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A general overview of the book begins from a scene in Budapest to document the main characteristics of authoritarian populism. It shows that the main form of democratic decline in today's world involves elected authoritarians dismantling step-by-step the very institutions of democracy they used to acheive power. The definition of populism adopted in the book focuses on an institutional dimension rather than on narrative, contrary to the conventional wisdom in today's theories of populism.
Populists in power usually maintain the institutions inherited from the pre-populist past, but use several strategies to render them hollow. These strategies include capture (institutions being staffed with new individuals who lack value commitment to the original rationales for having the institution), duplication (institutions being paralleled by new ones, with ostensibly the same competencies, which overshadow and sideline the original institutions), erosion (legal changes or de facto changes, to the point of rendering the institution purely perfunctory), expansion (when institutions are granted legally unlimited powers), or migration (when they are transferred to another institutional context). The chapter shows in detail how populists in power capture electoral institutions, public media and media boards, NGOs etc). The trajectories of backsliding are such that the changes are often obscure and incremental. The truly toxic effects are caused by the interaction between various changes.
While populism is understood in this book in an institutional rather than rhetorical way, populist rhetoric is nevertheless important because it creates and strengthens polarization - a populists' favorite habitat. Populist rhetoric is imbued with paranoia, understood in a political sense (Hofstadter), leading to exaggerations, wild accusations, and conspiracy theories. These conspiracy theories are exemplified by a "Smolensk theory" (Poland) or seeing George Soros lurking around every corner (Hungary). In all political regimes, the "enemies of the people" are identified, and blamed with various offenses against the people. Populists often use lies, not so much to deceive the population but to create bases for mobilization and identification. When communicating directly with their electorates, usually through social media, populist leaders present themselves as simultaneously heroic and simple, insiders and outsiders. Their rhetoric aims at placing their opponents beyond the pale of the community.
Contrary to earlier pessimistic predictions, the COVID-19 pandemic has not reinforced the popularity of populism. Authoritarian populism, with its charateristic distrust in scientific knowledge, excessive centralization and conspiratorial obsessions, as well as its unwillingness to participate in supranational efforts, has not turned out to be more efficient in handling the crisis than liberal democratic counterparts. Transparency and decentralization, characteristic of liberal democracies, were central to effective pandemic responses. Populists in power view the pandemic as a public relations challenge rather than a public health problem, and act accordingly.
Populists in power behave as if courts were the most dangerous branch, and therefore usually make them the first target of populist assault. This dynamic is particularly pronounced in the case of constitutional courts, as the examples of Hungary and Poland show. In both those cases, constitutional courts were captured, and judicial review of constitutionality has been effectively rendered otiose. Beyond constitutional courts, common courts are also often subordinated to the executive, or see their powers marginalized. Judicial responses range from judicial resistance, to laying low, to "judicial populism" under which judges became active enablers of the executive will. All these strategies can be observed not only in Hungary and Poland, but also in India, Brazil and the Philippines.
There is not a single populism but diverse populisms which respond to different local concerns. However, most populisms are configured around at least two of the following societal concerns: (1) a sense of economic insecurity and status anxiety; (2) xenophobic attitudes toward ‘Others’, in particular migrants and refugees; (3) disenchantment with incumbent political elites, combined with the perception that the establishment is arrogant, remote and insensitive to the needs of “real people”; (4) resentment against globalization, internationalism, and renewed support for nationalism (economic and other); (5) cultural and religious resentment, expressed in anti-modernist, anti-Enlightenment and anti-secularist views; and (6) impatience with liberal constraints upon government, and frustration with checks and balances that are viewed as institutional obstacles to “getting things done”. It is emphasized that in exploring the causes of successful populism one must focus not only on the "demand side" but also on the "supply side" of political populism.
The best remedy to populism in power is for liberal democrats to win elections, and in all populist regimes discussed in this book - Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, India, and Brazil - this remains a possibility, though in some countries (Hungary) it is more difficult than in others (Poland). Successful electoral strategies to defeat populism require coalition-making and high electoral turnout. Extra-electoral remedies, such as militant democracy or "cordon sanitaire", are less feasible and less compatible with democratic principles. The most important challenge is developing credible liberal-democratic policies to counter populist ones, which do not disparage the values of community, patriotism or collective pride. Liberalism has sufficient intellectual resources to support these values, now claimed by populist leaders.
When populists in power obtain sufficient constitutional majorities, their preference is to replace the old constitution with their own, as the examples of Hungary and Venezuela show. This process of constitutional transformation is unilateral and frantic, without serious deliberation and consultation with the opposition. The substance of new constitutions emphasizes the symbolism of a "fresh start" and break with the non-populist past. When populists in power cannot change the constitution, they break the old one whenever convenient to them, as the example of Poland shows. Populists disregard constitutional conventions and treat the bare text as the only source of constitutional meanings.
Over the last decade, the world has watched in shock as populists swept to power in free elections. From Manila to Warsaw, Brasilia to Budapest, the populist tide has shattered illusions of an inexorable march to liberal democracy. Eschewing simplistic notions of a unified global populism, this book unpacks the diversity and plurality of populisms. It highlights the variety of constitutional and extraconstitutional strategies that populists have used to undermine the institutional fabric of liberal democracy and investigates how ruling populists responded to the Covid-19 crisis. Outlining the rise of populisms and their governing styles, Wojciech Sadurski focuses on what populists in power do, rather than what they say. Confronting one of the most pressing concerns of international politics, this book offers a vibrant, contemporary account of modern populisms and, significantly, considers what we can do to fight back.