The spectre de jour is the rise in “populism” or what the media and the political classes call populism – namely, the emergence of new parties, some Left, some Right, some a blend of the two, that challenge the mainstream parties, campaign on issues that the existing parties have neglected, and become a serious and perhaps permanent part of the political system. A recent issue of the Journal of Democracy, published by America’s National Endowment for Democracy, provided a handy compendium of all the parties defined as populist. Takis S Pappas, a Greek political theorist living in Hungary, listed 22 different parties in this broad category. Seven have held power in coalition and another four alone. They are serious challengers to the mainstream Left and Right. 

The most successful populist leader in Europe today is Emmanuel Macron.

That is not, of course, the way that political establishments, existing parties, or the media, or Professor Pappas want us to think about populism. As the professor sees it, these parties are challengers to democracy. He is echoed by many other political commentators who instruct us as follows: the main choice before us today is that between populism and liberal democracy – which hardly seems like a choice at all. It sounds more like a slogan to conscript the voters into continuing to vote for what are called the “legacy parties” without thinking too much about it. 

And as we shall see, populism and liberal democracy, though common terms in the higher journalism, are indeed slippery ones. Consider the textbook accounts of populism. Among other things, it supposedly describes a movement that is personalist, rooted in a leader-principle, hostile to the “regime of the parties,” and based on blending Left and Right in a vague new synthesis.

If that is the case, then the most successful populist leader in Europe today is Emmanuel Macron, President of France. He denounced the existing parties as corrupt and incompetent (not without some evidence); he founded a new party based around himself – EM standing for both En Marche and Emmanuel Macron; he carefully selected both parliamentary candidates and Cabinet members on the basis of being loyal to him and “untainted” by the past; he advanced a set of policies that blended “pro-business” economic reforms with extreme social liberalism on identity politics, which in France counts as Left and Right; and finally, since his election, he has sought to present himself as a national leader above politics, at one point summoning all the legislators to Versailles where he addressed them for about ninety minutes. (He got bad reviews.) Altogether Macron’s performance has been, if anything, an exaggeration of what populism traditionally means. 

Yet Macron is never described as populist. Quite the contrary: the EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, even hailed his election as the beginning of the end of populism. That is because Brussels and establishment opinion generally approve of his ideological bent which embraces such familiar policies as multiculturalism, open borders, a banking union to underpin the Euro, and a kind of militant born-again Europeanism. They regard populism as a threat to these policies and so they ignore the populist aspects of the Macron victory. As generally used, therefore, populism is not a neutral dispassionate description but a “boo” word employed to discredit those called populist or to indicate disapproval of them. This definition of populism seeks to end debate rather than to advance or clarify it.  

Liberal democracy too is also a protean concept that today needs a considerable amount of clarifying.

Liberal democracy too is also a protean concept that today needs a considerable amount of clarifying. In the relatively recent past – the days of FDR and Churchill, JFK and Harold Macmillan, Reagan and Thatcher – liberal democracy meant free competitive elections in an atmosphere of free speech, free assembly, a free press, etc. An election could hardly be free without free speech to allow full discussion of the issues at issue? We fought the Cold War under this sign. To be sure, there were some additional liberal restraints on majority-rule, but they were few and modest in number.

In recent years, however, liberalism has come to mean the proliferation of liberal institutions – the courts, supra-national bodies, charters of rights, independent agencies, UN treaty monitoring bodies, etc – that increasingly restrain and correct parliaments, congresses, and elected officials. This shift of power was questionable when these bodies merely nullified or delayed laws and regulations. 

But more recently they have taken to instructing democratically accountable bodies to make particular reforms and even to impose them on the entire polity through creative constitutional and treaty interpretation. Their decisions have concerned a wide range of official powers from welfare rules through gay marriage to regulations on migration and deportation (of, among others, convicted terrorists.) Liberal democracy under this definition becomes the undemocratic imposition of liberal policies.

This transfer of power has happened in part because progressive elites at the top of mainstream political parties have gone along with it. It helped them to ignore those opinions they opposed. They did so by the simple expedient of not discussing these issues – in the common phrase, by keeping them out of politics – and leaving the courts or others to carry them out. Immigration is one example of such excluded policies in many countries. Majoritarian democracy in these conditions mutates into a system that the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte calls post-democracy, in which elites and the institutions they control exercise more power than the voters and their elected representatives.

But every action stimulates a reaction. So the more power has shifted to liberal institutions in recent years, the more populism has emerged to demand that the will of the voters should be respected and restraints on it removed. That is what the recent surges of populism represent.

But the opposite is also true. If majority rule remains the driving force of democracy, then populism will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate and made subject to its conventions. The UK referendum on Brexit achieved exactly that. Once the voters had made their decision, and once the government had accepted and promised to implement it, Brexit became an orthodox part of the political debate, with the government proposing measures to implement it, the opposition suggesting amendments to those measures, the courts hearing cases to ensure that Brexit is pursued within the rules of the political game, and so on. 

UKIP then saw its support drain away since one mainstream party – the government, too –- adopted its signature issue and are carried it into practical effect as the small and relatively powerless UKIP simply cannot do. 

Once we take these (fairly major) developments into account, it becomes possible to craft a definition of populism that is not simply a way of abusing a political party or jeering at its arguments without meeting them honestly and seriously. Professor Mudde has given us one such definition above: populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. Another was given unintentionally by Professor Pappas when he said, I quote: “Populist parties embrace democracy but not liberalism. Liberalism without democracy is not a combination found in real-life polities today.’’ It is his second sentence that discloses the definition we need. For liberalism without democracy is an apt description of the system of government towards which the West has been moving since 1989 and populism is the resistance to it. 

However we juggle things, our main political choice seems to be evolving into one between some sort of democratic populism and some form of liberal or, in less deceptive language, some form of progressive elitism. Conservatives in Europe have little choice but to choose the populist democratic side because that is where our voters live. If necessary we must civilise their populism within restraints not of progressive liberalism but of that very different thing: ordered liberty.