Following the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, a great deal of political commentary has focused on the rise of populism and its possible impact on Western democracies. Pippa Norris argues that populism heightens the risk of electoral malpractice in three distinct ways: by damaging public trust in democracy, by undermining international standards of electoral integrity, and by increasing the potential for collusion with foreign governments.
Credit: Gage Skidmore (CC BY SA 2.0)
Since the earthquake of Brexit in June last year, and Trump’s victory four months later, the news has been dominated by stories about populism, including whether European elections suggest that populist support is either rising or stalled.
The media has also been fascinated simultaneously by problems of electoral integrity. This includes Trump’s repeated claims of millions of fraudulent votes cast for Clinton, leading him to establish the new Presidential Advisory Commission on Electoral Integrity. Problems of cyber security continue to be investigated by the U.S. Congress following intelligence reports of Russian interference in the U.S. elections.
A coincidence? I don’t think so. A new Harvard report suggests that populists typically heighten risks of electoral malpractices through three main mechanisms: damaging public trust in democratic processes, undermining international standards of electoral integrity, and colluding with Russian interference in Western contests.
Damaging trust in democratic institutions
Firstly, in terms of the consequences for democratic cultures, populism is likely to erode public faith and confidence in the fairness and integrity of the electoral process. My work with Ronald Inglehart found that populists characteristically attack ‘the establishment’ and fuel mistrust of the core institutions of liberal democracy, including elections as well as mainstream parties, parliaments, the media, and the judiciary. During and even after the U.S. presidential election campaign, for example, President Trump repeatedly alleged that the contest was rigged and there was massive voter fraud, claiming 3-5 million people voted illegally, and calling for a ‘major investigation’.
Trump supporters, especially if hostile towards immigrants and anti-government, are particularly prone to believe in rampant electoral fraud. Populist leaders typically gain support from mistrust of elites and they seek to further undermine faith in the legitimate role of the media (‘enemy of the people’), the independence of the courts (‘so-called judges’), and the legislative procedures in Congress. Where people lose faith in political institutions, this depresses turnout and catalyses protest politics. This does not imply that popular support for liberal democratic values has been greatly weakened by populists – since so far there is little evidence of this alarmist claim in Western societies. But in the longer-term, public trust of politicians, parties and parliaments, already at record lows in many countries, is likely to be further damaged by populist rhetoric.
There are other ways that public confidence in government can be eroded if populists are elected to office. When campaigning, populist rhetoric frequently raises exaggerated expectations which are hard to meet, potentially deepening disillusionment among their followers. Populists also advocate extreme policies, dividing the electorate and strengthening social intolerance. Their leaders characteristically make vague and sweeping promises through simplistic sound-bite slogans with broad appeal (‘Make America Great Again’, ‘Build a Wall’, ‘Choose France’, ‘Take Back Control’). Demagogic speeches emphasise potential threats from ‘outsiders’ and criticise elites, but avoid presenting detailed policy platforms.
If elected to power, as neophytes, populist leaders may lack the political skills and experience to implement their promises and make government work effectively. Extreme policy positions hamper their capacity to build working coalitions across multiple parliamentary parties, or require major compromise to get things done. In the longer-term, all of these characteristics mean populist politicians are likely to disappoint their supporters and weaken faith more generally in representative institutions.
Violating international standards of electoral integrity
Populists also use practices directly violating international standards of electoral integrity and domestic laws. In the worst cases, populist authoritarians reinforce their power through fraud and corruption, undermine human rights, and restrict the playing field for party competition.
Thus Venezuelan elections under both Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro have been plagued by corruption, the misuse of state resources, and clientelism, triggering massive street protests. Venezuela ranks 118th worldwide in the Perception of Electoral Integrity index and ranks near the bottom of Transparency International Corruption Index. Meanwhile in the Philippines, the 2016 campaign of the populist Rodrigo Duterte saw observer reports of vote-buying, malfeasance, and election-related violence.
Under President Erdogan, Turkey’s constitutional referendum on 16 April 2017 was strongly criticised by OSCE observers due to the imprisonment of thousands of citizens, state control of the media, and limits on civil society organisations. Malpractices are common in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, including unfair electoral laws, gerrymandering, and the lack of a level playing field in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Since the election of populist leaders, both Turkey and Hungary have declined in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
These problems typically generate contentious elections marked by opposition party appeals against the results, mass protests, and problems of unstable governance. They are especially common in ‘hybrid’ regimes, which are neither fully democratic nor autocratic, with the trappings of competitive elections but which lack a level playing field for all parties and candidates. Problems are exacerbated in polarised party systems with winner-take-all presidential executives.
Even in Western democracies, several populist leaders have violated specific electoral and anti-corruption laws when campaigning. Systemic corruption is a breeding ground for populism, and leaders claim to fight this problem, although in practice they often succumb to illicit practice.
In Britain, for example, the first-ever UKIP Member of Parliament was charged with electoral fraud (submitting false signatures on nomination papers). Nigel Farage and seven other UKIP MEPS have been under investigation for the misuse of EU funds.
In Australia, the leader of One Nation, Pauline Hanson, and the party co-founder, David Ettridge, were jailed in 2003 for dishonestly taking electoral reimbursements. In Austria, support for the far right Carinthia Freedom Party plummeted in 2013, and many elected leaders resigned, after a massive corruption and patronage scandal including accusations of bribery, passing on insider information, accepting money to influence European Union law-making, nepotism, money laundering and kick-backs connected to the state bank.
The French Front National was sanctioned for the misuse of 340,000 euros in campaign funds in 2011 and Marine Le Pen is currently under investigation for spending 5 million euros in EU funds on fake jobs. Problems of public ethics have also plagued Trump’s White House, from a lack of transparency with the President’s tax returns, breaking decades of tradition, to conflicts of interest over Trump’s business interests at home and abroad, and the resignation of Michael Flynn over his Russian consultancy fees.
Of course, cases of corruption, crony capitalism, and malfeasance occur with many other types of parties and politicians, not just populists. But Transparency International, reports that populists are particularly prone to stepping over the line by engaging in unethical behaviour. In speeches, ever since the rise of populists in America’s Gilded Age, such leaders commonly rail against ‘corrupt elites’ (‘Drain the Swamp’), to gain popular support from disaffected voters. In practice, however, populists often appear willing to transgress the law to gain power and enrich themselves and their supporters, rolling back anti-corruption laws and flagrantly violating ethical standards of public life.
Colluding with Russian interference
Finally, authoritarian regimes (‘black knights’) have actively sought to undermine democratic forces abroad. The clearest evidence concerns Russia, accused of using several techniques to put its thumb on the electoral scale in favour of populists.
One is to supply resources: Russia has helped to fund populist parties; for example, Marine Le Pen borrowed 9 million euros from a Russian bank in the party’s 2014 campaign, and she visited Putin seeking further support during the 2017 election. The Dutch Freedom Party signed a “cooperation agreement” with Putin’s United Russia party. Other techniques use propaganda, misinformation, and cyberattacks. Russian interference has long been suspected in elections in post-Soviet states, notably in attempts to disrupt contests and undermine democratic forces in neighbouring Ukraine.
The intelligence and cyber security communities report active Russian interference in Western elections, including the attack on the Bundestag computers in 2015, well before the security breaches of the DNC computers, and attempts to hack into voting registers in several state offices during the 2016 campaign. Russian misinformation through social media campaigns is generally designed to undermine support for moderate parties and bolster populist candidates, as well as casting confusion and doubt about the general integrity of democratic processes.
Persistent questions about Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, which are under investigation, continue to plague the Trump administration. In France, it remains to be determined who exactly the culprits were behind the massive hacking attack on Emmanuel Macron, with fake and genuine documents leaked two days before ballots were cast. But the fingerprints allegedly point towards both Russia and the American far right.
Western governments have sought to counter these efforts; in the Netherlands, for example, in the run up to the general election, the government decided that all paper ballots in the Netherlands would be counted by hand, ditching its counting software on the grounds that it was vulnerable to hacking. Similarly, the head of German intelligence has warned that they are on the alert for Russian cyber espionage, disinformation campaigns and fake news, including repeated phishing attacks on the CDU/CSU. But it has become more and more difficult for large campaign organisations to maintain cyber-security against increasingly-sophisticated attacks.
Populists are not directly responsible for Russian interference. But they need to speak out loud and clear to denounce these acts or else, as the main beneficiaries, they become guilty by association. Trump’s casual dismissal of the threats (“this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story”) has only made investigators more suspicious.
Therefore, further systematic evidence needs to be gathered to determine the impact of each of these practices. Populists are far from alone in engaging in electoral malpractices. But assembling pieces of the puzzle leads to the conclusion that populists are particularly prone to heightening serious risks to free and fair elections, by further eroding public confidence in the electoral process and democratic institutions, using practices violating international standards of electoral integrity, and potentially colluding with authoritarian allies seeking to interfere in democratic contests.
In this regard, Trump is not exceptional but part of a broader syndrome. It remains to be seen whether and how these challenges can be addressed most effectively to restore public trust, strengthen electoral integrity, and thereby safeguard democracy.
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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.
Pippa Norris – Harvard University / University of Sydney
Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University, the ARC Laureate Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Founding Director of the Electoral Integrity Project. She is the author of more than forty books including Radical Right (2005), Why Elections Fail (2016) and Strengthening Electoral Integrity (2017), all with Cambridge University Press.
I’m sorry to say that the populists had plenty of help from politicians, parties and government in general in undermining the voter’s believe in the democratic order as currently carried out. Policies carried out in most western countries are those that benefit the rich and connected not the average voter. I have no love for populists of the Left or Right but frankly they would not be successful as they have been if the system was working for the average man. But the system isn’t working, the politician’s pretend it is. and I suppose for them it is but the average man on the street doesn’t get $400,000 for a one hour speech or a job for one afternoon a week that pays nearly a million a year. A suspicious mind might think these were payoffs for favors done while in office. When a system becomes blatantly corrupt change any change even if it comes with Jackboots starts looking good to those who are not rich and connected. Bluntly the so called elites have done it to themselves NO one believes in them or the democracy they purport stand for.
Politics is the education of the people in many ways.One is almost inclined to think that the constant harping on this phenomenon is meant to rile the politically unsophisticated so they start to engage in the process.
But people aren’t getting engaged they are dropping out instead. They aren’t bothering to vote has voting hasn’t changed a thing in what…. 40 years at least. Why bother all the politicians are blatantly corrupt and WON’T bite the hands that feed them. When there is NO possibility of change there is no reason to vote.
At Stephan.To engage in the political process is to engage brain for that purpose.It takes years of study for someone as innocent as I was to understand how it works.In order to make your own contribution you have to know what you want from your government and elected politicians, and know how to make effort to have some effect.Whilst the majority of voters are either discouraged or voting for the status quo, there is indeed no point voting as long as there is no suitable alternative, assuming you want to change the status quo to something else.If you are happy with the way things, indeed, no need to vote.I am well over sixty and other than in union meetings, which I thought little of due to the politics and the gullibility of the workers, I have never voted inmy life.I did not believe in it, and still don’t.The reason being that it is abundantly clear that the majority support the status quo.There is another reason, related to that support.Because people support the status quo, there is no real opposition in party politics except what is denigrated by the Establishment as far Right and now populist.As long as a majority supports the Punch and Judy show that politics is, no point voting.The nationalist Right, even if it garnered enough votes to form government, would not be allowed to function by the Establishment.The Establishment holds all the cards necessary to remain in power, provided the the majority support or at least tolerate it.A Le Pen or Wilders have no stomach for an outright win.They know for them to govern would be a shambles.They have all the mainstream media against them, almost all the experts paid by the taxpayers or corporates, high finance is controlled internationally, and most trade and production controlled by the corporates.Democracy means more than just making a choice at the ballot box, but the people in western Europe are soft, mollycoddled and politically asleep anyway.
They will wake up some day soon, into a nightmare, for they have not the historical genetic, social, psychological and political disposition for what will amount to technocrat corporate dictatorship.It is not hard to work out once you see through the BS.The truth is simply the truth, the facts are what they are, the fundamentals are the basis which thousands of taxpayer- and corporate-funded academics work decades on to frame theories in the task of overturning.There is no need to work decades to formulate a theory to explain the truth of the matter.The truth of the matter is that academics have become the modern-day priesthood dedicated to bamboozle the people.Same old same old.The people will do another reformation and by and by reject this new priesthood as it has done the old.It takes time.
While I have no support for, nor any admiration of Mrs Hanson’s policies or those of her Party (PHON) whatsoever, it should be noted that the QLD Court of Appeal quashed the conviction for electoral fraud, and both she and Mr Ettridge were released after spending some 11 weeks in jail.
Almost all commentators on Brexit and Trump seem to overlook that these outcomes, so surprising to everyone, are perhaps more a reflection of the electoral system in place rather than an inexorable rise in populism. It has been said that democracy is not a spectator sport – yet, that is exactly what it has become in many western, so-called mature democracies. The turnout of eligible voters in the UK was around 70%. With a leave/stay ratio of 51/49, only a third of eligible voters decided to leave the EU. Evidence suggests that young voters stayed at home, a trend evident across the globe. In the US, Mrs Clinton received nearly 3 million more primary votes than Mr Trump, in a turnout barely more than 50%, but with Mr Trump’s win heavily influenced by an electoral college system that favours small states like Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In other words, only a quarter of the US’s eligible voters made Mr Trump President, with voters in small states carrying a disproportionate impact because of a combination of low turnout and the electoral college system.
Contrast that with Mrs Hanson. While some have pointed to PHON’s four Senators in the 2016 Australian federal election as a measure of this populist Party’s success, PHON received barely more than 4% of the primary senate votes nationally. Three of the four Party’s Senators secured their seat simply because the 2016 election was a double dissolution election where the necessary quota is halved. Those three are highly unlikely to retain their Senate seats in the next normal half senate election when the quota hurdle will be much higher. It is clear that Australia’s system of mandatory voting, guaranteeing high turnouts, dilutes the impact of populists because all electors, not just those willing to get of their backsides as in other countries, need to turn their mind to which policies they favour. At the same time, political parties need to craft policies that appeal to a broader base than just those in the electorate dishonestly seduced by simplistic and divisive populist policies.
A lesson for all is to look at the electoral system and how it may be distorting democratic outcomes. It is the electoral system that may be a threat to electoral integrity rather than populism. Even Mr Trump, before he won the Presidency, said the electoral system “is a disaster for democracy”. This may be the only non-fake news he ever provides.
Populists make no effort to address the entire electorate. That is why they continue lying while knowing full well that they’ll be found out. They realise that there is an audience and it’s big enough. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/