Numerous authors and political figures have identified the rise of populism as a potential threat to European democracy. Tjitske Akkerman argues that the threat of populism has been heavily overstated. She writes that if there are any ideologies threatening liberal democracies today, nationalism and authoritarianism are far more likely candidates than populism.

Credit: Dr Case (CC BY-SA-2.0)

Populism is perhaps the most overrated concept today. The presumption that populism is threatening to destabilise democratic regimes in Europe abound in the media as well as in academia. Populism is, as Cas Mudde has argued, not anti-democratic but against liberal democracy. It endorses the ideal of a majoritarian or popular democracy, based on the general will of the people. Yet, this potential threat to liberal democracies is merely hypothetical.

There is a current wave of populism in Europe and there is pressure on liberal freedoms in many European countries, but is populism a significant cause of the current pressures on liberal democracies? To identify threats (or correctives if you like) to liberal democracies it is important to assess the impact of populism instead of assuming it. Research indicates that populist parties have had little impact on democratic institutional reform in Western Europe so far. With predominantly proportional electoral systems and coalition governments in which populist parties are most often still junior partners, significant opposition of courts, parliaments and civil societies, liberal democracies in Western Europe overall provide resilient contexts.

However, this still leaves open the possibility that populism has been a major force behind the establishment of illiberal regimes in Hungary, Poland or Latin America, and that it may still grow into such a force in Western Europe. My arguments to question the potential impact of populism on liberal democracies are more general.

First, populism is not a core ideology of political parties or movements in Europe. Neither populist parties nor their voters tend to give much weight to issues of democratic reform. Dissatisfaction with politics is a marginal reason for voters in Western Europe to vote for radical right-wing parties, and dissatisfaction does not play a role at all as a motivation to electorally support left-wing populist parties. Like their voters, populist parties do not give much salience to issues of democratic reform. For radical right-wing populist parties, for instance, proposals to introduce direct forms of democracy or to reform the judiciary tend to be instrumental to anti-immigration policies and security issues. Nationalism and authoritarianism are much more important ideological sources for these parties than populism. For left-wing populist parties, it is still to be seen whether they aim to reform liberal democracies into popular democracies.

Second, not all populist parties are against liberal democracy. Some parties are merely rhetorically populist. The Dutch Socialist Party (SP), for instance, is widely regarded as a populist party. Surely, the party often contrasts the good people to corrupt elites like bankers, but the SP is also committed to a liberal democracy. This is in contrast to Geert Wilders’ radical right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) that is not only rhetorically populist, but also shows little commitment to liberal democracy.

Third, the pressure on liberal democracies is not restricted to populist parties. Policy proposals and legislative initiatives that are in tension with or defy fundamental freedoms are also coming from mainstream parties. Systematic comparative research is still lacking, but a case study of the Netherlands makes clear that policies that are in conflict with the rule of law are not restricted to populist parties.

Systematic comparison of election manifestoes demonstrates that mainstream right-wing parties also increasingly tend to endorse policies that subordinate fundamental rights to policy goals like restricting immigration and enhancing security. In other words, the common drivers of populist parties as well as non-populist parties to seek out the boundaries of the rule of law or to go beyond them are immigration and security concerns. If there are any ideologies threatening liberal democracies today, nationalism and authoritarianism are far more likely candidates than populism.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Tjitske Akkerman – University of Amsterdam
Tjitske Akkerman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

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