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No: the new national populism is not the old totalitarianism, but it believes in democracy almost as little as the old one does, and therefore it represents a threat to all.

Javier Cercas

APR 5, 2020 – 00:00 CEST

The new national populism is not the old totalitarianism, but it believes in democracy almost as little as the old does

Gilles Lipovetsky recently stated in this newspaper that, despite rampant national populism everywhere, western democracy is not in danger. For two reasons. The first is that, unlike rampant totalitarianisms in the 1930s – fascism and communism – current national populism does not defend the use of violence. The second is that, unlike the totalitarianisms of yesteryear, national populism does not hate democracy; on the contrary, the French thinker maintains: the national populists are delighted with the referendums, accept the alternation in power and are in favor of the people speaking out against the elites. From the national populists, Lipovetsky concludes, “you can discuss their ways of acting, but they are not undemocratic”.

I would not be so sure. Lipovetsky is correct when comparing the current national populism with the totalitarianisms of the thirties. I have said “compare”, not “equate”; Today’s national populism is not the same as totalitarianism of that time, although both stem from parallel historical circumstances: the emergence or consolidation of totalitarianism was the main political fruit of the huge earthquake caused by the economic crisis of 1929, while the emergence or the consolidation of national populism has been the main political fruit of the no less massive earthquake caused by the the 2008 crisis, to which will now be added the one caused by the coronavirus crisis. History never repeats itself exactly: it repeats itself with different masks. Seen in this way, our national populism is a sort of postmodern mask of totalitarianism in the 1930s; the methods have changed, but the objective remains the same: the destruction of democracy. Current national populism could be defined, in effect, as a totalitarianism to which its historical failure has made it much more intelligent and more subtle (and therefore more dangerous): it has learned that, in today’s West, political violence is unacceptable (and even counterproductive); it has learned that it is naive to proclaim its hatred of democracy, charging  directly against it, and that it is much more effective to defend it in theory and attack it in practice, undermining it from within, destroying its institutions and mechanisms. That is what they are trying everywhere, with varying success. Thus, in places where democracy is fragile or embryonic or not sufficiently consolidated, national populism dynamites it or degrades it thoroughly from democratic institutions, in the name of the people and waving the flag of democracy: this is what happens in Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, Maduro’s Venezuela, Ortega’s Nicaragua, Orbán’s Hungary or Kaczynski’s Poland; instead, national populism fails, at least for now, in places where democracy is stronger because the rule of law protects it and the institutions are stronger and work better: the United States of Trump, the United Kingdom of Johnson or Puigdemont’s Catalonia. For the rest, it is true that the national populist loves referendums (although only for the ease with which they can be manipulated), accepts the alternation in power (although it does the impossible to avoid it) and is in favor of the people expressing themselves against the elite (although only if it has managed to prevent the people from associating it with  that elite). “Democracy is procedure and only procedure,” wrote Hans Kelsen, the great Austrian jurist who terrified witnessed the destruction of democratic Europe at the hands of Hitler and his fellow men. That is the fundamental lesson that national populism has learned: that, in democracy, the form is the bottom, and that it is enough to destroy the forms of democracy to destroy democracy.

No: the new national populism is not the old totalitarianism, but it believes in democracy almost as little as the old one does, and therefore it represents a threat to all. Furthermore, democracy is always threatened, and never more so than when we believe that it is no longer threatened. Or put another way: it is enough to take democracy for granted to put it in danger.



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