Democracy Dismantled: Why the Populist Threat Is Real and Serious

Democracy Dismantled: Why the Populist Threat Is Real and Serious
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather during a rally, Denver, Colorado, March 4, 2017 (AP photo by Brennan Linsley).

U.S. President Donald Trump campaigned as an outsider candidate, though under the banner of the Republican Party. His message was decidedly populist and continues to be: He alone can save the country from the challenges it faces; the elite and traditional establishment are dangerous and corrupt; the mainstream media cannot be trusted; and other tropes commonly used by populists.

America’s election of a president promoting this type of message has led many experts on authoritarian politics to draw parallels between what’s happening in the United States, a country with well-established and robust democratic institutions, and developments seen in authoritarian settings. After all, research indicates that democracy is weakened if it relies on the leadership of a single individual, as opposed to democratic institutions; if contestation is personality-driven, rather than structured by political parties; and if voters do not have access to reliable information via an independent media. A flurry of observers and pundits have therefore begun to question whether the U.S. is in the process of democratic backsliding or even has the potential to move toward autocracy in the years to come.

Trump’s election is not an isolated occurrence. All over Europe, where democratic rule is the norm and has been for decades, populist candidates and parties have sprung to power in recent years, raising concerns of an authoritarian slide. Populist parties on the left and right now govern parliaments in Greece, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland and are part of governing coalitions in Finland, Norway and Lithuania. In France, Germany and the Netherlands, far-right parties promoting xenophobic rhetoric are slated to make gains this spring, or have at least dominated campaign seasons with their fiery rhetoric that claims to salvage national identity. Though in recent years Europe’s democracies have mostly proven resilient to the threat posed by populism, in a few places, such as Hungary and Poland, populist figures have been elected, leading to significant declines in respect for democratic principles, from press freedoms to judicial independence.

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