The New Logic of Democratic Politics [Podcast and Interview]

Our editor Ferenc Laczó talks with Chris Bickerton about his latest book Technopopulism. You can listen to the podcast or read the edited transcript below.

Ferenc Laczó: You have recently co-authored a book with Carlo Invernizzi Accetti under the title Technopopulism. The New Logic of Democratic Politics. I would like us to discuss this new book from a number of angles today. Let me start with a rather general question: how do you view the relationship between technocracy and populism? These two phenomena have often been depicted as being in opposition to one another. What do they have in common and in what sense might they be viewed as complementary?

Chris Bickerton: Our idea of exploring the relationship between technocracy and populism goes back some way. Carlo and I started thinking about these ideas when we were both based in Paris about a decade ago and I started thinking of the project more seriously when I was based at the University of Amsterdam. The phenomenon has been around in the world for some time, if you like, and it has interested us.

We do not want to suggest that there is no dimension of opposition, or there is no element of conflict between technocracy and populism. At some sort of obvious and almost literal level, technocracy is about associating expertise, skill, techne with kratos, with political power. Populism, in so far as it is based on an idea of appealing to the people, is usually done so in a way that opposes the people to elites, and, more often than not, experts belong to the elites. Those of us who went through the 2016 Brexit referendum remember the famous phrase from Michael Gove, who was then the Justice Secretary, that “people have had enough of experts.” We have seen this opposition around us all the time. 

There is a kind of an intuitive sense in which technocracy and populism clash with each other. Our book is premised around the idea that while that may be so, it would be a mistake to assume that there is only a relationship of opposition. In fact, and maybe more surprisingly or counterintuitively there is a strong relationship of complementarity. 

There are different reasons for that, and it is possible to frame that complementarity at several levels of abstraction. 

Let me go from the most concrete to the more abstract. In a very concrete sense, experts or technocrats have in common with populists the same hostility to what they think of as the politics of special interest, or the politics of organized interests. In many instances, that can be described in shorthand as a hostility to party politics, what we call party democracy in the book. For technocrats, political parties and majoritarianism are the vehicles for the capture of decision making by what they call rent seekers. For populists, the political parties are the establishment and the enemy. One thing they have in common in a very practical sense is that they have a hostility to the same thing.

On a more abstract level, what we claim in the book is that as a certain kind of politics, or as a kind of political claim, they are similar as well. Both are what we call a politics of truth or a politics of generality. That is to say, the appeal to expertise or the appeal to people have in common the fact that they are appeals to the whole. They are not an appeal to a discrete group, or a specific class, or a different social group. In that sense too, they have a strong affinity.

They do not have the same kind of truth. For technocrats, what is relevant is the policy itself, the right policy based on the truth, i.e. the right evidence. For the populists, the truth lies in the people and especially in the ability of the leader to articulate what the real wishes of the people might be. But they are both politics based on the appeal to generality and the conception of political truth. 

What that contrasts with is what we call the regime of party democracy, which in a more abstract sense is based on a notion of relativism. That is to say, it is a clash of values and the clash of interests, but it is not really a type of politics framed around right or wrong as such, not in an epistemic sense anyway. 

Our argument is that there is a more abstract and practical affinity between populism and technocracy.

Ferenc Laczo: Let us take a closer look at some of the main instances of technopopulism. You identify quite a number of cases, discussing both pure and hybrid types. Could you briefly describe some of the cases for us? How would you draw analytical distinctions between them?

Chris Bickerton: In the book we look at how technopopulism works out in practice. We do not think of technopopulism as amounting to a political regime because we essentially think of it as something that operates within the basic framework of representative democratic politics. Even though it may have an uneasy relationship to that, it is not trying to subvert it, or undermine it particularly. 

We do not think of it as something that belongs just to certain individual actors, so that you could say “X is a technopopulist while Y is not.” We think of it as the language that politics uses, as something that structures the political space in such a way that political parties and actors situate themselves in relationship to that logic. Political competition takes the form not so much of Left versus Right, which has not entirely disappeared, but finds itself interacting with, and in some cases is overwhelmed by, competition between ways of synthesizing an appeal to the people and an appeal to experts. Thinking about this logic it may be a more helpful way to study contemporary politics than taking the traditional Left-Right axis as the starting point or trying to supplement the Left-Right axis with the other axes of political competition.

We suggest that political actors and parties, especially if they want to succeed, play the game of technopopulism but we also stress that they do not all do it in the same fashion. That is why we try and compare some of the different cases. It may sound curious to put in the same bag Tony Blair’s New Labor of the late 1990s and 2000s with the contemporary President of France Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche movement and the iconoclastic Five Star Movement in Italy. That is precisely what we do, arguing that they represent different kinds of technopopulism. 

The differences are fairly simple ones – even though we think of them as technopopulist, the content of their technopopulism may be different. Think about the technocratic dimension, the techne, the expertise. What is the techne that is prominent within the En Marche movement and in the person of Emmanuel Macron? It is a particular kind of techne which focuses, on the one hand, on the supreme competence of the individual himself: Macron as this student who is top of the class, very clever, always able to outshine everybody, the repository of competence. One of the most extreme examples comes from Le Monde where you recently had an article under the title “Emmanuel Macron: The Epidemiologist President.” He is a self-taught expert on pandemics and on the spread of viruses, you see. His entourage has said that he is so capable now that he is able to go beyond the scientists and make decisions independently of them. That is a kind of techne which En Marche and Macron has vested in the top institutions of the French State.

Let us compare that with the Five Star Movement. The Five Star Movement also has this dimension of emphasizing knowledge, competence, and expertise, but this emphasis is of a very different kind. Their focus is on a sort of everyday knowledge. There is a famous quote by the former leader of the movement Beppe Grillo, where he was criticizing the Italian government led by Mario Monti. Grillo was saying that you should put in the Ministry of Finance somebody with the experience of running a household and a household budget. It would be better, he said, to have a housewife in the Ministry of Finance than the current Finance Minister, because the Finance Minister, who has always had things done for himself or herself and has never had to look after money or be tight with money, has no everyday knowledge of what it means to run a budget.

The Five Star Movement and En Marche have very different concepts of techne, nevertheless they both emphasize this appeal to expertise. That is one of the ways that we can contrast the different technopopulists.

Ferenc Laczo: You discuss technopopulism as a new political logic, a logic that leads to emotional polarization without interests and values being properly articulated and policies being meaningfully debated in the public sphere. Your book also has a substantial historical chapter where you trace the origins of technopopulism. The promise of direct participation, of the inclusion of society in political life and the promise of good governance are quite generic to democracy on some level. At the same time, you do insist that technopopulism is a specific phenomenon that has emerged for concrete historical reasons. Would you mind discussing these broader changes in the relationship between society and politics in Western Europe that enabled the rise of technopopulism?

Chris Bickerton: Appeals to the people and to expertise are in some sense almost generic elements of the phenomenon of democracy itself and not even just modern democracy but going back all the way to the very earliest conceptions of the demos and popular authority. I advise a PhD student Julien Dumont who is working on exactly this question. He is thinking of populism and technocracy as in some way two ongoing constitutive pillars of modern democracy. That is definitely a valid perspective to take but it also amounts to a different level of analysis from the one we pursue in our book.

What we try to draw out when we talk about the historical specificity of technopopulism is that there was a point when political competition within modern democracies was really a competition between different groups of society that manifestly had different worldviews and different values. That is what political competition was about. One of the reasons why this was so violent, if you think about the ideological confrontations of the interwar period, is that in some way they are incommensurable with one another. What was then eventually achieved in the course of the first half of the twentieth century was a stabilization in that conflict. Party democracy emerged as a regime where there was a basic acceptance of the legitimacy of the opposition and the competing ideological worldviews. The only real way to regulate them would be through electoral competition. Whether that was done through more consensual forms of democracy or through majoritarianism, actors would come to accept that if they cannot build a majority, then it is the other side that governs. We take this age of what we call the ideological logic to have lasted from the late the 19th century until the beginning of an age of transition which we associate with the 1960s. Instead of thinking of it merely as a discursive fact, we think of this more ideological competition also as something that shaped society itself. It shaped communities, it really determined the everyday choices that people made about who they hung around with, which newspaper they would read, and which football club they would support.

The Netherlands was one of the pioneers of this with its pillarization system, as society organized around fairly autonomous pillars. That was initially a form of achieving some sort of reconciliation between different religious denominations, but then besides two different religious pillars you had secular pillars that were ideologically identified as such. There was a stable coexistence between these pillars while they really shaped the communities that people lived in. There was a social structural dimension to this ideological logic, which was then incarnated in the mass parties of the past century. Those mass parties were successful mobilization vehicles that really did involve people and shape their lives. There is a great description of the mass party by the Frenchman Maurice Duverger where he says that the mass party shaped the workplace, the mass party shaped what people did once they had finished working, it shaped the activities that they would conduct in the evening. 

The historical argument we are making is that the picture that I have just drawn slowly began to fragment, decline, and disappear. We describe it as the collapse of the politics of organized interests. We also describe it as the decline of this idea of interests being organized and serving to mediate the relations between state and civil society. What you then get is politics as a space, as a place that becomes cut off, if you like, from society. There is this disarticulation between society and politics, a hollowing out in the relationship between the social and the political. The social sphere becomes characterized increasingly by fragmentation, individualization, secularization. These are the things that we described in our chapter on the age of transition. We also discuss what people call cognitive mobilization – increasing educational levels and people beginning to judge and think about politics in different ways.

Those are the social changes taking place and the articulation of that with politics becomes much more distant. The separation of these two spheres is, if you like, the incubation for this new sort of politics of generality. What that means is that, if you think about politics as being the reflection of social structures organized in the form of distinctive cleavages and groups, then yes, politics is about general statements and general appeals. But there is always a relationship to specific interests and there is a tension, if you like, between the whole and the particular – which is a constitutive tension of modern democracies, the parts versus the whole. 

What we are suggesting in this historical chapter is that the tension slowly disappears. 

What you get is the pure particularism of civil society and alongside that the politics of generality when appeals are made to everybody as a whole.

 The age of transition takes us from the 1960s into the very beginning of the post-Cold War era. That is where we begin to see the emergence of technopopulism as a logic, which then slowly affirms itself in the course of the 1990s and 2000s.

Ferenc Laczo: The narrative you develop concerns the end of structured democracies and the rise of less mediated or even almost unmediated ones. Let us look at this on a more theoretical level as well. Why is mediation so crucial to democracy in your interpretation? On a more concrete level, would you mind addressing the role of the European Union in the rise of less mediated forms of rule?

Chris Bickerton: Mediation is important, because otherwise, from the perspective of an individual living in a mass society structured around particularly complex divisions of labor, politics is a sphere that is very removed from you, a sphere over which you have no control. And then, at best, you may be able to exercise some sort of temporary control periodically through elections. But the importance of that depends enormously on your relationship to the political actors themselves, which takes us back to mediation. 

There is a curious phenomenon which we talk about in the book when we look at the consequences of technopopulism: why is it that in the age of populism, in the age where general appeals to the people play an increasingly important role in our politics, we also have unprecedented levels of democratic dissatisfaction? Precisely at the time when politicians are putting most emphasis on their relationship to the people, the people are more than ever dissatisfied with democracy. This is the paradox we discuss in the book. 

We argue that is because of what the politicians are doing. They are peddling these unmediated conceptions of democracy and make unmediated political offers to people, and even though the politicians may always be talking about the people, the people feel less and less empowered. 

Mediation is, if you like, crucial to connect individuals to collective action. It is what people have said for a long time around phenomena such as labor organization and the importance of trade union movements. As an individual in the workplace, you are rather helpless; what you face are authorities that you have very little control over. Collective action allows you to connect your individual fate to concrete outputs – you feel like you can make a difference. I think that is what mediation does in politics. It is empowering. People acquire a sense of agency rather than feel helpless.

The European Union is an interesting element in this story. In the historical chapter we discuss some of the big macro-historical structural changes that were very important to the rise of technopopulism. I do think that the role of the European Union is important insofar as European integration has been the means through which national governments and national executives have disenfranchised themselves from their own national publics. This separation between society and politics that has happened within the member states has definitely accompanied European integration.

I do not think the separation is one between nation states and EU institutions. Something else is going on: it is a transformation within the states themselves. 

If you have national executives that can make policy together with fairly few constraints and with relatively limited accountability, then the substance, if you like, of national party politics is transferred to the European level, even if the electoral dynamics remain at the national level. This is what Vivien Schmidt talked about a long time ago: you have a separation of policymaking and politics, policy without politics at the EU level and politics without policy at the national level.

While the European Union has played a role, I would be a bit hesitant to say that it has played a causal role. In some ways, European integration is a consequence of the attempts by national executives to disconnect themselves from their own national publics. The actors doing the disenfranchising really are the national governments. But over time, as EU integration becomes much more extensive in scope and depth, it begins, in a kind of feedback loop, to exercise influence on the way national societies develop and exacerbates the gap between society and politics.

Ferenc Laczo: You mentioned that there is an ambiguous or even paradoxical relationship between technopopulism and democracy. I wanted us to talk about that relationship a bit more. You emphasize in the book that technopopulists do not really question the institutional framework of democracy. At the same time, they put little emphasis on formal procedure, and question the legitimacy of their opponents. In accordance with this logic, they may even question the legitimacy of criticism. When does technopopulism become truly antidemocratic? Would you be able to distinguish between forms of technopopulism which are somehow democratic and others which are not?

Chris Bickerton: In the book our framework for thinking about democracy is a fairly minimalist one, much influenced by the work of Hans Kelsen. We put a lot of emphasis on the existence of elementary democratic procedures and on them being embedded in party politics – something which people like Nancy Rosenblum have emphasized about legitimate opposition and the ways in which competition is, if you like, stabilized within party systems through party competition.

What we try to do in the book is to get away from what had seemed to us to become one of the predominant concerns of the moment. I can appreciate that this is certainly something that is at the forefront of people’s concerns, if they are looking at the world from the perspective of Budapest or elsewhere, where it is about the survival of democracy, the survival of democratic norms faced with what people would call “the end of democracy” or “the death of democracy.” The great virtue of that debate is that it tried to get a sense of how things were changing – it emphasized the fact that we are in a different time now and things are changing not necessarily for the good. That is why our book is orientated towards understanding the present as well. However, we always felt that the debate about the end or death of democracy tended to be slightly exaggerated in its tone. 

What we are trying to highlight in the book is not so much the end or the death of democracy, but the extent to which the nature of democracy is being transformed and democratic practices are changing. It is possible to have a transformation in the basic logic underlying democratic politics, which is what we describe, and to have it take place without the basic tenets of democratic politics being undermined. 

For us, technopopulism as a logic exists within the framework of political competition. It is not something that tries to eliminate electoral competition from politics. That may be happening for other reasons and there may be other people intent on doing that, but that is not what the technopopulist logic is about. It is rather a logic around which political actors compete. 

They compete by synthesizing expertise and an appeal to the people in different ways. In some ways, political competition is at the heart of it. For us, that is an important reason to think of it as being consistent with democratic norms.

However, what is interesting for us is this uneasy way in which a politics of truth operates within an overarching system still shaped by the traditions of party democracy, which, as I said before, are deeply relativistic. How do these two things coexist? They coexist rather easily, to be honest. One of the things that we have identified is that political competition has this very vitriolic dimension to it. It is a highly polarized environment. Again, one of the paradoxes, it seems to us, is that there are high levels of polarization in the absence of what we think of as really substantive forms of policy disagreement. 

How is it possible that you have policy convergence, at least relative to earlier historical areas? For instance, nobody, certainly in the political context that we are looking at, really challenges the legitimacy of private property, which was one of the big struggles in an earlier, more ideological era in politics. Historically speaking, you have a relatively high degree of policy convergence with an enormous amount of political polarization.

What we are suggesting is that the reason why you have this polarization, and people disagree so much with each other, is that they do not accept the legitimacy of the other side and that is because things are framed in terms of competing conceptions of truth. How can you really accept the opposition if you think they are just fundamentally wrong? That is different from thinking that they have a different set of values and interests, which you disagree with. That is much easier to regulate through democratic procedures. Whereas if you think they are just plain wrong, then you start to get this confrontational form of politics, which is what we have had for a while. It does not bring the whole democratic show down, it does not end the play of democratic politics, but it introduces into it this more brittle and volatile element. 

Logically, you could imagine ways in which technopopulism could lead you beyond democracy. However, in terms of our empirical analysis that is not really what we see.

Ferenc Laczo: As a final question, let me ask you about the prognoses you discuss in your conclusions. You specify three options of what the future might hold, namely an extension of the technopopulist logic, a break with democratic politics, or a return to ideology. Now that we are further into the current crisis, would you say one of these options is more likely than the others? More specifically, how would you assess the chances of the revival of intra-party democracy, something you plead for in the book? Is there a positive example in this regard you would care to elaborate on?

Chris Bickerton: We indeed frame the conclusion of the book in terms of these different scenarios for the future of technopopulism. We connect it quite closely to the way that the pandemic from the early part of 2020 to the present has played out and what that, as a major global event, is doing in terms of these possible scenarios. 

One of the things that we have been struck by is that technopopulism as a political logic seems to have become entrenched fairly well, but it is also extremely unstable. 

One of the reasons for that is that both in terms of the appeal to the people and in terms of the appeal to expertise, these political strategies come up against a number of obstacles and problems. 

Particularly in terms of the appeals to expertise, one of the legitimizing features of technocracy is that it is outside politics and technocracy offers an alternative to democracy. That is very important, because the authority of expertise is related to its independence from partisanship, from politics. Technopopulism is not about that at all. 

The technocratic dimension of technopopulism is what we describe as the politicization of expertise. It is not the de-politicization of knowledge. It politicizes expertise, it brings expertise into politics, and sometimes experts themselves as well. We have recently seen the arrival of the former central banker Mario Draghi into the heart of politics in Italy: he is leading the new government. We have seen Janet Yellen, the former head of the Federal Reserve, becoming Secretary of the Treasury in the US. These are cases of experts entering politics, but there is also more generally a politicization of expertise going on. 

One of the problems is that it is not clear, to us at least, whether expertise can remain legitimate in the longer term when it becomes exposed to the vagaries of political decision making. It is precisely the independence of policy from politics that legitimizes it and that is being undermined through the technopopulist logic. We have seen it over the course of the pandemic: science has become so prominent, but we also have scientific disagreements and debates.

This leads to a certain questioning over whether science really provides an answer, or whether it can just articulate certain options and political decisions still need to be made. The more technocracy is politicized, the more expertise is politicized, in some ways the less legitimate it becomes. That is one source of instability.

Something happens with appeals to the people as well. People have written about what happens to populists when they rule. The general quality of the populist mobilization, the populist appeal to the people, means that it is difficult for populists, once they are in power, to justify why they might favor one group over another in society. If you have been elected as the defender of the working class, then when you get into government and make decisions based on that group’s interests it is not going to make you appear illegitimate. However, if you are elected on the basis of appealing to everybody, and then you do as Macron did, for example, and make decisions that have very clear distributional effects, and affect various segments of the population very differently, that appears dramatically illegitimate and unacceptable. You then start to have mobilization against such populist leaders.

These are two main sources of instability. It does not mean that the technopopulist logic will necessarily be replaced by something else, but it does mean that it has struggled to stabilize itself over time.

To turn to the second part of your question: there are lots of examples of political innovation, and one of the things that we were trying to say in the book is that the emergence of the technopopulist logic does not mean the disappearance of societal conflicts. It does not mean the disappearance of distributional conflicts. However, it does raise the question of how these conflicts translate into political action. 

What we are trying to say is that political parties still seem the most obvious vehicle for the mediation between the particular and the general, but they need to change and innovate. One of the things that can help and can appeal to the people more in societies that are cognitively mobilized is to have high degrees of intra-party democracy. The mass party model, which should be very hierarchical and empower above all the party apparatchiks, rather than the voter as such, just does not seem to fit particularly well with contemporary societies in advanced democracies. 

There are examples where intra-party democracy does not necessarily work but that are nonetheless interesting avenues to explore. One example that we discuss a little bit in the book is Corbynism in the UK. If you think about the Labour Party, it started to have plebiscitary dimensions already under Tony Blair wherethe leader would appeal to the mass of voters above the heads of the party activists. But when we get to the era of Corbyn, what we find is an opening of the leadership to an activist base and a much greater hold by that base over the party and the party leadership. In that sense, and especially the way the party organized its leadership elections, the openness of that, and the ability of people to join and vote, elements of intra-party democracy were definitely present.

The reason why intra-party democracy is valuable is not just for itself, but for the consequences in terms of policies that parties offer. If you empower activists over the leadership, you are more likely to get a more extreme party. Activists tend to have much stronger views in policy terms than the leadership. The leadership is interested in winning elections and is more tempted to target the median voter. If you have parties that are captured in that way, if you will, by more ideologically committed activists, you may then start to get party systems that show greater divergence and provide voters with greater choice.

Our basic normative standard for democracy in the book is the one developed by Elmer Eric Schattschneider, which is that representative democracies are not legitimized by people’s participation in politics, because people do not generally participate in a direct way. They are rather legitimized by the capacity of the party system to offer voters choice. If it is not doing that, then it severely fails in the normative sense. 

How do you get that choice? One way is to have greater intra-party democracy. You had that to an extent with Corbynism and the ideological polarization that it introduced into Left-Right politics in the UK. But the big difficulty is that it is not clear whether intra-party democracy is a solution to the big problem we described in the book, which is the separation between politics and society. 

What happens if those activists that capture a party and push it in one direction in policy terms are not very representative of society as a whole? If that is the case, then it tends to exacerbate the gap between society and politics rather than fill it. That was probably the difficulty faced by the Labour Party in the Corbyn era of and that is what we describe towards the end of the book.

The transcript has been slightly modified.

In collaboration with Vilius Kubekas and Karen Culver.

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