Populism is Dangerous
Populism is a force antithetical to liberal democracy, if not democracy itself. Liberal democracy tempers pure, majoritarian democracy by introducing a written set of rules (a constitution), separation of powers and resultant checks and balances, and, most importantly, by protecting fundamental rights for all people (especially minorities).
Regardless of immutable characteristic – that is, race, creed, national origin, sex, gender, religion, etc – all individuals within the polity have fundamental rights, namely those of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. Populism’s appeal attacks this fundamental tenet of a liberal society.
Populism generally emerges after economic shocks or during prolonged economic malaise. Following the first event, voters naturally rebel against the status quo and search for an answer, no matter how outlandish or irrational, to calamitous events outside of their control. During periods of economic stagnation in which voters may find economics stalling and inequality rising, populism gains traction by promising to revitalize or overhaul a system not necessarily broken. This speaks to human nature: Restlessness and a desire to change even what’s working.
Right-wing populism most obviously attacks and undermines liberal values: It appeals to voters by vilifying minority racial and religious populations. Minorities cause economic catastrophes, so right-wing populists claim. Immigrants lower wages and dilute the true population with inferior genes, morals, and values. They draw undue funds from the government and contribute little to the nation’s culture; it amounts of an invasion of a state’s sovereignty. Moreover, immigrants, especially those of different religions, threaten law and order by illegally entering the country, sympathizing with terrorists, and working to undermine the nation from within.
The vilification, then, arises from a mixture of contrived rationality as well as typical demagogic rhetoric that centers around xenophobia and the inherent inferiority of those different from the nation’s native stock. Only by dramatically curtailing immigration, doubling down on law and order, and enacting reforms that limit religious practice to prevent extremists from meeting and planning terrorist attacks can the nation be salvaged.
Or so the right-wing populist argues with rhetoric that establishes a national “golden age” to which current conditions can be compared. This golden age, often contrived, benefits from memory’s ability to ignore the bad and focus solely on the good – the golden age becomes a period of full employment, accepted national morals, low crime, and no threat from terrorism. It contrasts perfectly with a threatening world in which low-skill jobs become increasingly sparse and terror attacks, though rare, dominate news coverage and the fears of millions.
This naturally appeals to many. It takes agency away from voters and the existing system. One person’s unemployment isn’t due to mismatched skills or any fault of his own; rather, it’s due to an outside force who undercuts wages while also failing to assimilate with the existing culture. Fear motivates voters. They come to believe carnage dominates society, whether from crime or terrorism. And so vilifying immigrants and religious minorities becomes the means by which the country can be salvaged (and united in a front against assaults on sovereignty and national values) and returned to its golden age.
But obviously this is at odds with existing liberal values. Minorities lose rights under such populist administrations. Liberal democracy is the problem because it protects enemies of the state. Its pillars must be struck down to allow the native majority to govern and protect the nation, often by whatever means necessary. In the end, such democracy really is rule by the mob. A fleeting majority riled by emotions and stirred to passion through hateful rhetoric leads to rights for some and tyranny for all.