Populism is gaining ground. Around the world, economic hardship and growing unease with globalization, immigration, and the established elite have propelled such movements into power, leading to a groundswell of public support for parties and leaders viewed as capable of holding the forces of cultural and social change at bay. In Europe, populist parties dominate parliaments in Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, and Switzerland and are part of governing coalitions in Finland, Norway, and Lithuania. In Southeast Asia, the Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte is pursuing a populist agenda. And in the United States, Donald Trump has been elected president.
The objectives of contemporary populists are not new. Like most of their historical predecessors in Latin America and Europe, today’s populist parties extol the virtues of strong and decisive leadership, share a disdain for established institutions, and express deep distrust of perceived experts and elites. But the tactics that today’s populists employ to implement their vision of iron rule have evolved. Rather than orchestrating sudden and decisive breaks with democracy, which can elicit domestic and international condemnation, they have instead learned from populist-fueled strongmen such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Post–Cold War populists such as Chávez, Putin, and Erdogan took a slow and steady approach to dismantling democracy. These leaders first come to power through democratic elections and subsequently harness widespread discontent to gradually undermine institutional constraints on their rule, marginalize the opposition, and erode civil society. The playbook is consistent and straightforward: deliberately install loyalists in key positions of power (particularly in the judiciary and security services) and neutralize the media by buying it, legislating against it, and enforcing censorship. This strategy makes it hard to discern when the break with democracy actually occurs, and its insidiousness poses one of the most significant threats to democracy in the twenty-first century.