The deceptive politics of populism: Review of ‘Democracy Erodes from the Top’ by Larry M. Bartels

Bartels’ study exposes the true culprits behind the crisis of democracy.

Published : Jul 14, 2023 17:04 IST - 8 MINS READ

A public protest against Viktor Orban’s right-wing government on April 14, 2018 in Budapest, Hungary.

A public protest against Viktor Orban’s right-wing government on April 14, 2018 in Budapest, Hungary. | Photo Credit: Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

The driving force behind the imagined crisis of democracy lies not in people but in populist governments. Populism exposes, sooner or later, the real intentions of far right-wing governments whose rhetoric can never stifle the livelihood question. Populism as a philosophy can work only if democratic principles dictate a genuine concern for welfarism. Therefore, for example, in the recent elections in Karnataka, the BJP’s hope that communal politics would smother the issues of unemployment, corruption, education, and so on, stands shattered.

Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe
By Larry M. Bartels
Princeton University Press
Pages: 280
Price: £12.50

The deceitful politics of the ruling populist dispensations are indeed responsible for the explosion of populism. False promises stimulate the masses looking for economic justice, giving rise to populist politics. But the alignment with the elites exposes the hollowness of the promises of the leadership, and throws light on the role of political elites accountable for democratic backsliding and populism.

Larry M. Bartels’ book begins on a provocative note: “There is a palpable sense of crisis in Western democracies. The rise of right-wing populist parties across Europe, the erosion of constitutional checks and balances in Hungary and Poland, and the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK have all stirred significant alarm regarding the present state of democracy and prospects for its future. And political leaders and would-be leaders have not hesitated to stoke perceptions of crisis in pursuit of their own ends.”

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Bartels’ study re-evaluates the reasons for this syndrome of “crisis of democracy” across the world. He turns the tables around by suggesting that democracy as an idea remains as strong as ever, and that it is the populist leadership that is to be blamed for the erosion of democratic institutions.

The book takes up broad-ranging issues from the role of political elites to democratic backsliding and populism. Bartels has also carried out extensive surveys on areas which signpost a crisis in democracy, such as dissatisfaction with the workings of democracy, distrust of political elites and ideological polarisation.

According to Bartels’ study, trust in national leaders in parliament, together with the co-opting of constitutional institutions, has remained intact over the last two decades in Europe, but apparently there are some signs of it waning ever since. The question of immigrant inflow angered many, but that, too, has subsided and people have largely accepted it as a humanitarian crisis. Bartels’ findings substantiate the fact that confidence in democracy remains steadfast as ever.

What is disquieting to Bartels, and political analysts across the world, is the explosion of populism through the “supply” of groups within the political elite who sponsor the idea of welfarism but subterraneously carry out the slow wearing away of institutions as, for example, in Hungry and Poland. The support for right-wing populist governments is given a nudge by these groups within the elite circle of politicians. Let it not be mistaken, therefore, that the populist politics comes from the people, as it is made out to be. It comes from the top political leadership that cleverly manipulates the chronic susceptibilities of democracy through blatant promises of better days ahead.

Bartels, therefore, rejects the misconception that it is the explosion of populist forces that has brought about the crisis in democracy. The pervasive populist wave stands dismantled in his hands and is replaced by the idea that right-wing populist parties are responsible for the discourse that manufactures advantageous public opinion, leading to a mass following of the right-wing ideology. It all succeeds through propaganda, fabrications and deceptions.

Bartels’ surveys show that electoral support for right-wing populist parties has increased only modestly in Europe, reflecting the idiosyncratic successes of populist entrepreneurs, the failures of mainstream parties, and media hype. Democratic decline has set in not because voters stand for despotism but because conventional conservative parties, once elected, seize opportunities to entrench themselves in power. Bartels challenges our common assumptions that the people are responsible for creating this sentiment of political misgivings and disappointment with democracy. The buck, he argues, stops with the political elites who are responsible for engineering this “backsliding”. They certainly have no such mandate from the public.

Bartels has succeeded in going against the conventional reasons for the decline of democracy. It is not because of the people at the grassroots, but because of the dehumanising politics of muscular majoritarianism and its machinations that have led to the flagging of democracy, multilateralism, and tolerance.

Public opinion in Europe does not support the belief advanced by policy specialists that financial crises, mass migration, or an undemocratic European Union technocracy have dented popular support for moderate democratic politics. The public, understandably, is a witness to the politics of power and profit, and the perceptible wearing away of democracy from the top as seen in Hungary, Poland, Serbia, and the United Kingdom. Political institutions therefore, need to be revamped. Government policies need to result in concrete programmes for economic enhancement, and political institutions must work towards strengthening the diligence of the state in matters of justice, freedom and equity.

 The ‘frozen’ welfare state

If one were to examine the state of welfarism in the world, it becomes apparent that “like democracy, the modern welfare state seems to be in a protracted state of crisis”, as argued by many political analysts at length. In 1998, Michel Camdessus, managing director of the International Monetary Fund argued that social programmes “have come to represent an enormous drain on the resources resulting in the efficiency of many of the so-called welfare states”. This was apparently a call for future reforms and a challenge to states to face head on the crises of welfare confronted by affluent democracies across the world.

As the political sociologist Gosta Esping-Anderson opines: “In most countries what we see is not radical change, but rather a ‘frozen’ welfare state landscape.” Esping-Anderson argues that resistance to change is to be expected since “long-established policies become institutionalised, and cultivate vested interests in their perpetuation; major interest groups define their interests in terms of how the welfare state works.” Political ambitions aimed at electoral gain make states hold out short-term schemes in order to gain favour with the masses, but sooner or later the cat is out of the bag and the state’s reprehensible designs stand unmasked.

The recent Euro crisis introduced, in the face of a serious recession, “draconian” austerity measures which have, in turn, affected the existing welfare programmes of the state. Although Bartels argues that the crisis does not seem to have affected spending on social welfare schemes in most EU countries and that people remain largely satisfied with the existing health services, education and pension schemes, the fact is that these austerity measures have undoubtedly brought in shortfalls in social spending and a negative impact on the well-being of low-income people in countries such as Greece, Spain and Ireland.

Bartels writes: “While economic adversity led disgruntled citizens to turn against incumbent governments, it made no dent in their appetite for government action.” Immigration from other countries with an increased influx of asylum seekers may have initially created the fear of social schemes being siphoned off to the incoming population, but in the long run, the immigration crisis did not last long and has in fact been readily accepted by Europe.

The point that Bartels makes is that no other reasons are responsible for the decline of democracy except the leadership that is hungry for electoral gains along with all the power at their disposal to rule the country not by constitutional means but through the misuse of law, of religious sentiments and the narrative of ultra-right-wing nationalism. It is often seen, as in the case of Latin America, that left-wing governments, too, come under extreme pressure to fall back on neoliberal policies once in office, thereby damaging their agenda of upholding the basic rights of the people.

Bartels finally validates his thesis by quoting Nancy Bermeo, the Nuffield Chair of Comparative Politics at Oxford, who says “that political elites rather than ordinary citizens are generally the key actors in precipitating transitions from democracy to dictatorship.” She writes: “Even profound polarisation—in both public and private spaces—is never in itself, a sufficient condition for regime collapse. Democracies will only collapse if actors deliberately disassemble them, and the key actors in dissembling process are political elites”.

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Voters never consciously choose dictatorship. Take the case of Hungry and Poland. The public only elected an alternative option available to them to replace the unsatisfactory incumbent governments, but the elected players ended up expanding their power at the expense of the “courts, the media, and other political actors”. Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczynski in Poland consciously planned the dismantling of “democratic checks and balances not in response to any overwhelming external or internal pressures but simply because they could.”

Bartels concludes his case by emphasising that it is not populism that is behind the downfall of democracy. What has been misunderstood is actually the “role of the ordinary citizens in democratic politics.” Political analysts must be more concerned about the role of political leaders and the democratic institutions rather than ordinary citizens since anti-democratic sentiments are completely absent at the grassroots.

Shelley Walia has taught Cultural Theory at Panjab University.

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