Democracy Without the People

What followed Trump’s victory among confounded political analysts was an epidemic of self-castigation over “our” failure to “listen” to “white working class” voters. Since the inauguration, however, elitism in the guise of centrism is once again on the move.

What if populism is not the problem, but the solution?

“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”; “An Erosion of Democratic Norms in America”; “Trump, Erdoğan, Farage: The attractions of populism for politicians, the dangers for democracy”; “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red.’” A steady succession of concern pieces has appeared across the press, worrying over Trump’s frenzy of activity and its subversion of American norms and institutions.

As one moves from headline to text, however, a notable but subtle shift occurs in defining what’s actually under threat. The basic meaning of “democracy”—that is, the rule of the people, or popular sovereignty—is nowhere to be found. Instead, “democracy” appears to be constituted by a series of institutions and norms, not all of them obviously democratic.

In The New York Times, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write that Trump’s flagrant rejection of the norms of “partisan self-restraint and fair play” poses an existential threat to “our system of constitutional checks and balances.” Similarly, in an interview with The Atlantic (“An Erosion of Democratic Norms in America”) political scientist Brendan Nyhan states that Trump’s actions suggest he will be unconstrained by “bipartisan political norms.” Francis Wilkinson at Bloomberg slides from redefining democratic institutions as 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,” writes Wilkinson. “Look at Trump’s approach to US intelligence agencies.” Venerating the CIA and its ilk as exemplary of democracy is symptomatic of a more general tendency, in which pundits characterize even the most brazenly anti-democratic elements of the American institutional landscape as themselves embodying democracy.

What followed Trump’s victory among confounded political analysts was an epidemic of self-castigation over “our” failure 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?


Emphasizing institutions and norms as the essence of “democracy” has a history—one that comes from denying other, more radical definitions of the concept. The idea 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 socio-economic power across a plurality of groups, first crystallized in the 1930s. This was when American political scientists felt the need to define a uniquely “American” model in explicit contrast to “totalitarianism.” But for subsequent elaborators, this model (referred to as “pluralism” or “liberalism”) also could provide an alternative to democracy in the robust sense of “rule by the people.”

In 1956, Robert Dahl’s seminal A Preface to Democratic Theory coined the term “polyarchy” in explicit contrast to “populistic” theories of democracy (consisting of “political equality, popular sovereignty, and rule by majorities”). In Who Governs? (1961), an empirical study of polyarchy at work in New Haven, he deployed the concept to argue against the notion that the United States was ruled, as C. Wright Mills and others had put it, by a “power elite”—and that the stability of American polyarchy was in part due to the disengagement of American citizens. Dahl’s conceptualization accustomed countless students of democracy to insipid pluralism, handily justifying existing power relations and institutions. It 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, has defined the essence of democracy as “presenting citizens with options.” Meanwhile populism gets 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, sociologist Carlos de la Torre, in a Times article entitled “Will Democracy Survive Trump’s Populism? Latin America May Tell Us,” refers to the long-standing “foundations of American democracy” and its “tradition of checks and balances to control political power.” The American political system’s stability should not be conflated with its degree of democracy.

The characterization of our overcomplicated Madisonian system as transcendentally democratic rests on a fundamental amnesia—of a history stretching from the architects of the American republic’s explicit anti-democratic intentions, to the range of exclusions that have structured the boundaries of the demos since, to the more recent debilitation of democracy designed and abetted by the very principled “moderates” to whom the authors appeal for salvation. One might forget, from all these accounts, the Madison of the Federalist Papers who denounced any politics that would give 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.”

A Trump administration obviously poses serious threats not only to pluralism but also to democracy in the more substantive sense. But his means of threatening democracy are features of the system, rather than contraventions of it. Trump’s rapid-fire series of executive orders—from the Muslim Ban to financial deregulation—do undermine substantive democracy, but not because they upset a delicate balance of power between branches of government or partisan political forces. The “bipartisan consensus” cast as the moral backbone of democracy has vested in the presidency war-making and surveillance powers hidden from public scrutiny, unchecked by democratic debate or accountability. From the War on Terror to the deportation pipeline, to domestic spying, to Wall Street’s guaranteed seat at the economic advising table, Trump inherits a branch of government already well-equipped by his predecessors to undermine democracy. As is already apparent, the President and his crack squad of billionaires and white nationalists will undoubtedly turn these tools to devastating effect. However our critique of Trump, and our determined political resistance to Trumpism, should not rest on venerating an ideal 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 thoroughly democratic American tradition, he is also figured as symptomatic of populism’s transatlantic rise. These ominous forecasts tend to emphasize the towering figure of the leader, casting him as the embodiment of collective phenomena, leviathan-like, channeling and summoning his unruly followers. These authors rhetorically exploit obviously alarming rightwing victories to take wider aim at “populism” tout court, invoking examples that span the ideological spectrum. For the Globe and Mail 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 Erdogan 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 about pan-ideological “extremism” recycles post-Brexit commentary, as distilled by the inimitably 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 commonsense was due to “polarized and fragmented news coverage” and “the social media revolution.”

Seen from the fast-shrinking center, every populism, right or left, is equally suspect, because each one represents the pathologically unhinged demos that the existing institutional order seeks to moderate, filter, and contain. So 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 leftwing Latin American populists indistinguishable from their rightwing predecessors. According to these writers, what extremist left and right voters share is an attraction to, as de la Torre phrases it, “politics as a Manichaean confrontation.” Yet de la Torre seemingly concedes the limits of his own ideologically-agnostic typology: “The terms ‘people’ and ‘elite’ are vague. The ‘people’ of Perón and Chávez were the downtrodden, and the nonwhite. Mr. Trump’s ‘people’ are white, mostly Christian citizens who produce wealth and do not live on government handouts.”

If populist politicians and movements both left and right share a formal similarity in their polarized vision of politics that pits “the people” against their adversaries, it still matters how the people are fashioned and who is identified as their opponent. Populism can shore up exclusionary visions of the people. It can also do the opposite, fostering unlikely alliances between marginalized groups.

In a certain sense, democracy and populism are opposed: since the rise of “formal” democracy, populism as a more robust form of it dogged it like a shadow. As political scientist Laura Grattan argues in her recent book, Populism’s Power, however, populism persistently reemerges because it dramatizes a general paradox of democratic politics. In a democracy, “the people” ostensibly govern themselves. 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—whether reactionary right or radical left—confront this fundamental problem of democracy. Their visions of the “people” and their prescriptions for democratic practice, however, could not be more opposed.

The emancipatory potential of populism relies upon the political construction of a “social bloc of the oppressed,” as philosopher Enrique Dussel has argued, drawing on Gramsci and Ernesto Laclau. It is thus fundamentally distinct from rightwing populism. Leftwing populism lays bare the class antagonisms that already structure social, economic, and political life; rightwing populism obscures them, replacing them with cultural chauvinism, xenophobia, and racism, reproducing rather than contesting inequality.

The net result of the defense of democracy against populism is, inevitably, a defense of political centrism. Democracy is reduced to the separation of powers and the search for bipartisan consensus. Lee Drutman and Mark Schmitt, political scientists at the New America Foundation, writing for Vox (in a piece appropriately titled “Polyarchy”), argue that defending “basic democratic norms and maintaining a strong focus on corruption”—contrasted with fighting to preserve social spending— “is the right strategy.” Despite the failure of this “strategy” in the Clinton campaign, they 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.” This call to defend the status quo reverberated in more critical outlets as well. Michael Walzer, in his recent column in Dissent, summoned leftists to the defense of “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 imperative to rescue the status quo against populism has reached its apotheosis in the Clintonite think tank Third Way’s recently unveiled $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.”


In addition to the conflation of right and left populism, recent analyses tend to emphasize the figure of the demagogic leader. In a piece for Foreign Policy that summarizes Human Rights Watch’s recently published report, The Dangerous Rise of Populism, the group’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, consistently equates populism with “demagogues,” “strongman rule,” and “autocrats.” Tellingly, in Müller’s essay for the London Review of Books, the word “populism” appears three times, while the word “populist” appears twenty-nine times. The entire phenomenon is reduced to the unhinged power of tyrannical leaders, 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 also emphasizes the role of the leader in unifying disparate popular demands into the shared identity of “the people.” 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, and therefore, prior to the emergence of a leader, begin to connect their seemingly disparate grievances (a process Laclau calls “equivalential articulation”). This conceptualization of populism would encompass leftist populist parties and 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 appeared to provide confirmation of this conceptualization. As he bellowed before an embarrassingly anemic crowd, “January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

But to focus on moments like these misreads both the history of populism and the possibility of a grassroots left populism. “The people” is not an inherently reactionary identity. Just like the national territory, the borders of “the people” can be tightened and secured, or they can be disrupted and expanded by the excluded. Likewise, within the people, hierarchy can be reinforced or leveled. Populist movements throughout history, whether the late 19th century People’s Party or Occupy, have reinforced some exclusions and inequalities while rejecting or dismantling others.

If populism had no radical potential, economic elites would not be “scared” and would not lurch between forceful rejections of populism and calls to “listen” to the aggrieved people. 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, at “the panel on middle class anger,” Ray Dalio, founder of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, which manages $150 billion in assets, told the crowd, “I want to be loud and clear: populism scares me.”1 Dalio and his fellow oligarchs are not scared because populism disrupts the delicate equilibrium of checks and balances, or the norms of fair play; they are scared because they rightfully see in rampant inequality, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment an opportunity for populist movements that threaten their wealth. They, fear in other words, a substantial increase in democracy.

Recent scholarship on Latin America, the region often marshaled to show the anti-democratic menace of populism, reveals the “danger” of mobilization. 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. It also demonstrates that redistributive policies cannot on their own undo structural inequality in the political and economic spheres. Without a populist mobilizing strategy—specifically, the “us” (the poor) vs. “them” (the rich) framing used by decades of anti-neoliberal social movements—left policies are unsustainable and substantive democracy is impossible.

The relationship between the “social bloc of the oppressed” and the left populist leaders they helped bring to power is complex, often leading to conflict—in part because centralized power can limit or co-opt social movements. Electoral losses throughout Latin America also testify to errors in policy and strategy (although the impact of the end of the commodity boom and the undemocratic tactics of rightwing opponents have contributed as well). Both the successes and failures of these administrations suggest that leftwing policies require left populism, to withstand the political and economic crises that open the door to reaction.

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

  1. Bridgewater is in the process of creating an algorithm to automate the labor of much of its middle management. Perhaps they will soon join the ranks of the “angry middle class”? 

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