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When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the reactions of populist leaders in democratic countries such as the United States, Hungary, and Brazil were predictable. In their trademark style, the populists called out their favorite enemies: immigrants, political opposition, minorities, and the independent media. They did so in the name of the “true” people, whose impulses they claimed to reveal and represent. Even when they are in government, populist leaders present themselves as outsiders and orchestrate a permanent campaign against the political “establishment.” Their responses to the pandemic have largely followed this scheme.
But the pandemic has radically altered the socioeconomic fabric of democratic societies, and one might expect populist strategies to change accordingly. To understand how populism is evolving in the era of COVID-19 is to shine a light on the problems facing the world’s democracies. For populism should not be confused with authoritarianism or fascism: a populist is not yet a dictator, and a populist disfigurement of democracy remains within democratic bounds.
Every populist speaks the language and emphasizes the issues that resonate within the political culture to which he or she is native. Still, some broad trends among populist leaders are discernible, and they suggest that no one should count populism out of the running in democratic countries during the pandemic or in its wake. Indeed, the socioeconomic implications of the pandemic could open up new possibilities for populism, especially in those countries where it is in opposition.
The most difficult task of a democratic constitution is to ensure that legality does not come at the expense of democratic legitimacy, nor security at the expense of civil and political liberty. As le Marquis de Condorcet put it in 1789, “Sur la nécessité, l’excuse des tyrans.” Condorcet’s anxiety has proved prescient under the shadow of the novel coronavirus.
The case of Hungary is particularly instructive in this regard. Prime Minister Viktor Orban used the pandemic emergency to press the country’s parliament to allow him to rule by decree and to suspend the legislative body at will. Although the parliament lifted this authorization in mid-June, the fact that it was ever in force is clarifying. The legislative body is now less a representative organ of the sovereign people than a department of a supreme majority; not the parliament but the leader is the country’s primary voice. Hungary’s case demonstrates that populism can degenerate into arbitrary rule, and it should make observers suspicious of the democratic loyalties of populists in power. Populist leaders start as democratic competitors, but how they will end is not so easy to predict.
Elsewhere, the fortunes of populists have been tied to the pandemic, and to the response of democratic governments to the pandemic, in a more complicated fashion. Many constitutional democracies have adopted interventions that would normally seem out of character: instituting centralized health-care orders under medical doctors’ and virologists’ supervision and adopting draconian limitations on the freedoms of movement and association. As medieval cities closed their gates to protect their people, so liberal societies have transformed the private homes of their citizens into walled citadels. Such interventions have become useful foils for populism, as have scientific experts, whom the pandemic has elevated to an unusual role.
Social democratic parties will have to shake themselves awake and start mobilizing.
Some commentators describe the ascendancy of experts as bad news for populists, who are known for anti-intellectualism and for embracing fake news and conspiratorial rumors over expert opinion. But relying on science over politics will not necessarily protect democracies from populism: just because politics leaves room for demagoguery does not mean that constricting politics will stifle demagoguery.
This question is one that has preoccupied political scholars in recent years. Some suggest that weakening populism may require the curtailment of some aspects of democratic politics. One could seek to tamp down the partisan animosity that elections unleash, for example, and to demobilize and calm a cacophonous public, while expanding the domain of nonpolitical actors and authorities such as juries, mini-publics (demographically representative assemblies tasked with deliberating over discrete problems), and authorities and institutions that monitor government. Such an approach has indeed proved useful when it doesn’t substitute for elections and voting—which is to say, when it does not interfere with politics as a domain of competition and partisanship.
But the assumption that a less conflictual and partisan politics would deprive populism of oxygen—and, therefore, that an expanded role for experts would be a silver lining to the COVID-19 tragedy—rests upon the unfounded assumption that populists benefit from a pluralism of ideas and parties. In actuality, populists rise to power by campaigning against party politics, which they claim fragments the unity of the “true” people and weakens its sovereign power. That populists are skeptical of experts should not occlude the fact that party democracy tolerates partisan politics far better than does populist democracy. To the extent that empowering scientific experts constricts the realm of partisan contestation, then, it is unlikely to deflate populism’s demagogic appeal. Rather, populists will campaign against unfriendly experts and draw strength from this new grievance.
So far, the pandemic has highlighted the uncertain nature of scientific knowledge rather than its salvific power: the theories and results of the biomedical sciences have shown themselves to be provisional and far from indisputable, as scientists are getting to know the new coronavirus in real time. Politicians—particularly populist politicians—have taken the indeterminacy and changeability of scientific pronouncements as license for contestation and declare the pandemic “fake news.”
Such contestation has in turn supplied oxygen to populist movements that are not currently in power. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the populist Northern League, cast doubt on the validity of medical research and the “policy of the mask” in order to complain that an “authoritarian government” had squelched citizens’ freedom of movement and impoverished them. Salvini attacked the center-left government’s lockdown both at the beginning of the pandemic in late February and at the end of the lockdown phase in May, when the country began to debate reopening. His propaganda profited from the messy and evolving scientific recommendations and predictions, opportunistically embracing the topics and rhetoric that best suited its purposes in the moment. Today, while Italy is (almost) virus free, Salvini launched a national campaign against social distancing and the wearing of the mask—he was against legal lockdown then as he is now against prudent behavior.
Except for the authoritarian Orban, populists worldwide have generally chosen libertarian responses to the pandemic, not only in countries, such as Italy, where they are in the opposition but also in countries they rule, such as the United Kingdom (before the coronavirus hit the prime minister), the United States, and Brazil. In the latter two countries, the demagogic fight against political opposition merged with advocacy for absolute “freedom” against “statism” or “authoritarianism.” Thus, U.S. President Donald Trump and Republican governors of some states opted for few restrictions on freedoms of movement and assembly, while fomenting opposition to “fake scientists” and to Democratic governors in charge of hard-hit metropolitan areas.
The true benefit of this stance—that of defending freedom against “authoritarian” overreach—may accrue to populist politicians only later. When societies reopen, they will confront new depths of unemployment and poverty. Populist opposition to lockdown in almost all countries will become a badge of honor and a cudgel with which to beat those governments and majorities that defended lockdowns in the name of health and solidarity. In other words, unemployment and economic distress in the months to come may well fuel populism, which is ready to mobilize the “forgotten many” against an establishment that, as Salvini thundered, deprived them of their freedom and livelihoods at the same time.
Toeing a fine line, Salvini has expressed admiration for Orban’s decision to close the parliament in Hungary, even while accusing the center-left government in his own country of authoritarianism and of destroying economic well-being. In defending liberty against lockdown, production against immobility, Salvini put himself at the head of a motley coalition that includes industrialists, impoverished laborers, and members of the middle class, all demanding “jobs and freedom.”
Social democratic parties (where they still exist) will have to shake themselves awake and start mobilizing citizens around social justice and redistribution—otherwise populism could have a bright future.