors such as political history, political systems, political cultures, religions, ethnicities and in different manifestations of elements that trigger qualities of human nature, in this case negative qualities. What all populist movements have in common are mechanisms to divide something called “US” from something called “THEM.” US is good; THEM is bad. US is a comfort; THEM is a threat.

Populist movements in Europe in the early 20th century were direct reactions to the economic consequences of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, and the globalization dream of the League of Nations.

Later in the century in Germany, the Nazis took aim at what they called the cosmopolitan values of the Weimar Republic. As you call know, “cosmopolitan” in the 1920s and 30s and frequently even today is a right-wing trope for Jews. There was no subtlety to Hitler’s rhetoric. Meine Kampf is quite explicit. Economic conditions were bad, the “US” got more agitated at the “THEM“ and made ordinary people feel cheated, ignored, abused and above all angry.

Let us remember that a century ago, the most toxic right-wing populist regimes in human history came to power by democratic elections. Even if Hitler only got a third of the vote, he was elected by a humiliated, economically stressed nationalist population.

Hitler was an “illiberal democrat” — an elected nationalistic, nativist leader who governed as an authoritarian. To populism, democracy can be an electoral strategy, but it is rarely a governing one.

There was a clear global surge in support for right-wing authoritarian populism after the 2008 great recession. It was an unusual occasion when an elite class –the wealthy bankers — could be identified as more or less directly responsible for a crisis which affected most of the society — unusual circumstances but very useful to promote populist divisions.

We do not yet fully know the long-term democratic institutional effects of the COVID pandemic, but it certainly has had a political effect already, broadly impacting the popularity of leaders, turning people against elected leaders, and in the United States turning people against each other.

We have a modern crop of governments that we can call “illiberal democracies.”

— Bolsanaro in Brazil was elected and he governs as an authoritarian.

— Modi in India was elected, but he governs as a Hindu nationalist authoritarian.

— Erdogan was elected democratically by the people of Turkey, but he governs increasingly as an authoritarian.

— Orban of Hungary was elected but he has chipped away at Hungary’s democratic institutions, press freedoms, the academy and the judiciary. He has become the admired political leadership role model on FOX news.

— Duda of Poland was elected by the people but governs as a thug. Same for Duterte of the Philippines.

— Chavez of Venezuela was elected but governed as a dictator.

We had hope for a democratic Russia after the fall of communism, but Putin is as corrupt and authoritarian as a tsar — harassing and killing opposition, rigging elections and destroying even the semblance of a free press and independent judiciary.

We had thought and hoped that the expansion of the Chinese economy and interaction with westerners, western interests and values would make possible some democratization of the Chinese political system. If anything under Xi Jinping, the power of the communist party is even more absolute. The “totalitarianization” of Hong Kong is a primary example.

The success of Brexit has undermined the European political and economic alliance. It was politically and financially supported by right-wing populists across the world, including the active participation of Steve Bannon who viewed it as a key element of his international populist movement. It mobilized right and left-wing parties and workers intimidated by potential job loss because of globalization. The target is consistently the “elites,” even if the ideology of the populists is different.

Populism is expanding and succeeding across the world.

There was good news in the Czech Republic recently with the election of a liberal democratic government, but it has been drowned out by most other parts of Central and Eastern Europe going in the opposite direction.

And there seems to be an international political impact on democratic countries of the growth of right-wing populism. President Macron has now publicly blamed US right-wing populist groups for the surge of support for right-wing populist parties in France. It’s another manifestation of populism, in this case scape-goating the scape-goaters.

Right-wing populist parties universally denounce globalism and internationalism, but their movement in practice, organization and goal is very much international, very often geopolitically linked among countries.

The optimism of Europe at the end of communism has been replaced by real fear for the future of liberal democracy.

Countries that have elected right-wing populist leaders to head or serve in government are:

Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, India, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Pakistan, Poland, Serbia, Switzerland and Thailand. I suppose some would include the United States.

Influential anti-democratic right-wing parties are gaining strength in Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Lebanon, South Korea, Spain and Sweden.

In many parts of Africa and Asia, the socialism of previous generations has devolved into a very different economic and political system — powerful nativism that has institutionalized authoritarians. The movement, the direction, is one way.

What is losing ground today, around the world and the United States, is the very concept of liberal democracy — a tolerant, pluralistic ideology that operates under a democratic form of government that is elected and governs under the rule of law usually with some level of Madisonian separation of powers and checks and balances to ensure that power is not concentrated only in an executive.

So that brings us back home to the United States, whose democratic order, as we discussed two weeks ago, is under serious attack. Former FEC Vice Chairman Karl Sandstrom, speaking to our class last week, reinforced the fact that our form of democratic, liberal government can be exploded by changes in electoral law that reverse, without cause, the most critical point of liberal democracy — free elections, open to all citizens, whose results are accepted, electing leaders who govern under the rule of law. These new U.S. state election laws that limit access to voting are from the same genre of legislation used in Hungary and Poland.

There is nothing in the movement that is taking place in state after state under Republican control that can reassure us that something that threatens our country, and our lives, is not unfolding openly and shamelessly.

I have been referring to the two Americas all semester — the increasing polarization dividing us by geography, by demography, by education and above all by basic values. This polarization has been a petrie dish for right-wing populism in Europe for decades.

Brookings scholars Mark Muro and Jacob Whitan have written that “not only do the two US parties adhere to very different views but they inhabit increasingly different economies and environments.”

They conclude that Blue America is centered on fast growing urban and suburban America, filled with workers who represent a professional and knowledge economy. While Red America, based in shrinking rural and small-town areas, depends on vanishing industries like manufacturing, resource extraction and agriculture for its economic well-being. “The two parties talk almost entirely past each other on the most important economic and social issues, like innovation, immigration and education because they represent starkly different and diverging worlds.”

I have accessed data that compares Trump and Biden 2020 voters on a series of variables that define liberal democracy. I want to share that data because I think it clearly reinforces the construct we are discussing and the danger of two Americas. And it may suggest that possibly January 6th was not the end but rather the beginning of an assault that may in fact succeed. Each of these points in a sense define basic tenets of liberal democracy.

— Ninety three percent of citizens believe that democracy is under attack and is being tested, while only six percent disagree.

— Seventy eight per cent of Trump voters believe that Biden did not win the Presidency.

— More than half of Trump voters believe that there is solid evidence that Trump was the actual winner. Solid evidence.

— Fifty six per cent of Democrats believe there is no difference between the Republican Party and Fascism, while 76% of Republicans believe there is no difference between the Democratic Party and socialism. —

— On the question of whether people believe that elected officials of the other party are trying to seize power, 65% of Democrats and 85% of Republicans agree.

— On the media, the contrast in Trump and Biden voters is astounding. Eighty eight percent of Republicans believe that “mainstream media” might as well be part of the Democratic Party, while 77% of Democrats believe that Fox and conservative media might as well be officially part of the Republican Party.

— Eighty seven percent of Trump voters believe that the Democratic Party does not believe in the ideals that make America great, while 72% of Democrats believe the same of Republicans.

— Sixty six percent of Democrats are open to compromise and bipartisanship, but only 34% of Republicans are open to compromise. The data shows that Trump voters not only reject compromise but favor conflict over compromise. Republican voters see compromise as contrary to their own interests, again demonstrating that human nature shapes political behavior.

And here’s a shocker that really got my attention. As the preeminent test of whether we do have two distinct Americas, pollsters asked Democratic and Republican voters to react to this extraordinary statement:

“I would favor seceding from the union to form my own country with other blue/red states”

Forty one per cent of Biden voters agreed and 52% of Republicans agreed. Almost half of Democrats and more than half of Republicans want to secede from the Union — the circumstances and the mind-set that triggered the Civil War. As Amy Walters has observed, “Red and blue Americans are not only moving farther away on social, cultural and economic priorities but have convinced themselves that the other side is dangerous.”

You in this class are aware of the data on how Republican and Democrats feel about policy issues. There are two Americas on a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. There are two Americas on immigration. There are two Americas on Civil Rights. There are two Americas on election and voting laws. There are two Americas on rule of law. There are two Americas on race, on health care, on guns, on the rich-poor gap, on the death penalty, on government regulations. on marriage equality, on school curricula. And there are even two Americas about vaccination to defeat the covid pandemic and save hundreds of thousands of lives. Americans like me were vaccinated with the Salk Vaccine — with their parents expressing joy and relief — in our country’s schools in the 1950s and thus eradicated the terror of polio in America. Many of these same people are now refusing to take a safe and effective vaccine against a disease that has now killed 750,000 Americans, not only lethally endangering themselves but also their children, their grandchildren and everyone in this class. This version of US/THEM is nothing short of homicide.

And now there are two Americas on national security issues that in the past have manifested bipartisan consensus. For Republicans the top five threats to vital US interests are the development of China as a world power, international terrorism, large number of immigrants and refugees coming into the country, domestic violent extremism and Iran’s nuclear program. For Democrats the five leading threats to US vital interests are, in order — covid, climate change, racial inequality in the US, foreign interference in US elections, economic inequality in our country and political polarization.

Two Americas living in two very different worlds.

Since the turn of the previous century, in the wake of financial crises, we observed a consistent political pattern, especially in Europe. Far right political groups gain strength, and increase polarization and division — the “have and have-not” divide widens, and governing becomes all but impossible. So, what’s happening in the United States is not unique, but nevertheless disturbing and alarming. It’s comforting to know that we are not alone, and that we are not an historical aberration, but the real question before us is what we can do about it.

We have many areas that separate Americans that have developed over time and are often difficult to explain and address, but much of the legal and electoral threats to our democracy that are tearing national unity apart have literally been caused by one man and one circumstance— Donald Trump’s failure to concede to an election that he had lost by a substantial margin, and his propagation of the Big Lie that the Election was stolen.

It was that failure to concede, as every other modern candidate has done, that has given the green light to regressive Republican elected officials and state legislatures to attempt to pass legislation that openly undermines the most central tenet of liberal democracy — free and fair elections resulting in the peaceful transfer of power.

If on the morning of November 7th when Pennsylvania was projected for Biden and all networks declared him the President-elect, Donald Trump had picked up the phone and called Biden and conceded, congratulated him and wished him well, the assault on American free and fair elections now taking place across our country would just not have happened. So at least in terms of threats to free and fair elections, this one man, with his failure to accept his defeat, has had an enormous effect on our country, even triggering a physical assault on the world’s greatest symbol of democracy — the US Capitol.

As David Brooks observed in the New York Times, “going forward [we very] well can expect bogus claims of voter fraud and equally bogus challenges to legal vote counts [and vote certifications] to become a permanent feature of the Republican strategic playbook.” A Big Lie was the driving force of right-wing populism almost 100 years ago, and a different Big Lie has successfully achieved what many authoritarians have prayed for — the bitter disintegration of American national unity and possibly even America’s place as a world leader.

Whatever Comrade Putin paid to implement the plan to interfere with the 2016 presidential elections in America turned out to be far more potent than Russia’s ICBMs and nuclear arsenal. It was perhaps the greatest bargain in world political history.

And the fact that Trump very clearly continues to be not only the leader of his party, but the probable next Republican presidential nominee has rapidly accelerated the long historic path of the Republican Party to right-wing populism. Maybe some could argue that it started with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy that legitimized racism in American political culture, but it had been a slow progression that was accompanied by significant internal opposition. But now conservative Republicans committed to the basic precepts of liberal democracy are being purged from the party leadership by a rank-and-file hypnotized by a cult demagogue who publicly says what the hardcore base has always believed but has before been afraid to speak. That base is not afraid anymore.

Wednesday’s vote in the Senate to debate a moderate Voting Right Bill to protect the electoral process from abuse was the clearest signal yet of the Republican Party leadership’s acquiescence to Trumpism, which I believe is unmistakably right-wing populism. Not one single Republican in the US Senate supported allowing the Senate to debate legislation guaranteeing free and fair elections, not even the seven Republicans who voted to convict Donald Trump of instigating sedition against America. Not one — not Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, not Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, not Susan Collins of Maine, not Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, not Mitt Romney of Utah, not Ben Sasse of Nebraska, not Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Not one. Not even one.

The Republican base has succumbed to adulation of Trump and consequently Republican political leadership has been intimidated and terrorized into submission. It is a pattern we saw around the world in the past, and now this variation of right-wing populism seems to be distorting American politics.

The question is what can be done to block our country’s slow but steady path away from liberal democracy and constitutional law. Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger will be marginalized and defeated. It is unrealistic to expect a sudden epiphany in either the Republican rank-and-file or Republican leadership to restore itself to the traditional principles of the Grand Old Party, the Party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and George Herbert Walker Bush, and yes even the Party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. and George Bush.

The responsibility is in the hands of those committed to democracy, Democrats and Republicans alike, civic non-governmental organizations across the country, and ultimately with individual citizens, with each and one of us. The defenders of liberal democracy must focus on identifying and countering threats to democratic institutions — an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, the rule of law, protected space for civil associations. These are the primary defense institutions against illiberalism, against authoritarian populism and must be safeguarded.

David Brooks has suggested that Americans committed to the preservation of liberal democracy should sponsor plebiscites across the US to overturn anti-democratic laws passed by Republican state legislatures. People who believe in liberal democracy should do everything possible to “protect election officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, who are being challenged by Trump loyalists. Donations should be pouring into key governor and secretary of state races critical to election certification. In localities those committed to good government should organize poll watching. Lawyers who make phony claims in court should face disciplinary action in bar associations. The financers of the voting rights assault must be exposed and publicly shamed. “

Furthermore, Brooks claims that “Democrats can leapfrog the Right with significant investments in streaming media, podcasts, newsletter and innovative content produced on growing platforms like TikTok whose audiences dwarf networks like Fox News.”

At the same time political reforms are needed to restore the ability of liberal democratic institutions to perform effectively. Gridlock frustrates ordinary citizens and makes them more open to leaders who are willing to break the rules in order, they claim, “to get things done” and “to restore order.” A potent step to challenge restoration of faith in government by the people may be to eliminate or modify the filibuster rule in the Senate so that majority governments elected by the people can enact policy that address major problems in the country.

Neglecting problems of ordinary people is the populists’ bait. The US Congress and the President, whether controlled by either party, must be given the opportunity to demonstrate that they can effectively govern. If they fail, they can and should be replaced. But they must be given the power and authority to get things done. And in the case of the filibuster, it would not only allow Congress to enact policy, but also pass legislation to protect the basic principle of liberal democracy — free and fair elections, popular sovereignty, the right of the people to be the ultimate judge of their political leadership.

Populist parties often support measures, such as trade protectionism and withdrawal from international organizations to address the human characteristic of blaming troubles on someone else. But the anger of millions of people who feel they have been left behind and ignored cannot be ignored and dismissed. The Democratic Party once overwhelmingly represented blue collar workers. It must find a way to effectively talk to them again, to convince them that the Democratic Party is on their side because it best reflects their economic self-interest.

The Democratic Party must also find the right message to reengage independent voters and suburban America. It cannot assume that recent positive voting trends moving these constituencies blue will continue. Voting patterns can be reversed, driven by issues on the minds of voters. The political party inversion on educational status is a solid example. As Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said, for Democrats “the conversation in Washington doesn’t match the conversation that’s happening around the country.” With all due respect, to put it bluntly, as a New Yorker, AOC’s Bronx is not America; what’s on the minds of the “squad” doesn’t coincide with the concerns and the lives of millions of working people who have deserted the Democratic Party.

Two years ago, I was on a panel in Almaty Kazakhstan with the Foreign Minister of Russia, a Scottish leftist populist parliamentarian, and Steve Bannon. What happened, other than the panel becoming a predicable debate between me and Bannon, was even more important to my understanding of populism.

Bannon and the Scottish leftist populist seemed to agree on everything except for a few elements of capitalism. They even used the same rhetorical tropes, the US/THEM dichotomy, fomenting division for political gain. It made me realize that populism is not an ideological continuum between the left pole and the right pole. It is rather a circle where the US/THEM exploitation and the perversion of human nature meet. They were both clearly a part of a movement to attack the establishment and elites, inciting divisions by class, geography, and race.

They both railed against immigrants — the leftist because immigrants “steal workers’ jobs”; Bannon because immigrants will replace the homogeneity of white Christian countries. Conservative theorist Rod Dreher says that Fox’s Tucker Carlson’s vigorously endorses “the great replacement theory” which holds that Democrats are replacing white Americans with nonwhite immigrants in order to increase their vote tallies.

Bannon and Carlson made me think of the that tattooed terrorists at Charlottesville screaming “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” Again, the populist mantra: “US/THEM.”

Saying that, we cannot ignore that wealth in America has not been fairly shared in America and has not led to broadly shared prosperity. When the top 1% owns 90% of the wealth of a nation, as in the United States today, there is really is potential for a successful effort to US/THEM America, and to destroy it as we know it.

As we learned in the 1920s and 1930s, the combination of huge gaps in wealth and strong undemocratic movements can be powerfully appealing. But today’ economic problems are not comparable and modern right-wing populism, at least in the United States at the present time, lacks the emotional intensity and appeal of fascism and communism. The comparison between now and then should not be exaggerated, but root causes of populism cannot and should not be ignored — they are manifestations of human nature that will not disappear. Human nature and human choice will determine America’s fate.

We cannot wait for others to act. The danger is now our personal responsibility. We should heed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King who said, at a different time and a different place: “It is up to us to redeem the soul of America.”

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Mark Alan Siegel

Mark Siegel teaches at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He is a former Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee.