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Populism Is a Problem. Elitist Technocrats Aren’t the Solution.
The problem isn’t too much democracy — it’s too little.
Democracy today seems to be in constant crisis. Democratic backsliding has occurred in countries from Venezuela to Poland, and autocratic leaders, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, proudly proclaim that the era of liberal democracy is over. Perhaps most worrying, even in the West where it has long been taken for granted, liberal democracy is under attack from populists, and, according to some scholars, it is no longer highly valued by many citizens.
In seeking to explain these troubling trends, most observers focus on the challenges currently facing democracy. They argue that globalization and rising automation have made life more insecure for the working and middle classes, privileged highly educated city dwellers over the less educated who live in rural areas, and made capitalism more of a zero-sum game. Alongside economic challenges, changing social norms and rising immigration — the percentage of foreign-born citizens is at an all-time high in many European countries and at levels last seen during the early 20th century in the United States — have left many citizens feeling uncomfortable and out of touch in their own neighborhoods.
But analyses that focus on only these challenges cannot explain the woes of an entire political system. Just as a healthy body fights off myriad viruses, so too do healthy political systems identify and respond to the challenges they face. Liberal democracies’ problems over the past years haven’t come merely or even primarily from the challenges they have faced but rather from a diminished capacity to recognize and respond to them. It is not just rapid economic and social changes that matter but the inability or unwillingness of national political actors and institutions to respond to those changes that has caused rising support for populists.
The real cause of Western democracies’ current travails is that many core political institutions have decayed dramatically over the past years — or ceded responsibility to unelected supranational bodies — hindering their ability to translate the demands of a broad range of their citizens into concrete action at home. Western democracies have, in short, become dramatically less democratic.
In 1968, the political scientist (and Foreign Policy co-founder) Samuel Huntington — who is today better known for coining the term “clash of civilizations” — wrote an influential book titled Political Order in Changing Societies. Huntington was motivated by a puzzle: Why were so many third-world countries (as they were then known) mired in political disorder? Huntington argued that their political problems stemmed from a disjuncture between the challenges these countries faced and the strength of their political institutions. As he put it, “The primary problem of politics is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change.” He went on to argue that as societies grew larger, more complex, and more diverse, political stability would increasingly “become dependent upon the workings of political institutions” capable of responding to the new demands emanating from society.
The same challenges that were easily handled in countries with strong and responsive political institutions — such as ensuring employment opportunities for increasingly educated citizens and providing avenues of political participation for newly mobilized social groups — caused political disorder and violence in countries lacking them. The absence of such institutions, Huntington argued, was at the root of the problems facing many Asian, African, and Latin American countries in the 1950s and 1960s: They were experiencing rapid social and economic change — urbanization, increases in literacy and education, industrialization, mass media expansion — increasing their citizens’ expectations and demands, but they lacked the political institutions capable of satisfying them.
Although Huntington wrote Political Order as a diagnosis of the problems facing the third world, he recognized that just as political institutions could develop, they could also decay, causing a political system to become less responsive and effective over time. This is precisely what has happened in Western democracies over the past decades. Many of their democratic institutions have atrophied, rendering them less able to respond to the needs and demands of average citizens rather than a small subset of them.
The American political system has long had undemocratic institutions embedded in it, such as the Electoral College and the unrepresentative Senate. Without the Electoral College, there would be no President Donald Trump. And if Americans had an upper legislative chamber that more directly translated popular preferences into political outcomes than the Senate does, the more populous, liberal coasts would dominate politics at the national level, with immense consequences for policy.
But in recent years other political institutions have decayed, weakening traditional channels for citizen participation and influence in politics. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have declined organizationally; they have less capacity to organize voters and mobilize committed activists at the local level and less ability to transmit voter preferences to politicians and into policies. (This is particularly true of the Democratic Party, which has essentially disappeared organizationally from many parts of the country.) Partially for these reasons, both parties have experienced internal revolts. Beginning in 2009, Republicans faced the Tea Party rebellion, which helped set the stage for Trump’s populist takeover of the party in 2016. Since Trump’s election, the Democrats have experienced something similar with the rise of insurgent groups like Indivisible, whose ostensible goal is to overthrow the party “establishment” and generate candidates ostensibly more responsive to the people.
Gerrymandering has also warped the translation of voter preferences into political outcomes while the ease and efficiency of the American voting process have also declined. (The United States currently ranks worst among Western democracies on measures of electoral integrity.) Institutional decay, in short, has weakened the responsiveness of American democracy, exacerbating the impact of its already many undemocratic features.
However, the single biggest cause of democracy’s problems in the United States has been rising economic inequality. Research by Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson shows that at its founding, the United States was the most equal society in the world: Among all Americans, including slaves, the richest 1 percent got only 8.5 percent of total income. Today, that figure is around 20 percent — and if the standard used is wealth rather than income, the 1 percent do even better, capturing close to 40 percent of total wealth. Using the most common measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient, the United States is more unequal today than was the slave-owning South and more unequal than any other advanced industrial democracy.
The collapse of the middle class — long viewed as the bedrock of American democracy — has also been dramatic. According to the Pew Research Center, the size of the middle class has declined dramatically relative to the upper and lower classes, as has its share of national income: from 62 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 2015. Making matters worse, inequality has become increasingly hereditary; as it has risen, social mobility has declined. Over the past years, not merely equality of outcome but also equality of opportunity has declined.
No European country came close to being a democracy at the time of the American Revolution, and the Founding Fathers understood that democracy depended on the country’s uniquely equal living conditions — and in particular the presence of a strong middle class. John Adams, for example, proclaimed that “the balance of power in a society, accompanies the balance of property.” Other observers recognized the connection between political and economic equality; Alexis de Tocqueville began his classic Democracy in America by noting that America’s most striking feature was its “equality of conditions.” People in America, he wrote, were on “greater equality in point of fortune” than those in any other country and that this equality undergirded the success of its democracy. “When the rich alone govern, the interest of the poor is always endangered; and when the poor make the laws, that of the rich incurs very serious risks.”
Contemporary research confirms the views of Adams and Tocqueville when it comes to the connection between economic equality and the success of democratic governments. Various political scientists have shown that in the United States, economic elites and the organized groups representing their interests powerfully shape government policy while poorer Americans and the groups that represent their interests have essentially no influence over government. When the affluent support a policy, it is adopted 46 percent of the time; when only the middle class supports a policy, it is adopted 24 percent of the time. Given the checks and balances built into the American system, it is perhaps not surprising that the affluent are even more effective at blocking policies they don’t like (such as higher taxes) than achieving those they do: When a policy is strongly opposed by the wealthy (but not the middle class), it is adopted only 4 percent of the time.
If democracy is defined as a system in which government policy reflects the collective will of average citizens, rather than a small subset of them, then the United States today may be more of an oligarchy. As the scholars Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argue, in the United States, “the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”
And Americans know what has been going on: Surveys reveal that at least three-quarters of citizens believe the wealthy and corporations have outsize influence over politics, and even higher percentages believe that money in politics is to blame for political dysfunction. Perhaps because they recognize how little political influence they have, lower-income citizens participate less at every stage of the political process — voting, contacting candidates, participating in campaigns and demonstrations — than do those with higher incomes. Most dangerously, rising inequality is also strongly linked to growing dissatisfaction with democracy. And disaffected voters, many of whom may not have voted regularly or at all in the past, have provided a ready-made constituency for populist parties and politicians in the United States and countries across Europe.
In Europe, there have been two additional causes of democratic decay. The first is the decline of mainstream political parties. During the postwar era, political parties were generally stronger in Europe than in the United States: They had clear partisan profiles, high membership and loyalty levels, and strong ties to other organizations, such as trade unions. Over the past decades, however, European political parties have become weaker, membership has declined, activist networks have withered, and voter loyalty has diminished, which has translated into higher rates of vote switching and greater political disengagement. As Peter Mair, who was perhaps the most insightful analyst of European party systems, put it, “Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy.”
The second crucial factor undermining democracy in Europe has been the European Union. The EU is a technocracy rather than a democracy: It was designed as a protected sphere of policymaking, free from direct democratic pressures. (Or as one astute observer of EU politics, Kathleen McNamara, put it, “The EU governs, rather than represents.”) Critical decisions made by unelected EU technocrats are made without any direct input from citizens who also, of course, lack the ability to throw technocrats out of office if their decisions prove unpopular or counterproductive.
In recent years, more and more policymaking responsibilities have fallen under Brussels’s purview, reducing the powers and policy instruments available to national democratic governments. This undermining of national democracy became particularly acute and noticeable during the 2008 financial crisis, when European countries’ lack of control over their own currencies made it harder to deal with economic challenges while at the same time the EU made decisions with immense distributional consequences — such as imposing austerity on many member states — without direct input by voters or the parties representing them at the national level.
Indeed, during the crisis, democratically elected leaders in Italy and Greece were replaced by politicians more willing to pass austerity measures favored by the EU. In 2011, Silvio Berlusconi was ousted as prime minister of Italy through a parliamentary maneuver and replaced by Mario Monti (a former EU commissioner). In Greece, George Papandreou was pushed out after announcing plans to hold a referendum on bailout conditions and was replaced by Lucas Papademos, a former central bank governor. In 2015, the left-wing democratically elected government of Greece was also forced to renege on the outcome of a popular referendum due to threats of financial Armageddon from the EU. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, later expressed remorse for many of these actions, speaking out against the EU’s lack of democratic legitimacy and saying it had “sinned against the dignity” of people in the bailout countries.
The various eurozone financial crises demonstrated that the challenges often identified as a cause of the West’s current malaise — unregulated globalization, growing inequality and declining social mobility, increasing social and cultural divisions — have been aggravated or intensified by the declining responsiveness of traditional parties and elites to the grievances and demands of their citizens. The rise of populist parties has been a direct consequence of this failure, not the result of too much democracy, as some scholars contend. The problem is the opposite: too little democracy.
Fears of excessive power in the hands of the people are not new; such arguments date back to the ancient Greeks. Aristotle worried about democracy’s tendency to degenerate into “chaotic rule by the masses,” and in Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that given power and freedom, the masses will indulge their passions, destroy traditions and institutions, and be easy prey for tyrants. Such fears were revived during the modern era by liberals and libertarians worried about the tyranny of the majority and the masses’ susceptibility to irrational and shortsighted political behavior. Western democracies’ current problems have brought such critiques back again with a vengeance.
Fifteen years ago, for example, the journalist Fareed Zakaria wrote a best-selling book titled The Future of Freedom arguing that the West’s contemporary political problems were caused by “too much democracy.” Around the same time, the Princeton University economist Alan Blinder argued in an influential article that democracy’s contemporary problems were caused by a “process of governing [that had] become too political.” Warnings about “hyperdemocratization” have grown louder with populism’s continued rise in Europe and with Trump’s election in the United States. Books such as David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections, Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, and David Harsanyi’s The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong) have become commonplace, and voices across the political spectrum increasingly express disdain for rule by the people.
After Trump’s election, David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and a noted progressive, lamented that “the electorate has, in its plurality, decided to live in Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness” and that “[p]eople can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate.” The journalist Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile, worried that our “hyperdemocratic times” were posing a danger to democracy itself. “Democracies end,” he wrote, “when they are too democratic.” In addition to dramatically misidentifying what has been going on in Western democracies, the remedies these writers propose would make democracy’s problems worse. Hypo-democracy rather than hyper-democracy is the real concern.
Both Zakaria and Blinder, for example, argued that the solution to the West’s problems was to make democracy less democratic, more like the European Union or the U.S. Federal Reserve: institutions run by elites and insulated from “uninformed” voters and popular pressures. While these calls to limit democracy were ostensibly responses to legitimate fears about the fate of liberal democracy, more technocratic rule is unlikely to solve the West’s problems; it will only increase support for sidelining experts and elites entirely. Indeed, the more that citizens believe that political elites and institutions are unresponsive to their needs, the more likely they are to vote for populists who promise to blow them all up. As should by now be painfully clear, technocracy and populism are mutually reinforcing; they feed off and strengthen one another. The first seeks to limit democracy in the name of saving liberalism, while the second seeks to limit liberalism in order to preserve democracy.
Rather than limiting democracy, if we really want to improve its ability to respond to contemporary challenges, ensure its long-term survival, and fend off the appeal of populism, we need to make it more rather than less responsive. The first step is to get the West’s political elites to acknowledge the decay. It is impossible to respond to a problem if it is not recognized. There is much evidence that citizens are searching for ways to become more involved in political life. The problem, as Huntington would remind us, is that mainstream political institutions have grown increasingly unable to satisfy these aspirations over the past years, leading to growing political disillusionment and a search for alternative ways of becoming involved in political life. This explains the rising support for populists in Europe (where proportional representation systems facilitate the rise of new parties) that promise to make democracy once again responsive to “the people” and the growth of protests and “alternative” political networks in the United States (such as the Tea Party, Indivisible, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter) that work outside traditional political institutions and sometimes even actively against them.
As helpful as populism and many of these nontraditional forms of political participation have been in highlighting the demands and problems of marginalized groups, they also have a tendency to reinforce rather than bridge existing social and political divisions, which can exacerbate political polarization and a variety of other problems, particularly since populists rarely offer viable or attractive solutions to their constituents’ real problems.
Fighting democracy’s contemporary problems thus requires finding ways to make traditional political institutions more responsive to a broader range of citizens, rather than merely a subset of them. If they do not, the appeal of populism will increase. If we expect citizens to recognize the value of liberal democracy and develop the skills and knowledge necessary for it to succeed, then we need to find ways to engage many more of them in politics. In a literal sense, democracy — which, after all, just means “rule by the people” — cannot exist if the people are not engaged in political life.