In this report, Cole Edick—program assistant for the Anxieties of Democracy program—outlines the ideation and theoretical principles that served as the basis of conversation at a research workshop, held at IE University in Segovia, Spain, entitled “The Ideational Approach: Consequences and Mitigation.” Edick highlights five key challenges discussed at the workshop for the contemporary study of populism, among them: how to define populism, what unites populism across different political systems, and can social media inform the study of populism. Future endeavors assessing the modern ascendance of populism will benefit from this report, which contextualizes extant as well as ongoing research seeking to understand populism in varying contexts.
In the latest contribution to the Democracy Papers, Michael Zürn explores the roots of authoritarian populism. He argues that authoritarian populist politics is an expression of a new political cleavage: between cosmopolitans and communitarians. This cleavage emerged in the wake of post–World War II grand bargains to tame the class conflict and is a response to increasingly influential nonmajoritarian institutions with a cosmopolitan orientation.
In the latest contribution to the Democracy Papers, Thomas Zittel explores when and how polarization becomes a cause for democratic anxiety. He argues that polarization over traditional policy issues is not in itself harmful, and can even be beneficial for democracies. However, he warns that polarization in which parties become divided over the acceptable rules of the game is a problem for democracies. Unfortunately, this latter type of division is increasingly common on both sides of the Atlantic today.
In the latest contribution to the Democracy Papers, Jan-Werner Müller argues that attention to right-wing populist movements gaining attention in Europe and the United States can both over- and underestimate their political importance and impact. For Müller, such movements are best understood not by their “anti-elitist” tendencies, but rather by their antipluralist claims to represent the “real people.” He also emphasizes how the rise of right-wing populism is inseparable from the degree to which they are enabled by more mainstream conservative parties, and refers to Austria as a counterexample in which the mainstream right rejected populist extremism.
Armin Schäfer reflects on what populism’s rise in Europe and the United States implies for how we view social class as a basis for voting and political partisanship. Drawing on recent studies, Schäfer shows growing disaffection among the working classes in established democracies concerning their sense of their ability to influence the policy decisions that affect them. Other research provides some evidence that the working class perceives their lack of political efficacy correctly—governing institutions respond far more to the preferences of the wealthy. In such a context, populist anger points to genuine democratic deficits.
In this Democracy Paper, Regina Kreide traces the different ways in which social inequality can, and is, undermining democratic politics. Kreide breaks down inequality into three dimensions—growing economic cleavages, deepening political segregation, and cultural invisibility. These trends combine to diminish many citizens’ faith in the future and open the door to populist appeals. The author argues that reversing democratic decline and ultimately inequality itself will take more thoroughgoing collective action beyond piecemeal reforms.