Right-Wing Populism and the End of Democracy

For many reasons, democracy is associate with the word liberal. A liberal shows commitment to fundamental democratic values such as freedom of speech, the separation of powers, and the protection of individual rights. In this understanding, George W. Bush is as much of a liberal as Barack Obama. In the American understanding, however, only one of the two is a true liberal. In today’s politics, it is rather doubtful to see Donald Trump as any kind of liberal – not in the more general and not in the American understanding.

Nor be a politician of any kind, Trump can look back on a long history of conning people from the students at Trump University to the many building contractors he never reimbursed for their services. On the downside, millions of voters were equally conned into believing that his business cleverness and mental simplicity is a mark of his authenticity and determination to get a good deal.

Many have fallen in the time-honoured trap of believing that a populist leader’s simple solution can work. That was in 2016. By 2020, people realised that their simplistic leader is piling up thousands of Corona deaths. By the end of July, it reached 150,000. To some of them, Donald Trump might have believed his promise as well, “I am an outsider fighting for you!” This came from a man who, from landlord to TV host, arrived in politics via conspiracy theories. Trump thought and perhaps still thinks President Obama forged his birth certificate.

Donald Trump also called President Obama “the founder of ISIS” and announced that Hillary Clinton was “the co-founder”. Too many people believe in nonsense like this. Others might believe Donald Trump when he said, “I am your voice” – this is an hallucination. When populists like Donald Trump are in office, they tend to direct their indignation against the outsider, the non-white minorities, specific ethnicities, and religious groups. They do not recognise them as real people which, of course, they claim to represent. They also direct their power against a second target. These are democratic institutions – formal and informal. In particular, those that contest the populist’s key claim: I represent “the” people – as if there is something like “the” people. It denies variety, the plurality of opinion, and unavoidably: democracy.

Following the anti-democratic rulebook of the populist, they start attacking the free press and in particular the news outlets of the enlightened citoyen. This is the democratic middle-class less dedicated to the business of money-making but more to human rights. Their newspapers – the New York Times, The Guardian, the Washington Post, the Sydney Morning Herald, etc. – reflect this political orientation. They are under attack as populists reject democratic debate as much as free speech. But this is only the beginning. The second step is a more implicit (Trump) than explicit (Orban) fight against independent institutions. These are institutions not under but curtailed by the right-wing populist. Right-wing populism targets democratic foundations, trade unions, progressive think tanks, religious associations, and recalcitrant NGOs.

The populist presents them as tools of an out-dated elite that is outside of society and who are against the interest of “the” people. It is not uncommon for the populist to regard them as traitors. They have betrayed “the” people. Simultaneously, the populist is the only true representative of the real voice of the people. Right-wing populism assumes there is something like a non- or better anti-democratic will of the people. A will that only they – the populists – represent.

This is particularly ridiculous in the case of Donald Trump. Undetected by his supporters lurks the nagging question, how can a billionaire represent ordinary people? – a question never to be answered. Meanwhile, right-wing populists like Trump reject liberal democracy’s three core promises:

1/ a promise to the masses to let them rule – albeit indirectly;

2/ a promise to minorities to protect their rights from the power of the majority; and

3/ a promise to economic elites that they can “accumulate wealth” as Marx would say.

With these promises, most democracies, especially when linked to petit-bourgeois consumerism, have achieved reasonable success. Liberal democracy kept people at bay and capitalism safe and sound. Still, democracy has always been portioned off from the most elementary sphere of corporate capitalism. The exclusion of democracy from the sphere of capitalism, e.g. companies and corporations, clearly indicates that the system of democracy was never set up to fully allow the rule of the people by the people and for the people. The exclusion of democracy applies not only to the sphere of capital but also to the other two branches of government: the judiciary and the executive (state administration and bureaucracy).

Today, sections of the legislature that were once the most important political organ in a democracy have lost much of their powers. The power of democracy has been successively handed over to Supreme Courts, bureaucrats, central banks, and international treaties (WTO, IMF, NATO, etc.) and organisations (etc. EU). Run as non-democratic institutions, they are incapable or unwilling to fight the most critical issue of our time: global warming. In some cases, it surely is as Upton Sinclair once said, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. In most cases, these are men. All too often, their salary, power, and position depend on not understanding the impact of global warming. Their power also depends on using democracy to mollify public discontent.

Besides this and neoliberalism’s “less state” ideology, most democracies are run by substantial bureaucracies within the executive branch. While this is not unique to the USA, the US Congress enacted 138 laws and in 2007 while federal agencies set up 2,926 rules. The 138 laws are part of democracy, and the 3,000 rules govern many eventualities of American life. Worse, most economic decisions are taken by non-democratic actors like reserve banks. Frequently, such issues are presented as non-democratic but highly technical. These are, so we are told, non-political. These ideologies aid the fact that the exclusion of democracy is accepted.

In the meantime, many politicians are part of a revolving door that works between corporations, corporate lobbying, and politics. It is an excellent money-making scheme for politicians who were once elected through democratic means. Not surprisingly, conservative MPs die almost twice as wealthy as conservatives who unsuccessfully ran for parliament. Much of the money that they accumulate at the end of their lives do not come from saving their meagre remuneration as a politician. In short, for many politicians, the democratic office is highly lucrative because it endows them with political connections and knowledge that they put towards personal financial advantage by selling themselves to companies and corporations.

But that is not all. In most capital cities, one finds more lobbyists than democratically elected politicians. Corporations spend a considerable amount of money on lobbying. In the USA, for example, for every dollar spent by labour unions and public-interest groups on lobbying, large corporations and their lobbyists spend $34.

With a 34:1 ratio, it is not surprising that our laws favour corporations (low or no tax, pro-business regulation, etc.) and disadvantage workers (low wages, high job insecurity, unemployment, the rise of precariat, wage stagnation, gig jobs, etc.). This has become so bad that even the otherwise neoliberal IMF noticed it. Paired with the ideology of neoliberalism, the corporate takeover of the law-making process has created the very opposite of the ideological myth of trickle-down economics. It creates a vacuum of wealth upward, concentrating money at the top.

But it also damages democracy. In a democracy, corporate lobbying works like this: when Hillary Clinton was asked why she had attended Donald Trump’s wedding back in 2005, her response was hardly convincing, “I thought it’d be fun,” she said. Donald Trump offered a somewhat more blunt reason for inviting the Clintons, “as a contributor, I demanded that they be there—they had no choice”. The three volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital could have hardly explained the relationship between corporate capitalism and democracy any better. Donald Trump might not be a good president, but he understands two things to perfection: money and power.

But one should not fall for the romantic illusions of “Mr Smith Goes to Washington“. The reality is rather different. The political power elite has distanced itself from the people. A few years back, the median net worth of an average American was about $45,000. The median net worth of an average member of Congress, by contrast, is over ten times higher and a Senator’s is even higher still. Having $45,000 or $450,000 makes a difference – just as a Honda Civic or a Maserati makes a difference.

Still, money isn’t all there is to it. Power plays a role as well and particularly when it comes along as media power. The UK is a shining example. It is no accident that a (mostly conservative) candidate backed by Rupert Murdoch’s powerful, The Sun, tabloid newspaper has gone on to win ten out of the last ten parliamentary elections. “10-out-of-10” explains why every single UK politician who has ever been Prime Minister had to see Rupert and had to continue to see him to be re-elected. More than any sociological (Dahl) or philosophical (Foucault) definition of power, “10-out-of-10” shows what power is and how it works.

Given all this, it is not surprising that the reputation of democratic institutions is in steep decline. In the 1970s, for example, 40% of Americans expressed confidence in Congress. By 2014, that percentage dropped to just 7%. This is not exclusive to the USA. For the first time in decades, Freedom House, which observes democracy around the world, has found that more countries are taking steps away from democracy than are taking steps toward it. This has been seen as “democracy in recession”.

The global democratic recession of is flanked by an upswing in anti-democratic, right-wing populism. In 2017, people were asked about their support of a strong leader: 33% of Germans said yes, 48% of French voters approved, and 50% of UK voters agreed. In other words, Authoritarianism is on the rise.

This not only shows that Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality is alive and well, but it also shows that right-wing populists can – and will – see democracy increasingly not as a medium to find common ground but as an instrument to eliminate others. Democratic politicians see their political opponent as an adversary. Anti-democratic politicians see opponents as enemies to be destroyed. To them, democracy serves a specific purpose. This purpose has been outlined by none other than Hitler’s Reich-Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. He once said,

it will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed

This is not to say that Donald Trump is anything like Hitler and Goebbels. Americans can still vote, there are no concentration camps, Jews are not hunted down, no Gestapo will torture you to death, no SA is marching down the street, there is no SS, and there are no Einsatzgruppen. This is the face of true fascism – not Donald Trump. Still, right-wing populist and anti-democrat, Trump broke almost every democratic rule there is. An incomplete list looks a bit like this:

+ he promised to jail his political opponent viewing her as an enemy to be destroyed;

+ he refuses to say that he would accept the outcome of the election;

+ he bullies the press on an almost daily basis, showing disregard for democracy’s free speech;

+ he invited a foreign power to sabotage his main competitor;

+ he incited hatred against ethnic and religious minorities; and

+ he promised to take unconstitutional action against them.

Overall, one might argue that right-wing populism operates a three-stage attack against democracy. Once in power, right-wing populism undermines the neutrality of independent state institutions. Secondly, it uses government funds to spread propaganda and to silence or eliminate non-compliant journalists and media outlets. Finally, it attacks the democratic right to voice dissenting opinions and to protest against government policies.

A right-wing populist movement is set to dismantle key elements of the democratic system. This comes with the dissolution of three key elements that stabilised post-war democracy. Firstly, post-war democracies were defined by mass media that created not only a stable form of mass consent but also limited extreme ideologies. The advent of the Internet has reshaped the media landscape of democracies. Given the power of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, WhatsApp, Amazon self-publishing, etc., right-wing extremists can distribute their l’idée fixe, ideologies, conspiracy theories, etc. widely. Via Fox, they even have access to the mainstream.

Secondly, during the immediate years after the post-war period, most people enjoyed a steady rise in their living standards. Access to petit-bourgeois consumer goods pacified a previously rather revolting working class by incorporating workers into the petit-bourgeois. The working-class milieu dissolved. This has ended. After decades of neoliberalism, substantial sections of the middle class have experienced a decline in living standards. Others live in fear of decline as the rich are made richer, and the rest are made poorer.

The third and final attack on democracy comes from the rise of right-wing populism based on an economic fear of a real decline in living standards linked to the ability of right-wing populism to use the Internet for scapegoating. In other words, what we see at the end of the neoliberal period (1980-2000) is not a return to social-democratic Keynesianism that supports democracy but the exact opposite. The rise of right-wing populism can be seen from Turkey to Hungary, from Poland to India, from Israel to the Philippines, and from Brazil to the USA.

When up to 70% of American said in 2016 that immigration was very important and 84% of Trump voters said some migrants should be deported, one can see that right-wing populism is succeeding. What all this does is shift the emphasis away from neoliberalism and conservatism. Public relations knows this as agenda setting and political framing. It eliminates the recognition of facts like these:

+ Only 1% of total wealth growth from 1986 to 2012 went to the bottom 90% of households. In other words, most Americans got nothing.

+ Ronald Reagan slashed the top tax rate for high-income earners from 70% to 50% in 1981, and then again to 38.5% in 1986. George W. Bush cut it down to 35% and the capital gains rate (exclusively paid by the wealthy) from 20% to 15%. This is one way to make the rich richer. But neoliberalism never stops there. It also makes the poor poorer.

+ Two decades ago, 68% of families with children in poverty received cash assistance via welfare. Today, it is 26%. As poverty is created, corporations are made even richer.

+ The effective tax rate paid by corporations is the lowest in four decades: just 12.1%. And for those corporations that can’t handle this stratospheric tax burden, neoliberalism offers something better.

+ One-fifth of the largest American companies have, by perfectly legal means, shifted over $1 trillion to offshore tax havens, costing the US government about $111 billion in lost tax revenue.

The list goes on. Give these numbers and the shrinking of the middle class, and the rise of economic insecurity, it is no wonder that capital needs someone to divert attention away from its pathologies. Right-wing populism is the handiest tool for that even when it means the end of democracy as we know it.


Yascha Mounk’s People vs. Democracy was published in 2018.