© Bernard Boëne
International School of Governance, Geneva
Attempting to account for the rise of populisms in the West, this paper starts with a summary statement of liberal democracy’s basic principles and requirements. It suggests that Western countries have deviated in a number of ways from its central tenets over the last decades, depriving majorities of a say on collective destiny under the influence of globalization, neoliberalism and the major trend towards the individualization of social relations that has marked the last half-century.
After briefly tackling the problems raised by the nature and substance of populism in general, it characterizes the three main varieties it identifies and assesses the imbalance of their respective forces. It then hypothesizes that the civic variety, the least politicized of the three, plays a key role as a natural attractor whose influence is fuelled in part by the other two’s strategies of convergence to expand their support base, but more importantly by the ways in which the current state of affairs – economic insecurity of the lower and middle classes, social inequalities and polarization, unresponsive elites, excessive external and judicial constraints on the popular will, disproportionate normative influence of small minorities, restricted freedoms, harassment of law-abiding citizens, absence of a political way out of the system’s current predicament – affects the everyday lives of majorities irrespective of political leanings. This may account for the astonishing extent, revealed by opinion polls even more than by voting results, of the discontent and malaise evinced by Western populations, whose predominant response is a mix of derision and cynicism giving the Zeitgeist its distinctive flavour. What’s more, electoral contexts marked by tight results turn a reduced but not insignificant proportion of potential civic populists without entrenched political leanings into kingmakers, or at least put them in a position to help populist leaders achieve political prominence as a sign of protest.
The article goes on to probe the evidence in support of its contentions by examining the various identified drivers of populisms as well as the historical genesis of individualization, plus the disruption of the delicate balance between individual rights and citizenship norms that liberal democracy implies.This is followed by a critical review of possible remedies envisaged to restore that balance. Finally, the author relies on recent country studies conducted on behalf of the More in Common Project to try and locate in Western nations’ social, cultural and political landscapes the potential civic populist middle whose existence forms his central conjecture.
The paper’s conclusion summarizes its main points before turning to a critical evaluation of the pragmatic feasibility and sociopolitical worth of what civic populists yearn for (and may well constitute the ultimate meaning of populisms) – a return to citizenship and the nation-state – in circumstances that are substantially different from those which prevailed in their previous heyday.