Populism: the denial of representative democracy and constitutional government

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Donald Trump is now president of the United States. As a democratically elected president, he enjoys the necessary democratic legitimacy to determine and implement policies. It is to be expected that these policies will differ from those favoured by his predecessor. Such is the nature of the democratic game. Yet there is something deeply troubling about Donald Trump and the people with whom he surrounds himself. The term ‘populism’ is often invoked when we try to get a better understanding of what exactly it is that makes some of us grind our teeth whenever we hear Trump speak. What is meant by the term ‘populism’, however, is not always clear.

‘Populism’ is a political strategy by which an individual strives to acquire political power. The strategy has two components. First, the populist establishes a rift between an imagined, unitary ‘people’ on the one hand, and an ‘elite’ which has lost touch with ‘the people’ and which allegedly has monopolised the institutions of government in an effort to serve its own private interests. Second, he or she claims to exclusively represent the authentic voice of the imagined, unitary ‘people.’

French political theorist Claude Lefort perhaps best captured the essence of populism. Lefort described democracy in opposition to monarchical government. Under a system of monarchical government, political power is held exclusively by the king. The views of the king are law. No room exists for division and pluralism. If we imagine society as a symbolic space, we can say that under a system of monarchical government, the king occupies that space in its entirety. Those who hold different beliefs are placed outside of society, and should expect expulsion.

Contrasting democratic government with monarchical government, Lefort argued that under a system of democratic government, the symbolic space of power has become empty. There is no longer a king whose beliefs are law. This conception of political power, and indeed of society in its entirety, as an empty space meant to capture what Lefort considered the essence of democratic government, namely its embrace of pluralism. In a democratic society, Lefort contended, on questions of values, that there is no single truth. Differences of belief and values are accepted and incorporated in the processes and institutions of government. Historically, this has been achieved primarily by recognising andinstitutionalising the role of the opposition within the legislature.

Populism, which Lefort referred to as totalitarianism, then, can be understood as an attempt by a single individual, or a movement rallied around that individual, to reclaim and once again occupy that symbolic space. By claiming to speak directly in the name of a unified ‘people’, the populist denies the legitimacy of the existing political institutions and their efforts to institutionalise pluralism and dissent. Both majority and opposition, the populist contends, are part of the above-mentioned ‘elite’, the goal of which is merely to further its own private interests. Interventions by that ‘elite’ that run against the populist’s substantive beliefs are understood as illegitimate obstructions that serve to
suppress the will of the ‘people.’

It will be clear by now that populism, in this understanding, is at odds both with representative democracy and with constitutionalism.

Populism is at odds with representative democracy because it denies the legitimacy of those who do not share the populist’s views. The populist regards him- or herself as the mouthpiece of the unitary ‘people.’ It follows that in the populist’s understanding of democracy, there is no room for opposition within the processes and institutions of government. Those who do not share the populist’s substantive beliefs are considered part of the illegitimate elite and thus necessarily place themselves outside of ‘the people.’ Populism, in this sense, is profoundly anti-pluralistic; its aim is to unify ‘the people’ around a single set of beliefs, in particular the values of the populist, whichever beliefs he or she happens to hold.

Populism is also at odds with constitutionalism. Constitutionalism entails the submission of government to a higher law. This higher law both establishes the offices of government and limits the government in the exercise of power. With the view of protecting individual liberty, government power is diffused between different institutions, typically to a combination of legislatures, executives and courts. Due to this diffusion of power, decision-making requires deliberation and cooperation between different institutions. Furthermore, if a government decision infringes on individual liberties protected by the constitution, courts will have the authority to strike it down.

This diffusion of power hinders the populist in his or her attempts to reclaim the entirety of the symbolic space of which Lefort spoke. As the populist necessarily speaks on behalf of ‘the people’, democracy itself requires his or her orders to be executed at once. Procedures and processes of deliberation, and courts exercising an external check on the exercise of government power (crucial to constitutional government) have no place in the populist picture. They are a nuisance for the populist at the very best, and illegitimate acts of obstruction at worst.

In short, then, populism is not so much a substantive belief-system; it is neither right nor
left – which explains why populists such as Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump defend views that combine elements of far-left and far-right ideology. At its core, populism is a political strategy the objective of which is to destabilise and in turn destroy representative democracy and constitutional government by rallying the citizenry around the notion of an imagined, unified ‘people.’ Its promise to the citizenry is to dismantle the alleged elite, and to single-handedly implement a policy agenda that is understood as the direct expression of the will of ‘the people’ – the content of which, of course, only the populist has the ability to determine.

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