Book Review: Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy

New York Journal of Books

“In Me the People, Nadia Urbinati has produced an exceptional scholarly work on a highly relevant socio-political phenomenon.”

From Latin America and the United States to Europe, Africa and Asia, populism has a long history around the world. The term “populism”—a range of ideas referring to “people against the elite”—may not be new. However, it has undergone a marked resurgence in public and scholarly discourse in recent decades. 

The 2016 US presidential election which Donald Trump won, in the same year the referendum on the United Kingdom’s continuing membership of the European Union which went in favor of leaving, the rise of Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece and of the Northern League in Italy, and the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, coming to dominate in India are among the most conspicuous examples. However, there are others. 

Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracyby Nadia Urbinati is a new scholarly book. Urbinati, professor of Political Theory at Columbia University, specializes in modern and contemporary thought and the democratic and anti-democratic traditions. Her previous works include Democracy Disfigured (HUP, 2014), Representative Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2006) and Mill on Democracy (UCP, 2002), which received the Elaine and David Spitz Prize as the best book in liberal and democratic theory in 2004. In these, Urbinati explores how conditions determine what form democracy takes.

A widely accepted interpretation of liberal democracy is that once a candidate or political party wins an election, the winner represents all, irrespective of whether they had voted for or against the winner. Against this liberal interpretation are various forms of limited democracy and authoritarian systems claiming to derive legitimacy by holding restricted elections and plebiscites.

The central thesis of Urbinati in Me the People is that populism is a new form of representative government based on a direct relationship between the leader and those the leader defines as the “good” or “right” people. Populism stretches constitutional democracy to its limits, her thesis goes on, and opens the way to authoritarianism.

That populism pushes constitutional democracy into retreat is evident where such movements are successful. They seek to occupy the spaces left by constitutional power. Urbinati identifies two factors in particular that militate in favor of populists’ success. One is the growth of social and economic inequality in which populism thrives. The other, “a rampant and rapacious oligarchy”—a relatively small group of powerful people that makes sovereignty a phantom. The book seeks to understand how populism transforms, indeed disfigures, representative democracy.

How does it happen? Populist leaders in their quest for power build their base by attracting supporters of mainstream parties. The process, which is not ideological in the traditional sense, inevitably drains support from parties on the Left and the Right, creates spaces and builds the movement of the populist leader. As a populist campaign gains momentum towards power, its leader confirms identification with “the people” and seeks to convince the “audience” that they are fighting a titanic battle against the “entrenched establishment.”

Urbinati points out that the construction of populism is rhetorical and independent of social classes and traditional ideologies, as previous and current populist leaders demonstrate. Sometimes, people equate populism with fascism, but the author differentiates between the two. Populism is “parasitical” on representative government. Fascism, on the other hand, does not accept that legitimacy flows from popular sovereignty. Fascism is the state and the people merging. For Urbinati, fascism is tyranny and a fascist government a dictatorship.

Me the People is divided up in four chapters, each with about a hundred or more notes. So the sources she uses are extensive. This depth of research enriches her scholarly work and establishes its credibility.

Urbinati argues that populism directs its hostility at the political establishment with the power to connect the various social elites. Populism asserts that this connection between the establishment and social elites undermines equality. Populist leaders take advantage of discontent to build public opinion in their support.

What follows is an analysis of arguments that populist theorists and leaders devise as they seek to demonstrate that the legitimate people coincides with only “a part” of the whole. Elections are purely ritualistic, for the engine of populism is unanimity. The main assertion of its supporters is that unanimity is more genuinely democratic because it is more inclusive and more unified, thereby acting in the name of the people.

Should populism be treated as an ideology? Or a strategic movement to remake political authority? Urbinati says that she approaches her study in both respects, but mainly concerns herself with the latter. In The Leader Beyond Parties, she explores the nature and style of the populist leader. Charisma and a façade of monarchic power are essential for the leader’s commanding stature. The promise of a “miracle” comes with a risk that the leader would appear to his people to have installed a new establishment once in power. But the establishment must be a thing of the past. So the leader must seem to be an insider without appearing to be one. And the difference between movement and power, and between outside and inside, must collapse.

Concluding her thesis, the author reminds us that populism in power is a form of direct representation in every respect. Populist promoters and politicians enter the scene strongly critical of the decline of party antagonism. They end up profiting from the same party cartel they chastise.

In Me the People, Nadia Urbinati has produced an exceptional scholarly work on a highly relevant socio-political phenomenon. Her line of argument is necessarily complex and deep. Her research is outstandingly extensive. Her expression is technical and nuanced rather than simple and suited for general readership. The book is an essential read for graduate students and researchers.

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Book Review: How Democracy Ends

New York Journal of Books

Since the days of Athenian democracy two and a half millennia ago, the idea of “rule of the people” has acquired many versions. Under the extraordinary system of governance in the fifth to fourth century BCE, all male citizens of Athens had equal political rights, took part in direct democracy, lived by the decisions they themselves made, and by random selection were chosen to serve in the institutions that governed them.

Today, direct democracy is rare, replaced in most countries by a version of democracy whereby citizens, male and female, elect their representatives who govern on their behalf.

The collapse of Soviet communism heralded a new democratic spring in countries which had been under Moscow’s domination. But whereas democracy blossomed in Europe as the 20th century came to an end, the Arab Spring in the new century proved short-lived before it was crushed.

These examples inform us about the power as well as fragility of democracy.

Recent events in the United States, a number of European countries and India have raised serious doubts about the health of democracy even in the most advanced nations.

Potentially illegal data collection, targeting specific groups to influence them to vote in a certain way, and widespread suspicions of Russian interference in the American and European elections have poisoned the environment. Trust in public institutions and their ability to ensure free and fair elections has been a major casualty. Warnings are rife that democracy as a system of governance is under threat. Are we approaching the end of democracy? It is a question increasingly being asked.

How Democracy Ends

David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, raises the same question in his new book How Democracy Ends (Basic Books, 2018). Since his PhD thesis, which came out as Pluralism and the Personality of the State (CUP, 1997), Runciman has published several books about plurality in political systems and the crisis of trust in democracies.

The publication of How Democracy Ends coincides with a particularly turbulent period for Western democracies. Runciman describes it as democracy’s midlife crisis. Various democratic societies are at different points in their lives. But there is compelling evidence that the future is going to be different.

The book, saturated with information, is a study of the decline of democracy after its most successful century. Runciman explores the factors that make the current crisis unlike those democracy has faced when it was younger.

First, he maintains that “political violence is not what it was for earlier generations, either in scale or character.” Western societies are “fundamentally peaceful societies, which means that our most destructive impulses manifest themselves in other ways.”

Second is the change in the threat of catastrophe. Whereas the prospect of disaster once tended to produce a “galvanizing effect” on people to take action, now the effect is “stultifying”—a condition in which it all seems futile.

Third, the information technology revolution has made us dependent on communication and information-sharing which we cannot control or understand.

With these suppositions, Runciman has organized his work around three themes endangering democracy: coup, catastrophe, and technological takeover. His insights into challenges that confront democracies today are compelling. His suggestion that the threat to them is not from outside, but from subversion and power grab within is intriguing.

That populism breeds in democratic societies when conditions of economic distress, technological change and growing inequality exist is evident, though the absence of war is among those conditions is questionable. Attrition and low-level conflict do afflict democracies. And democracies have shown a propensity to go and fight wars abroad.

Catastrophe can strike in one of many forms. Runciman writes that “modern civilization could destroy itself by weapons of mass destruction, by poisoning itself or it could allow itself to be infected by evil.” Climate change, artificial intelligence or technological advances resulting in extensive calamity if technology falls under the control of ruthless individuals—all threaten us.

That the power of computers by pressing a button could bring the end of democracy no longer belongs to science fiction. Robots could wreak havoc in our societies if they fell into the wrong hands. Humans might not be able to stop robots once such machines went on a destructive spree.

As Runciman puts it in the final section of his book, the appeal of modern democracy is that it offers dignity to its inhabitants with an expectation that their views will be taken seriously by politicians. And it delivers long-term benefits. But with rapid changes taking place in societies at different stages of development, what alternatives are there to twentieth century democratic systems?

The author presents three models in the end. First, Chinese-type pragmatic authoritarianism which offers personal benefits underwritten by the state, but at the cost of opportunities of self-expression. Second, epistocracy, the rule of the knowers, arguing that the right to take part in political decision-making depends on whether you know what you are doing. The model is directly opposed to democracy in which each citizen has equal rights.

Third, societies offering liberation by technology—societies in which some people, those who can afford, will try to buck death without any help from the state.

How Democracy Ends is a thorough study of democracy and its trials and tribulations on approaching midlife. Inhabitants have enjoyed its fruits: freedom, prosperity, and longevity. Democracy offers us opportunities to do exciting things.

But it also brings stability and boredom and as time passes, fear that it may not continue. If it is not going to continue, what will our future be? Runciman, in this book, has made sweeping observations about democracy in the past and present. He has raised intriguing questions about the future in imaginative ways. The book is highly recommended for general readers, undergraduates and professionals.

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