The Populist Authoritarian – Hollowing Out Democracy From Within

Through the rise of populism, those who feel they lost out in the culture wars that have been fought democratically across Europe and the United States in recent decades are fighting back, and this time they do not feel the need to be restrained by the rules of democracy.

Democracy has been in a global recession for most of the last decade, and the recession is deepening. For three decades, from the mid-1970 to the mid-2000s, the world witnessed a spread of democracy never before seen in history. During this time, the proportion of democratic states doubled, from around 30 percent of the world’s independent states in 1974 to about 60 percent in 2006. [1] Since 2006, however, the spread of democracy has ceased, and many existing democracies have reverted to authoritarianism. This authoritarian resurgence is also happening in long-established Western democracies which are experiencing a threat not seen since the 1930s – the choice by large swathes of their electorates to vote for less democracy. [2]    

Western Democracy in Retreat

Political scientists identify four ways in which democratic breakdowns occur: a military coup, an incumbent takeover (in which a democratically elected incumbent subverts democracy), a civil war, or a popular uprising. Studies of democratic breakdowns over the last two hundred years show that military coups and incumbent takeovers together account for more than 90 percent of all democratic breakdowns. [3] Until recently, military coups have been more common. In the last few decades, however, incumbent takeovers have increased sharply, accounting for 40 percent of all democratic failures between 2000 and 2010, and matching coups in frequency. [4] Of twenty five breakdowns of democracy in the world since 2000, the majority—thirteen—resulted from the undermining of democratic institutions and practices by democratically elected rulers. [5]

Populism as the Road to Democratic Breakdown

In democracies that succumb to authoritarianism via an incumbent takeover, elected leaders accumulate enough power to subvert democratic institutions from within. Adolf Hitler’s election as Chancellor of Germany, and his subsequent accumulation of absolute power, is the most notorious example of an incumbent takeover. In established democracies, however, authoritarian leaders must first be elected to power and, once elected, command significant support for dismantling of democracy. For the first time since the 1930s, this is exactly what is happening in Western democracies. As former Bulgarian prime minister, Philip Dimitrov, has warned, populism is the mechanism by which authoritarian leaders are coming to power, and authoritarianism is how they are then governing and holding on to power.[6]

Incumbent takeover, enabled by populism, has undermined democracy in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, in Poland under the Law and Justice Party, and under Donald Trump in the United States. Far-right populist parties in Western Europe, such as France’s Front National, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Belgian Vlaams Belang (VB), the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), and the Italian National Alliance (AN), have also all succeeded in gaining parliamentary representation and increased popular support. Further afield, Venezuela provides another, dramatic, example. When Hugo Chávez was elected in 2002, Venezuela was the third-oldest democracy outside of the industrialized West. In all of these cases, leaders and parties openly opposed to liberal democracy have taken, or aim to take, power by democratic means in order to do away with it with the support of large swathes of the electorate.

Two Theories on Rise of Populism

Support for populist parties has been growing for decades. In Europe, the average share of the vote for populist parties in national and European parliamentary elections has more than doubled since the 1960s. During the same period, their share of seats has tripled from 3.8% to 12.8%. [7] Nation-specific events, such as explanations of Trump or Brexit, help to explain particular events within a given country, but they do not explain why the vote for populist parties across many countries has roughly doubled in recent decades. A more general theory is needed to explain this, and there are two possible contenders – economic inequality and cultural backlash.

According to the economic inequality theory, rising economic insecurity has made the less secure in society susceptible to the manifestos of populist leaders. The cultural backlash theory, on the other hand, argues that in the surge support for populist parties cannot be explained simply as an economic phenomenon, but is in large part a reaction against progressive cultural change such as gender, racial and homosexual equality and an increased ethnic mix of populations.

If the economic insecurity thesis is correct, mass support for populism would be concentrated among the economically marginalized in society who are the main losers from globalisation and technological advances, namely unskilled workers, the unemployed, those lacking college degrees, house-holds dependent on welfare benefits, and those living in inner-city areas which attract the highest concentrations of immigrants.

If the cultural backlash thesis is true, then the strongest support for populist parties would be observed among the older generation, men, those lacking college education, and those most opposed to progressive cultural change, such as progressive attitudes towards sexuality, religion, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance of foreigners.

Weighing up the evidence, the rise of populism in Western democracies appears to be driven more by cultural backlash than by economic insecurity. Populist parties have indeed received significantly greater support among the less well-off and among those with experience of unemployment, supporting the economic insecurity interpretation. But populist voting is strongest among the reasonably well off, not unskilled manual workers. As predicted by social backlash theory, populist support is concentrated among the older generation, men, the religious, majority populations, and the less educated. These are the groups most likely to have been left behind by the progressive tides of cultural change, and most likely to feel that their values now differ from the predominant values in their own country.

The predominance of the cultural over the economic is also suggested by the Brexit Referendum, where many British pro-Brexit voters regarded EU membership as economically beneficial, but were prepared to suffer the adverse consequences of Brexit nonetheless, in order to limit immigration and ‘take back control’ of national identity.

Populism as Anti-Democratic

Populist movements in the U.S. and Europe can fall on both the Left and the Right of the divide on economic policies. Left Populism, which is particularly common in post-Communist Europe, advocates classic left-wing economic and social policies, such as restoring state ownership of major industries and increased spending on education, welfare and healthcare. Right Populism, on the other hand, is economically libertarian and pro-market.

In the U.S., Trump won by advocating many Left Populist economic ideas such as protecting medicare, but is governing largely as a Right Populist. The fact that he can do so and still retain the support of his base is a further indication that cultural rather than economic issues are the real driver of his support.

Both Left and Right Populism, however, tend to have shared cultural and political values. Both Left and Right Populists oppose values such as diversity, tolerance, and freedom of expression’[8], they both tend to be socially conservative and oppose the protection of the rights of minorities. Both Left and Right Populists depict ruling elites as corrupt and out of touch with ‘the people’. They define “the people” according to ‘nationalist’, ‘ethnocentric’ and ‘traditional’ criteria and exclude those, such as foreigners or Muslims, who they label as ‘other’. Elites and the ‘excluded other’ are then conflated as acting together against the interests of ‘the people’. [9]

Both Left and Right Populism maintain that strong leadership, without opposition or constraints, is a necessary alternative to the checks and balances of representative democracy. They both support the imposition of constraints on the press and the courts and advocate for the centralisation of power.

In short, both Left and Right Populism are antidemocratic, socially conservative [10], culturally nationalistic, and xenophobic. So while xenophobia is a prominent feature of populism, it is only part of a much broader cultural backlash, particularly among the older generation, which is rejecting many established democratic and cosmopolitan practices and norms. It is also evident in Donald Trump’s core support base, which includes both white nationalists and Christian evangelicals who tend to oppose racial, gender and homosexual equality.


photo credit: weaverphoto 20161105-154557 via photopin (license)

The Dangers of Democratic Reversal

The rise of populism signals a sea change in the political discourse in many Western democracies. With it, the predominant cleavage in politics has shifted from the traditional Left – Right debate on economic policies, to a more visceral debate on cultural and political values and identities. This new politics is less about economics, and more a battle between democracy and authoritarianism.

Democracy depends for its survival on the acceptance of key democratic tenets among the public and the ruling elites. For decades, support for democracy has been falling in many established democracies, particularly the United States. In 2011, before Donald Trump, almost half of U.S. non-college graduates approved of having a strong leader unchecked by elections and Congress. Twenty eight percent of U.S. college graduates also did so. [11] In 1995, just 5 per cent of wealthy Americans believed army rule would be a good thing. By 2014 that had more than tripled. [12] In a 2017 poll, 52 percent of Republicans said they would back a postponement of the next election if Trump called for it. [13]

As a result, democracy in many Western countries is now facing a pincer movement, caught between mass publics who no longer believe in the checks and balances of democracy, and authoritarian leaders who are winning power through elections and then proceeding to hollow out democracy from within.

Political scientists warn that the undermining of democracy by elected populist leaders is notoriously difficult to counter. First, the erosion of democratic institutions by elected authoritarians is typically gradual and piecemeal, and therefore typically provokes only fragmented resistance. Such resistance is further undermined by the fact that elected authoritarians enjoy substantial popular support, and tend to have broad approval for their strides towards authoritarianism. [14]

Elected authoritarians are also enabled by their championing of a narrow interpretation of democracy. As political scientist Ivan Krastev points out, populism does not necessarily represent a challenge to democracy, if democracy is understood simply as the rule of the majority. The fact that many citizens do indeed understand democracy in this limited way makes it difficult for democracy’s defenders to portray populists as anti-democratic. [15]

So what precisely is at stake in the demise of Western democracy? In the immediate term, what is at stake are the rights and safety of minorities and opponents of the regime, press freedom, and the gains in freedom won by women, racial minorities and sexual minorities over recent decades. What is at stake in the medium term is the safety of us all. As scholars Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz warn, populist-driven elections of authoritarian leaders is giving rise to ‘personalist dictatorships’, in which power is highly concentrated in the hands of individual leaders. “Such systems”, they write “tend to produce the worst outcomes of any type of political regime: they typically pursue the most volatile and aggressive foreign policies, espouse the most xenophobic sentiments, and are the least likely to transition to democracy when they collapse. Today’s populist movements are fuelling the proliferation of the world’s most problematic regimes.” [16]

The dangers, and the lessons from history, are clear. The Western system of democracy, with all its checks and balances against authoritarian excess, has been designed over the course of centuries to protect us all. Citizens of Western democracies voting for populist candidates who avowedly express authoritarian views are like plane passengers who vote to shut off the plane’s navigation system and place a stunt pilot in control. Having done so, voter regret is neither going to avert catastrophe nor make amends to fellow passengers who voted differently, but are doomed nonetheless. In our age of post-truth politics, voters in Western democracies need to recognise this basic truth before it is too late.


[1] Larry Diamond, Facing Up to the Democratic Recession, Journal of Democracy, Vol 26, January 2015

[2] Olga Oliker, Putinism, Populism and the Defence of Liberal Democracy, Survival, 59:1, 2017

[3] Milan Slovik, Which Democracies Will Last? Coups, Incumbent Takeovers, and the Dynamic of Democratic Consolidation, British Journal of Political Science, March 2009

[4] Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, How Democracies Fall Apart, Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2016

[5] Larry Diamond, Facing Up to the Democratic Recession, Journal of Democracy, Vol 26, January 2015

[6] Philip Dimitrov, ‘Does “Populism” in Europe’s New Democracies Really Matter?’, Demokratizatsiya, vol. 17, no. 4, 2009, pp. 310–23.

[7] Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris, Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash Faculty Research Working Paper Series August 2016

[8] Philip Dimitrov, ‘Does “Populism” in Europe’s New Democracies Really Matter?’, Demokratizatsiya, vol. 17, no. 4, 2009, pp. 310–23.

[9] Ivan Krastev, ‘The Populist Moment’, New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, vol. 9, no. 4, 2007, pp. 24–7

[10] Alina Polyakova, “Putinism and the European Far Right,” Institute of Modern Russia, January 19, 2016

[11] Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris, Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash Faculty Research Working Paper Series, August 2016

[12] Edward Luce, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Little, Brown, 2017, p122

[13] Washington Post, 10 August 2017

[14] Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, How Democracies Fall Apart, Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2016

[15] Ivan Krastev, The Populist Moment, New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, vol. 9, no. 4, 2007, pp. 24–7

[16] Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, How Democracies Fall Apart, Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2016

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