The new wave of populism exposes the fragile nature of democracy

© Ana Calegari/DWIH São Paulo

Populism and democracy are in the spotlight, today. In Brazil, as well as in Germany and Europe, they are also focused with concern. At the invitation of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Brasília, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Merkel, an expert in the subject, came to Brazil and granted an interview to DWIH São Paulo.

Under the title of the Europe-Brazil Forum, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Brasília is organizing a series of conferences and presentations on the future of democracy and the Rule of Law (Rechtsstaat), which will take place throughout this year, while visiting various Brazilian cities. Although they are topics of special interest in the debate regarding Brazil’s political reform, they are also the focus of concern in Germany and Europe.

The first debates of this series focused on the topic of populism and of democracy in crisis. The invited speakers were German Professors Jan-Werner Müller (Princeton University) and Wolfgang Merkel (WZB Berlin Social Science Center), whose work focuses on the subject of the resurgence of xenophobic nationalism in Europe. Besides São Paulo (March 14 and 15), this series also had editions in Rio de Janeiro (March 14), Brasília (March 18), and Porto Alegre (March 21).

The two editions of the event in the capital of São Paulo, on both the 14th and 15th of March, when the central themes were “What’s populism?” and “Populism and Democracy: Threat or Corrective”, respectively, were organized by Cátedra Martius de Estudos Alemães e Europeus (DAAD-USP) and the German Embassy in Brasília, in a partnership with USP’s Political Science Department and the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Foundation.

Click here to see the annual agenda of the Europe-Brazil Democracy Forum.

Could you briefly tell us what populism is and how it could compromise our liberal democracy?

Populism can be understood as a political concept based on three essential elements: strategy, ideology, and style.

Strategy: populism follows a strategy that challenges the establishment, the political elite, seeking to mobilize various groups of the population who do not feel they are duly heard, understood, and represented.

Ideology: populism is based on a fragile ideology (according to Cas Mudde, Professor at the University of Georgia) that draws together mentalities and isolated ideological fragments into a twisted political understanding, which focuses on the struggle of “us who are below” against the “elites who are on top”.

Style: the political style is different from the practice of established democratic institutions, especially in the attempt to break taboos, thus getting the attention of the media.

Populism shows itself to be more of a gradual phenomenon than an absolute one; that is, political parties or movements themselves cannot be defined simply as populist or non-populist, but almost always as more or less populist.

Regarding the question as to what point populism could challenge our democracy, one cannot answer that without using the adjectives “left” and “right”. The fundamental difference consists in who is understood to be the “people” and how the discourse construes and legitimizes it. Populists on the right hold an ethnical, or even racist, view of a homogeneous people. On the other hand, populists on the left understand the people as being the poor, disadvantaged, and exploited. Thus, a population is construed socioeconomically. The ethnic understanding of people is exclusive (foreigners), while a socioeconomic understanding is inclusive (the marginalized). The first point of view can be considered as antidemocratic, because it violates the principle of democratic equality, while the second view is not necessarily antidemocratic, since it follows the established constitutional rules. The problem of the two types of populism lies in the contempt for intermediary organizations such as parties, associations or parliaments.

Why has the subject “Populism and Democracy: Threat or Corrective?” become so important, lately?

As of 2000, populism, especially the populism of the right, brought a more significant change to the scenarios of the parties and of political discourse. The disputes between parties became more polarized and the discourse more intolerant. The populism of the right divides European and Latin American societies, but North American society also tends to increasingly discriminate against immigrants. At the same time, a new nationalism is settling in as a reaction to the international cooperation of democratic societies. All of this presents a threat to democracy.

The erosion of the democratic constitutional elements of the State and of the societies of Poland and Hungary is a good example of that trend. That is, where populism does not take part in the government, but continues to be the opposition, where it can play a corrective role, if the established parties and the political elite become sensitive to representing not only society’s more privileged members, but also, in the same proportion, represent the interests and cultural values of the less privileged.

Democracy and populism are important subjects not only for Brazilian politics, but also for Europe and Germany. Why is that?

Democracies are not eternal, and they are vulnerable. The new populism saw that vulnerability. It seeks to destabilize the liberal components of democracy, claiming that it is doing so in the name of the people.

The people vs. democracy: why could our freedom be in danger and how can we deal with this situation?

It is basically the rights of the minorities that are being threatened in the name of the majority of the right-leaning populists. Democrats must face the turmoil of right-wing populists with good arguments, without including the arrogant gesture of cosmopolitan moral superiority and the apparent insight of the more educated, since such an attitude only confirms and boosts populists.

What is your prediction regarding the future of our democracy?

The democracies of Western Europe, as well as that of the United States, are not threatened by existential crises. But in Eastern Europe and Latin America, it’s a different situation. In Venezuela, a weak and corrupt democracy was transformed by left-leaning populists into an even more corrupt authoritarian military regime. The same thing can be said for Nicaragua and, to a lesser extent, for Ecuador and Bolivia. If Bolsonaro puts his antidemocratic statements into practice, the Brazilian democracy will be in danger in the same way.

The liberal democracies will not succumb. The year 2020 will not be like 1922 in Italy, or like 1933 in Germany, 1936 in Spain, or Chile in 1973.

Yet today, the words of Sir Winston Churchill still ring true: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.”

Is populism the only threat to Brazilian democracy?

No, socioeconomic inequality and weak internal security in the face of organized crime and of daily life continue to be a threat to democracy, mainly for the less privileged social classes.

At the end of the interview, we asked Prof. Merkel to give a short answer to the following terms.

  • Populism: Populism has become a challenge to democracy.
  • Democracy: Democracy is not perfect, but, it is the only regime that allows people self-government.
  • Democracy versus populism: The established democracies are stable enough to face the challenges brought by populism.
  • Today’s Brazil democracy: There was notable progress in democracy in Brazil over the last 20 years – however, today it is being challenged.
  • Today’s Germany and democracy: The Republic of Berlin is a better democracy than that of the Weimar Republic or the Republic of Bonn.
  • Today’s Brazil and populism: Brazil is prepared enough to resist Bolsonaro’s populism of the right.
  • Today’s Germany and populism: The populism of the right will always exist in Germany, however, it does not significantly threaten democracy.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Merkel

The Director of the research program “Democracy and Democratization” of the WZB Social Sciences Center of Berlin, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Merkel, granted an interview to the DWIH São Paulo, discussing points to help reflect on this topic. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Merkel is also a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Human Sciences, among other institutions. As the author and editor of a number of books, he recently published Democracy and Crisis: Challenges in Turbulent Times (Springer, 2018), co-edited with Sascha Kneip, and The Handbook of Political, Social and Economic Transformation, co-edited with Raj Kollmorgen and Hans-Jürgen Wagener (Oxford University Press, 2019).