“A Pandemic of Populists”: RevDem online book discussion

by Oliver Garner

On 28 March the Review of Democracy hosted an online debate on A Pandemic of Populists (CUP, 2022) by Wojciech Sadurski (University of Sydney). Hosted by CEU Democracy Institute Workgroup Lead Researcher Dimitry Kochenov, the debate brought together perspectives from Barbara Grabowska-Moroz (CEU), Zuzana Vikarská (Masaryk University), and Thiago Amparo (FGV Sao Paulo Law School). In addition to bolstering the rich comparative insights of the monograph, the debate also helped push reflection towards strategies for how to defeat populists in power.

Wojciech Sadurski opened the discussion by providing his reasons for why there should be yet another book on populism: (1) we should be talking about varieties of populisms in the plural, not as a homogenous unitary phenomenon; (2) the book unambiguously opts for an institutional rather than discursive approach by focusing on what populists do rather than solely what they say; and (3) the year of publication, 2022, was important due to the consolidation of populism in various countries such as the Philippines, India, and Hungary. This consolidation means that populism becomes less a pathology and more the new normal.

Barbara Grabowska-Moroz focused her intervention on gender politics from the perspective of populism. Out of the six elements of populism in the book, she identified that four will contain anti-gender elements: (1) status anxiety sees white men fearing a loss of status and privilege and thus encouraging women to move back to the private sphere; (2) resentment against globalisation sees feminist approaches painted as part of the modernist threat to sovereignty; (3) religious morality, as part of the backlash against anti-modernity, sees the promotion of traditional gender roles; and (4) with regard to xenophobic narratives she noted that women tend to support populists on anti-migrant policies.

She argued that

populists look to make family the subject of rights rather than individual women, leading to a patriarchal narrative.

She observed that in the Polish example the Constitutional Tribunal was abused to introduce the ban on abortion, which should have taken place through the Parliament. More positively, she concluded that female participation in public life could be the key to overcoming populism. Recent polls show that half of women between 18 and 39 do not want to vote in the upcoming elections, and these are the individuals most affected by the abortion ban. She pondered whether anti-gender politics are always crucial to populism in other countries too.

Zuzana Vikarská opened her intervention by urging that if anybody wanted a rich introduction to populism, then she would recommend a combination of What is Populism? (Penguin, 2017) by Jan-Werner Müller for the narrative overview, and then Sadurski’s book for concrete examples to understand what populism is and why it is dangerous. She identified the line running through the work that populisms are a response to various local problems, and this is also part of the solution. Drawing upon the Czech experience, she argued that we can see tendencies within our institutions, and the crucial question is whether these are individual failures, or something bigger towards which we must be alert.

She endorsed the use of the term “literal” rather than “liberal” democracy as coined by Sadurski, and provided examples from Czechia of the former President Miloš Zeman believing he could conduct certain actions because the constitution did not explicitly forbid them. One example of this was the former President almost appointing a new President of the Constitutional Court in advance of the expiry of that post. Vikarská also identified worrying rhetorical tendencies, such as the former President’s claim that he represented the bottom 10 million Czech citizens – despite this constituting the population – as an example of the us vs them narrative. In terms of institutional actions, he has also engaged in criminal pardons for those in his inner circle convicted or accused or crimes linked to managing funds and other matters pertaining to his office. In Parliament, the causes for concern are the use of fast-track legislation, obstruction, filibustering, abuse of process, and private members bills.

The judiciary is also not immune from the pandemic of populists,

as identified by Sadurski. Vikarská argued that here have been cases in which the Czech courts have enforced majoritarian morality in their decisions. She also accuses members of the judiciary of making decisions in order to land certain functions in the highest level. She advanced the example of reappointments and an example from a decade ago in which the Senate rejected two applications for reappointment due to disliking dissenting dissenting opinions. This creates a danger of judicial decision-making being influenced by such self-interest.

She went on to identify a “triple Schrödinger” at play within populism. The first is the well-known trope of “Schrödinger’s migrant”, who simultaneously has come to take the jobs of citizens whilst also claiming social security benefits. The second is “Schrödinger’s populist leader”, who is simultaneously a simple man who identified with every person in the country, whilst also being a superhero who will save the day. Finally, there are “Schrödinger’s elites” insofar as populists are against the elites, but then inevitably end up running the political system. In discussing the winning strategy against populism, she identified the factors of high turnout, a unified opposition, and a positive programme. She argued that in Czechia there was a high turnout due to the fear of Andrej Babiš becoming the President. However, there are negative examples of unified opposition, such as in Slovakia in which left-wing populism is resurging after mixed opposition.

She concluded her intervention with a number of questions: Can an anti-populist positive programme be genuinely right-wing? What is the line between populism and political marketing? Why does the anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric work so well? Is there any hope for the future of the people now that ChatGPT and AI will only exacerbate fake news? And one year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, can we say anything more now about Russia’s influence?

Thiago Amparo took on the question of whether Brazil is a successful story. In terms of getting rid of the populist – Jair Bolsonaro – he argued that it is, and high turnout, a unified opposition, and mobilization in getting young people to the polls, albeit voting is mandatory, were all factors. In engaging with the book, he queried whether the narrative and institutional perspective may not be intertwined. Attacks on the media in Brazil were performative acts of aggression. This concerned the informal rules that govern institutions. Bolsonaro would get supporters to paralyze institutions from within, not through formal change but through messages and narratives. On the lack of institutional oversight, Amparo argued that the independence of the judiciary was used as a shield to protect Bolsonaro from prosecution. Even if institutions are not changed formally, informal rules that govern institutions can be changed.

On COVID, Amparo observed the different approaches of Trump and Bolsonaro in downplaying the significance of the pandemic, rather than the Orbán approach of using the health emergency as a pretence to grab powers. However, in Brazil power was still a factor: Bolsonaro saw that in a country with a decentralized health system he would be able to maintain rhetoric and his relevance politically if he were against vaccines. Amparo observed that populists do receive popular support: the margin of the unified opposition’s victory against Bolsonaro was very tight. He observes that there is a sadomasochism amongst the supporters of populism, as these policies are against the voters’ self-interest. He noted how President Lula sought support amongst the Evangelicals by reminding them of the class struggle and social policies to show that supporting Bolsonaro was against their self-interest.

Amparo also discussed the role of gender and minorities. A key Bolsonaro policy was attacks on indigenous people and the environment, despite denouncement by international courts. This was a strategy of creating the “outsider within”, which also included women. Bolsonaro tried to use this in an instrumental way by claiming he would be very good for females. The former first lady is likely to be the next candidate, in an attempt to unite the Evangelicals and women. In summary, the Brazilian perspective shows the relation between formal rules, informal rules and rhetoric. When Bolsonaro has managed to make changes to formal structure, he has done so very efficiently – most prominently on gun ownership rights. In debatin whether institutions works, it is crucial to observe the interaction of the formal and informal rules in Bolsonaro’s interferences.

Wojciech Sadurski then provided responses to these interventions. On the role of women, he lamented that they combined the reasonably rational political preferences of not supporting far-right parties with the irrational reluctance to go and vote. He ovserved that perhaps mandatory voting could be a solution, but that such compulsion is problematic for liberal democrats. He concluded to reaching out to women on their 20s and 30s who are most affected by populist policies such as anti-abortion legislation may be the key to victory. On the Czech case, he expressed interest in how the pathological practices indicate there is a common script for populists across countries. What becomes toxic is when different issues, such as pardons, judicial self-aggrandisement, and legislative fast-tracking – cohere into a certain pattern. But usually once this pattern is recognised it is too late, as with Poland and Hungary.

Sadurski continued that it probably is viable to have right-wing anti-populist programmes, but that it is more logical for solutions to come from the left or the centre in countries that have right-wing populism. He pondered the issue of anti-LGBTQI+ positions being so prominent, and reflect that it was part of the unified syndrome of anti-feminist positions and a macho emphasis in politics. On Ukraine, he argued that the fundamental rift between Poland and Hungary has much relevance for populism. He highlighted the worrying trend before the war of Hungary and Poland sponsoring right-wing extreme populists in southern Europe. He also provided a compelling personal anecdote of intellectuals within Ukraine who said they would not want to enter the EU under the sponsorship of a populist government such as Poland’s.

He took Amparo’s point on the distinction between narrative and institutional issues being overdrawn, using the example of Bolsonaro’s extreme verbal aggression against Justice Cardozo. On COVID, he observed that there were indeed different patterns of behaviour, but whatever the COVID policy was, it was pursued for the wrong reasons of pure political calculus. Finally, on the popularity of populists, he noted the thin margins of victory, also for Biden over Trump, and the closeness in the polls ahead of the Polish elections in the autumn. He concluded that we need to ask ourselves why do such horrible governments with anti-democratic and perverse policies of nepotism and corruption generate such high support. Further reflection on this issue is necessary in order to generate a winning anti-populist strategy.

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