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.
Left-wing populism emerges when voters perceive financial elites and society’s wealthiest as wholly responsible for an economic calamity and see that class as unduly benefitting from an economic recovery (made worse when incomes, by and large, stagnate). Though same may doubt whether left-wing populism can actually threaten liberal democratic values, its discontents should be obvious: A temporary majority designs policies that directly target a minority class (in this case, the wealthy), often in hopes of stripping them of their property.
Financial elites and the capital-hoarding upper-strata owns the government and entirely rigs the economic system to ensure capital-holders benefit while laborers slave away for mere dollars and bear the brunt of the burden when the economy crashes. Therefore, the left-wing populist argues, policies must be crafted to tax or take away the wealthy’s property. They must be vilified and have income and perhaps even assets seized and then redistributed to society’s workers, in a just and equitable manner as defined by a central authority (one that nationalizes and so owns the means of production).
It promises fairness as supposedly defined by the masses (though how the masses decide what constitutes a fair distribution of collective goods remains an unsolved question, even in the most radical of proposals and ideologues). What better way to guarantee fairness for all than by seizing the excess of those whose greed has condemned so many to poverty?
Dangerously, such rhetoric and ideas appeal to many because a vast majority stand to benefit whereas a select few suffer. A large majority may find vindication for actions that target a specific minority because the majority itself is so large and the cause so normatively pure. But such efforts violate a central idea of liberal democracy: Property rights. Liberal democracies ensure that the government cannot wantonly seize assets regardless of majority whims. Property itself drives the economy – without property (ie, money, goods, etc), individuals would not be driven to work and innovate and so the state itself would collect no tax revenues, no goods would be produced, and the standard of living would fall dramatically. Furthermore, it creates a precedent in which any majority coalition can seize the property of a detested minority, whether an economic minority or a racial or religious one. Liberal democracy falls to individuals’ lust for revenge.