Democracy Without the People

Left populism vs. insipid pluralism

Valerie Hegarty, George Washington with Branches (detail). 2016, canvas, wood, paper-mache, acrylic paints and gels, wire. Courtesy of the artist.

Since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, a steady stream of concern pieces has appeared across the national press: “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” “An Erosion of Democratic Norms in America.” “Will Democracy Survive Trump’s Populism? Latin America May Tell Us.” “Trump, Erdoğan, Farage: The attractions of populism for politicians, the dangers for democracy.” “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red.’”

The worry is obvious: democracy is under threat. Moving from headline to text, however, one perceives a shift. The basic meaning of democracy — the rule of the people, or popular sovereignty — is nowhere to be found. Instead, democracy appears to refer to a series of institutions and norms, not all of them obviously democratic.

In the New York Times, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write that Trump’s flagrant rejection of “partisan self-restraint and fair play” poses an existential threat to “our system of constitutional checks and balances.” In an interview with the Atlantic, the political scientist Brendan Nyhan says he expects Trump to be unconstrained by “bipartisan political norms.” Francis Wilkinson at Bloomberg slides from describing democratic institutions as anchored in elite bipartisan bonhomie to equating democracy with deference to the national-security state. “Trump has signaled clearly that he will deal with powerful democratic institutions as he dealt with his Republican rivals,” Wilkinson writes. “Look at Trump’s approach to US intelligence agencies.” Venerating the CIA as exemplary of democracy is symptomatic of a more general tendency — one in which even the most brazenly antidemocratic US political institutions are taken to embody democracy.

Among the confounded political analysts, what followed Trump’s victory was an epidemic of self-castigation. “We” had failed to “listen” to “white working-class” voters. Since the inauguration, however, elitism in the guise of centrism is once again on the move. Democracy, they say, is under threat from populism, and only a defense of norms and institutions can exorcise the specter of a reckless citizenry. But what if the truth is the opposite, and populism is not the problem but the solution?


The vision of democracy as an elaborate system of checks and balances — enforced by a combination of constitutional law, informal norms, competing interests, and the distribution of socioeconomic power across a plurality of groups — first crystallized in the 1930s. American political scientists at the time felt the need to define a uniquely “American” model that was distinct from “totalitarianism.” This model, referred to as “pluralism” or “liberalism,” provided subsequent elaborators with an alternative to democracy in the robust sense of “rule by the people.”

In 1956, Robert Dahl’s A Preface to Democratic Theory coined the term polyarchy to contrast with theories of “populistic democracy,” which, as Dahl wrote, associated democracy with “political equality, popular sovereignty, and rule by majorities.” In Who Governs? (1961), an empirical study of polyarchy at work in New Haven, Dahl deployed the concept to argue against the notion that the United States was ruled, as C. Wright Mills and others had it, by a “power elite” — and the idea that the stability of American polyarchy owed in part to the disengagement of American citizens. Dahl’s concept accustomed countless students of democracy to what was in fact insipid pluralism, handily justifying existing power relations and institutions. The equation of polyarchy with democracy remains pervasive in comparative studies of democracy and in the measurement of democratic consolidation. Witness the political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, who in his recent essays on populism for the London Review of Books and the Guardian defines the essence of democracy as “presenting citizens with options.” Meanwhile populism is branded as “principled antipluralism.”

In the emergent genre of democratic prognostication, political scientists and analysts alike pair this discourse with a pious narrative of the American tradition. As Levitsky and Ziblatt write, “With the possible exception of the Civil War, American democracy has never collapsed; indeed, no democracy as rich or as established as America’s ever has. Yet past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival.” Likewise, the sociologist Carlos de la Torre refers in a Times article to the long-standing “foundations of American democracy” and its “tradition of checks and balances to control political power.”

But the American political system’s stability should not be conflated with its degree of democracy. Painting our overcomplicated Madisonian system as a transcendentally democratic one requires a certain amnesia: to believe it, we must ignore the founders’ explicit antidemocratic intentions, the range of exclusions that have structured the boundaries of the demos since, and the more recent impediments to democracy designed and abetted by the very principled “moderates” to whom the authors now appeal for salvation. One might forget, from all these accounts, the Madison of The Federalist Papers who denounced any politics that gave vent to “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project” — the Madison who demanded a “total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity.”

The Trump Administration obviously poses serious threats to pluralism and to democracy in the more substantive sense. But Trump’s means of threatening democracy are features of the system, not contraventions of it. His executive orders do undermine substantive democracy, but not because they upset a delicate balance of power among branches of government or partisan political forces. The “bipartisan consensus” cast as the moral backbone of democracy has vested in the presidency inordinate war-making and surveillance powers hidden from public scrutiny and unchecked by democratic debate or accountability. From the war on terror to the deportation pipeline, from domestic spying to Wall Street’s guaranteed seat at the economic-advising table, Trump inherits a branch of government already well equipped to undermine democracy. The President and his crack squad of billionaires and white nationalists will undoubtedly turn these tools to devastating effect, as they already have. However, our critique of Trump — and our determined political resistance to Trumpism — should not rest on mourning a democracy we have never really achieved.

The bone of contention in all these accounts is “populism.” While Trump is seen as an exception to an otherwise democratic American tradition, he is also figured as an expression of populism’s transatlantic rise. The authors of antipopulist accounts rhetorically exploit what are obviously alarming right-wing victories to take aim at “populism” tout court, invoking examples that span the ideological spectrum. For the Globe and Mail’s editorial board (“Trump, Putin and the threat to liberal democracy”), Trump “is only one expression of a long-incubating virus” that has infected “more and more voters on both the extreme right and extreme left.” In regards to Trump’s denigration of the media, Levitsky and Ziblatt write that he takes “a page out of the playbook of populist leaders like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.”

In a New York Times article, Amanda Taub draws on recent research by political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, putting Trump in the same category as both right and left “antisystem populist parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France, Syriza in Greece and the Five-Star Movement in Italy.” De la Torre suggests that “Americans should take a look at Latin America, where, starting in the 1940s, elected populists undermined democracy” — flattening the distinction between such ideologically opposed presidents as Argentina’s Perón and Ecuador’s Velasco Ibarra, Venezuela’s Chávez and Peru’s Fujimori, Bolivia’s Morales and Argentina’s Menem. The concern over pan-ideological “extremism” recycles post-Brexit commentary as distilled in the tinny voice of the wounded establishment, Tony Blair, who in his op-ed for the New York Times (“Brexit’s Stunning Coup”) warned of a growing “convergence of the far left and far right.” Blair sees this “insurgency” in entirely communicational terms: the center’s failure to “persuade” voters unmoored from political common sense was due to “polarized and fragmented news coverage” and “the social media revolution.”

Seen from the fast-shrinking center, all populism, right or left, is equally suspect, because each represents the unhinged demos that the existing institutional order seeks to moderate, filter, and contain. By this logic, Sanders’s invocation of “the 99 percent” must be the same as Trump’s celebration of the “deplorables,” Occupy Wall Street the correlate response to the Tea Party, and left-wing Latin American populists indistinguishable from their right-wing predecessors. According to these writers, what extremist voters on the left and the right share is an attraction to, as de la Torre phrases it, “politics as a Manichaean confrontation.” But in politics that pits “the people” against their adversaries, it still matters how the people are fashioned and who is identified as their opponent.

Since the rise of “formal” democracy, populism has dogged it like a shadow, dramatizing, as political scientist Laura Grattan argues, a general paradox of democratic politics. “The people” ostensibly govern themselves in a democracy — but who are “the people”? As Rousseau put it, for a people to self-govern, “the effect would have to become the cause”; the people both constitute democratic institutions and are constituted by them. Democracy is in many ways an ongoing political contest to define the people and their powers. By making claims about the identity of the people and how they enact their political power, populist movements and leaders on both the left and the right confront this fundamental problem of democracy. Their answers, however — how they define “the people” and their prescriptions for democratic practice — could not be more opposed.

Populism can shore up exclusionary visions of the people. But it can also do the opposite, fostering unlikely alliances between marginalized groups. The emancipatory potential of populism relies on the political construction of a “social bloc of the oppressed,” as philosopher Enrique Dussel has argued, drawing on Gramsci and Laclau. Left-wing populism exposes class antagonisms; right-wing populism obscures them, replacing them with cultural chauvinism, xenophobia, and racism. Where left-wing populism contests inequality, right-wing populism redistributes it — making certain kinds of inequality seem not only acceptable but natural.

What the defense of democracy against populism inevitably amounts to is a defense of political centrism. Democracy is reduced to the separation of powers and the search for bipartisan consensus. In an article for Vox’s appropriately titled politics blog, “Polyarchy,” political scientists Lee Drutman and Mark Schmitt of the New America Foundation argue that defending “basic democratic norms and maintaining a strong focus on corruption” — as opposed to fighting to preserve social spending — “is the right strategy.” Despite the failure of this “strategy” during the Clinton campaign, Drutman and Schmitt assert that “the voters Democrats seem more likely to gain are the more affluent suburbanites who are less susceptible to the politics of resentment and more concerned about basic democratic norms.” In his column in Dissent, Michael Walzer summoned leftists to defend “the vital center” (“We have to stand in the center and on the left at the same time. That may be complicated, but it is our historical task”). The apotheosis of this defense may be the Clintonite Third Way’s $20 million campaign to devise a new strategy for the Democratic Party. As reported in Politico, “Part of the economic message the group is driving — which is in line with its centrist ideology — is to steer the Democratic Party away from being led into a populist lurch to the left by leaders like Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren.”

At the center of critiques of populism is the towering figure of the leader: the demagogue who can channel and summon unruly followers at will. In a piece for Foreign Policy summarizing Human Rights Watch’s recently published report “The Dangerous Rise of Populism,” the group’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, equates populism with “demagogues,” “strongman rule,” and “autocrats.” In Jan-Werner Müller’s essay for the LRB, populism is largely reduced to the unhinged power of tyrants, who “claim that they and they alone speak in the name of what they tend to call the ‘real people’ or the ‘silent majority,’” and who symbolically construct the people in a unilateral, top-down fashion.

This latter point echoes Laclau’s analysis in On Populist Reason, which emphasizes the role of the leader in unifying disparate demands into a shared identity. But it also misses one of his key insights: that the formation of a shared identity in opposition to the status quo does not begin ex nihilo with a charismatic political genius tapping into latent discontent. The formation of “the people” comes out of a longer process, in which various marginalized groups come to share similar experiences of the state ignoring or rejecting their demands. Prior to the election of a leader, they connect their grievances — a process Laclau calls “equivalential articulation.” This pattern of populist self-organization applies to leftist populist parties and to the leftist leaders of insurgent party factions that Müller explicitly excludes (“Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Syriza”). Ultimately, Müller narrows populism to demagoguery and, with the exception of Chávez, the reactionary right. Trump’s inaugural address seemed to confirm Müller’s vision. As Trump bellowed before an embarrassingly anemic crowd, “January 20, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

But to focus on moments like these is to misread the history of populism and to foreclose the possibility of a grassroots left alternative. “The people” is not an inherently reactionary identity; its boundaries can be disrupted and expanded, its internal hierarchies reinforced or leveled. Its constitutive members are not, by definition, passive spectators to a demagogic variety show, a resentful mob, recipients of clientelistic handouts, or, more generously, victims of a repressed civil society. Rather, for a collective identity like “the people” to crystallize and acquire any political force, it must be enacted in practice, in concert with others, toward some goal.

A glance at the history of left populism in the US and the Americas reveals a wealth of organizational forms, institutional innovations, and modes of social engagement that provided venues for face-to-face interaction and fostered solidarity. Agrarian cooperatives were the lifeblood of the late-19th-century Populist movement. The Colored Farmers’ Alliance, excluded by the Farmers’ Alliance’s whites-only policy until 1889, brought black farmers together in mutual-aid societies and through networks of Baptist and AME churches. The Knights of Labor organized mass boycotts and strikes. More recently and farther south, decades of mobilization against neoliberalism and imperialism in Latin America have been sustained through popular institutions: people’s assemblies, indigenous federations, neighborhood associations, rural communes, organizations of the unemployed, water committees, and others. Without them, left-wing leaders would have never come to power across Latin America.

Right-wing populist movements also involve grassroots mobilization. The characterization of the Tea Party as top-down “AstroTurf” neglects the chapter meetings, Constitution-reading circles, and anti-immigrant vigilante groups that supplied the foot soldiers and formed the organizational substrate for this conservative backlash. Left populisms, however, face the specific challenge of mobilizing against entrenched elites, with the aim of reorganizing the distribution of power wholesale.

If populism were always reactionary and never revolutionary, economic elites would not lurch between forceful rejections of populism and calls to “listen” to the aggrieved. At the recent Davos forum, global-elite handwringing was on full display: in between wine tastings and icebreaker activities that included a popular refugee-simulation game, “where Davos attendees crawl on their hands and knees and pretend to flee from advancing armies,” attendees encountered a safe space to express their class panic. As reported by Bloomberg, Ray Dalio, founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, which manages $150 billion in assets, told the crowd at a “middle-class anger” panel, “I want to be loud and clear: populism scares me.” (Bridgewater is in the process of creating an algorithm to automate the labor of many of its middle managers. Perhaps they will soon join the ranks of the “angry middle class.”)

What is there to fear? A study published in the latest issue of Latin American Research Review shows that countries governed by left-populist administrations have witnessed significant increases in the political participation of the poor. The study also demonstrates that redistributive policies cannot undo structural inequality in the political and economic spheres on their own. Without a populist mobilizing strategy — specifically, the “us” (the poor) versus “them” (the rich) framing used by decades of anti-neoliberal social movements — left policies are unsustainable and substantive democracy is impossible.

Political analysts are undermined by their faith in the limited democracy they prize. The center they cling to has been sustained thus far by abysmal voter turnout, mass disenfranchisement, feckless politicians and strategists, and the overwhelming influence of financial elites in politics amid staggering levels of inequality that rival the Gilded Age. A left populism holds the potential to revitalize democracy, and to defend it from the dual threats of technocracy and revanchism. 

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