Populism in Western Democracy: Why Now?

Insights feature
By Alex Goerlach and Dawn Nakagawa

The current dissatisfaction with government that is giving rise to populism on both sides of the Atlantic is, in part, a by-product of Western democracy. Democracy has critical flaws that over time create a disconnect between the governing and the governed. The exclusive character of the system tends towards isolation and entrenchment of the political class and breeds resentment and distrust among the population. In the current era of globalization, the distrust is amplified by fear that becomes the stepping stones for new voices that will disrupt the status quo.

Chief among the flaws of representative democracy is that out of the many, few can be chosen to represent the people. This inherent exclusivity makes the chosen few, form - whether they wish to or not -  a class of their own. Given the advantage of incumbency in elections and in the absence of term limits, the governing class inevitably becomes isolated from the everyday lives of the governed. Often the ruling class becomes identified with the city from which it operates, making its name synonymous with an aloof political elite. In such cases, mentioning the capital in remote regions often excites harsh statements about the corruption and cluelessness of the ruling caste. Washington, Berlin and Brussels are such examples. 

This exclusivity and entrenchment compromises the access to political leadership that democracy promises.  Regardless of your parents' station, everyone in a democratic society is theoretically entitled to rise to the top of the political system. This principle has held true at different historical periods. In post-World War II Germany, for example, chancellors, presidents, and diplomats, often had very humble beginnings. Germany's egalitarian political system created a sense of equality as one could feel called to serve the public good and administer to the needs of the people. The same ideas are codified in the US Constitution based on principles of equality, political freedom and the right for the people to elect their leaders. 

Today, the struggle of Western societies to live up to the promise of access for the common person to the upper echelons of political leadership, is everywhere apparent. After decades of peace and public order, the political elite seems to be self-content and self-reproducing. On both sides of the pond, political leaders are too often drawn from elite backgrounds. From the Ivy League alma maters with proud political ancestries, to the over-abundance of older white men, the composition of the US Congress hardly resembles America. The same can be said in France and United Kingdom, where political leaders and powerful bureaucrats are drawn from a handful of elite schools, including the London School of Economics, Sciences Politiques or les Grandes Ecoles. 

As further evidence, the foreign ministry of Germany pays a pithy allowance of €300 per month to its interns, sending a clear message that such career-boosting internships are only for the prodigy of the wealthy. 

 The party system further limits access and contributes to the distrust. Rising to the top means affiliation with a specific political party. Becoming a party member means starting your political career while you are in university. You work in the committees and ultimately earn your right to be on the list for the parliament. By so doing, you become a professional politician and a creature of the party. 

Arguably, one's conscience and the needs of one’s constituency ought to be the most important considerations of an elected representative when making legislative decisions as opposed to obligations - formal or informal - to a party faction. However, the rules of the parliamentary systems and the practices of the US congressional system, prevent this from being the case. Again and again, the system produces results that put party over people – as parties refuse to work together, often operating out of spite rather than the public good. The fate of the seat left behind by Justice Scalia exemplifies the point. 

The party system also compromises the idea of meritocracy. Within the party system it is loyalty to the party that is most highly rewarded, at the expense of other considerations, such as competence. This self interested behavior further increases the distrust and resentment of the public toward an elite political class that so blatently serves its own interests. 

The party-system leads to a "politician-by-profession"-class that increasingly exists in an echo chamber, ensnarled in a zero-sum competition between political opponents at the cost of understanding how the governed social classes live their lives.

However, the disconnect of the political elite and the self-interested operating model of party system, do not fully explain the sudden rise of populism in the past few years. Western democracy has been evolving uninterrupted for 70 years in Europe and longer in the US and a form of political rigor mortis has set in. The disconnect and resulting distrust of the governing political elite is wide spread and deeply routed among the public. 

Over the past few decades and at an intensifying rate, globalization and rapid technological disruption have rendered nation states impotent to control their own destiny. Economic interdependence leaves states vulnerable to poor decisions made elsewhere. Globalization of financial markets make powerful institutional investors more important than governments in determining the economic outcomes. Multinational corporations move manufacturing overseas with ease to avoid taxation and reduce labor costs. Solutions to global environmental degradation are elusive to the local communities that suffer their effects. 

Concurrently, technology is replacing human labor that can compete neither on price nor capability, in a widening range of industries. From retail to finance to healthcare and education, the jobs available particularly for low-skilled workers, are diminishing. One study from the Oxford Martin School published in 2014, estimates the 49% of all jobs are in jeopardy of technological disruption over the next 20 years. 

Governments do not operate at a scale that can control these developments. We are attempting to manage global phenomena using a box of national tools.  Our political structures are not equipped to manage these problems, but the political actors who operate within them are forced to pretend they can make a difference. Repeated failure adds fear to the distrust and sends the public in search of more and more extreme solutions. 

Populism emerges in this context, as new voices find targets to blame for the failures of the system. Trump, Le Pen and Orban are symptoms of a dissatisfied public buying into a narrative of blame built on a foundation of distrust. As history has taught us, it is often fear and anger that drives the movement, resulting in poor choices and, at times, disastrous outcomes that haunt a nation for generations. 

Reversing globalization or slowing the pace of technological change, is not possible. However there are changes that can be made to Western democracy to reduce the disconnect between the people and their political leaders. 

Contemporary democracy loses legitimacy when the citizens perceive the elites as an exclusive club. One way to address this is to integrate competent people from outside the party system into the government through technocratic appointments. 

The "technocrat"—people such as former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti—is an appointed political figure. The appointee is not elected however they are able to serve in virtually any position including, as in the case of Senator Monti, head of government. 

The current discourse in many Western countries presents a conundrum: while many complain about a polity-elite, voters also express suspicion about business men and professors entering politics. Citizens in Europe will have to allow competent men and women to enter politics from academia, media, and industry while welcoming back at the end of their political tenure, as is done in the United States.

The US system allows for political appointees throughout the system, reducing the perception of an isolated political class from what it is in Europe. However, political appointments are used to reward political and monetary support for the winning candidate and is therefore seen as a corrupt part of the same system built for and by elites. Campaign finance reform and restrictions on appointments of political and campaign operatives, could reduce this perception in order to maintain the advantages of technocratic appointments. 

 Another possible solution to remedy this problem of legitimacy may be restricting the number of terms an elected official can be in a particular position. On both sides of the Atlantic, parliamentarians and congressional representatives have no term limits (this is not the case in the many states legislatures). Restricting terms to say, a maximum of three, would prevent the concentration of power and the reduce the likelihood of corruption, while requiring the party to constantly be on the look out for fresh talent. Adding fresh talent would increase the dynamism of the party and require broader outreach, keeping the party in touch with society.  

If parties were to accept this new approach, the electorate would have to accept that there exists a life in politics for "non-lifetime-professional politicians." 

Many are called but few are chosen. This birth defect of democracy need not be an insurmountable disability: setting term limits and allowing some positions to be filled via meritocratic appointments, keeps the system more dynamic and intensifies the interactions between the governed and the governing. 

Ultimately, it is increasingly important to develop governing systems that supersede the nation state as the primary mechanism through which we manage our collective fate. Pretending it can be done, leads not only to discredited politicians but may eventually throw the entire system into question.

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