Hurricane or fresh breeze? Disentangling the populist effect on the quality of democracy

Are populists more like a hurricane that undermines democracy or like a fresh breeze that reinvigorates it? In our new article in European Political Science Review, we find it depends: on the aspect of democracy, on populists’ government access, and on their ideology.

Recent electoral upsets have cast a renewed spotlight on the democratic consequences of populists. These include Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 electoral victory in the US, the UK’s Brexit vote in the same year, and the (intermittently) dominant role of not one but three populist parties in Italy’s election polls. Under the impression of a populist surge, observers have warned of its detrimental consequences for democracy. For instance, former European Union President Herman Van Rompuy even pronounced populism as the “biggest danger to Europe”. In contrast, our analysis reveals a far more contradictory relationship of populism with democracy.

Seat shares and ideological family of the largest populist parties in our analysis (1990-2016).

Our findings do not underline the view that populism is a uniform threat to democracy. Instead, we find that this depends on three things: First, on the aspect of democracy considered. Second, on the ideological ‘leanings’ of populist actors. And, third, on whether populist actors are included in government or confined to the opposition.

Consequences of populist actors on select aspects of democratic quality.
  1. Our findings indeed highlight a populist threat to some key pillars of liberal democracy. We find that populists substantially impair the rule of law and transparency. This includes infringements on aspects such as judicial independence, guarantees for neutral process, press freedoms, and disclosure rules for financial contributions to political parties. Notably, these negative consequences appear relatively uniform across different types of populist actors.
  2. Conversely, however, we also find evidence that populism can be a partial corrective to specific democratic short-comings, in line with some previous research (e.g., here and here). However, we find that populists’ ability to serve as a corrective is strongly influenced by their ideological ‘leanings’. This shapes populists’ understanding of the ‘people’ they mobilize and claim to represent. In this vein, we find that populists of the left have the strongest potential to improve the participation of previously marginalized and demobilized social groups. Similarly, we find that left-wing populists also positively affect the quality of representation, owing to higher inclusion of women and ethnic minorities. We also find tentative evidence that right-wing populists may similarly boost popular participation by appealing to previously unmobilized segments of society. In contrast, we find that centrist populists, whose political ideas are often already represented by mainstream parties, are only ill-suited to increase popular participation.
  3. Our findings also indicate that government inclusion may exacerbate some of the negative consequences of populism on democratic quality and attenuate its positive ones. However, our findings indicate that populists may also significantly shape policy even where they are confined to the opposition. For example, they might do so by influencing the positions of governing parties.

Our findings are based on a quantitative assessment, using data on populist actors from several sources. This enables us to study the consequences of populist actors not only in Western Europe, but also in Latin America, North America, and Eastern Europe in a combined set-up. Our dependent variables are taken from the Democracy Barometer. This enables us to disentangle the contradictory consequences of populist actors for various aspects of democratic quality.

In sum, our article highlights the contradictory consequences of populism for democracy. On the one hand, it partly corroborates warnings that populists threaten democracy, especially as regards liberal rights and safeguards, and especially as regards populists in government. On the other, however, it highlights that populists can improve other aspects of democratic quality. This applies especially to democratic representation and participation, which appear improved in particular by left-wing populists.

For detailed findings and methodology, please check out the article here.

Hurricane or fresh breeze? Disentangling the populist effect on the quality of democracy
Juon, Andreas & Bochsler, Daniel (2020). European Political Science Review 12 (3): 391-408.
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