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Panel Examines Recent Populist, Nationalist Trends in Democracies

The Center's first public event of the academic year explored the causes of the global populist upsurge, from popular discontent to economic shocks. Nationalism and populism are powerful, compatible, and resonant ideologies. As a result, they can legitimate leaders and mobilize citizens – and pose dramatic challenges to liberal democracy.

For even casual observers it’s difficult not to notice the upsurge in populist movements within democracies around the globe. How did they emerge? Populist parties and leaders – a few left-wing, many more right-wing – have made substantial electoral gains in many of these countries, and in some cases have been elected into power. Do they constitute a threat to or crisis within liberal democracy, or perhaps the opposite? Are populist movements and regimes nationalist as well? What’s the difference, if any, between populism and nationalism? How do we think clearly about this stuff given the blizzard of information out there?

A dose of clear thinking was on display on October 23, as CASBS hosted a discussion on “Populist Challenges to Democracy,” featuring a panel of 2018-19 CASBS fellows – Eva AnduizaBart Bonikowski, and Maya Tudor. They were joined by guest moderator Anna Grzymala-Busse, director of the Global Populisms Project and The Europe Center, both part of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Together, the four comprised a world-class assemblage of some of the deepest thinking and scholarly expertise on these issues.

The event was the kick-off to the Center’s three-symposium series for the 2018-19 academic year. Special guests in attendance, as CASBS director Margaret Levi informed the packed venue and livestream viewers, included Alejandro Toledo – a former president of Peru and twice a CASBS visiting scholar – and Jeff Bleich, the U.S. ambassador to Australia from 2009-13 and a member of the CASBS board of directors. The Global Populisms Project co-sponsored the event.

As Bonikowski explained, the concepts are analytically distinct and measurable. Populism is a leftist or rightist moral politics, often thinly or shallowly rooted (yet consequential) that separates an allegedly corrupt elite from a virtuous people it purports to represent. And as Anduiza added, it can be seen as anti-pluralist (lately in Hungary, Italy, and the U.S., for example) or as more broad on the inclusive-exclusive spectrum (the Catalan movement in Spain or the Occupy movement in the U.S., as examples). Nationalism, meanwhile, is a set of more deeply held “cognitive dispositions” or understandings of what the nation is and national belonging means. It, too, can be leftist or rightist and fall on a range from inclusive to exclusive, though as Tudor noted it’s primarily inclusive (and democratic) in its founding moments (think Mahatma Gandhi, for example) and relatively stable, or “sticky,” over time. In addition, said Tudor, nationalism is a “resource” to be used and it’s here to stay – neither inherently good nor evil, progressive or conservative. Authoritarianism, in contrast, is a tool of governance or “mode of practice” once a party attains power; it violates democratic norms and erodes democratic institutions.

At least on the radical right, said Bonikowski, the three “often travel together” and have mutual affinities that “solve problems for one another.” If, for example, a populist narrative is about “we” against an elite, then nationalism sometimes fits the bill as “an exclusionary way of filling in the ‘we’.”

Again, focusing on radical right politics, is there now, more than a few years ago, a greater supply of populist and nationalist expression or a greater demand for them, perhaps manifested in racist, xenophobic, or anti-democratic sentiment?

No, there isn’t, Bonikowski emphatically asserted. Those trends over time are relatively stable (though, separately, trust in government in general fluctuates). Then what are we seeing in some parts of the world today?

We’re seeing a convergence of pre-existing attitudes that match or resonate with pre-existing political claims due to concurrent changes in structural conditions, such as demographic shifts, national security crises, or economic shocks. Some of these changes are real, but many are mediated – what people believe is happening to people like them or how they perceive their situation relative to others, based in part on what they see through their media filters. At the individual level, according to Anduiza, such attitudes are a motivating factor for people – particularly those of lower education and income – to engage in politics and turn-out at the polls.

And when fears turn into resentments, “nationalist cleavages become manifest and politically salient and mobilize-able – and that’s exactly what’s going on,” said Bonikowski.

Do populists and nationalists have a point, moderator Grzymala-Busse provocatively posed? Have mainstream parties and elites failed to articulate voter grievances, protect national identities from global flows of capital and people, and generally satisfy or “contain” their populaces?

The answer lies on a case-by-case basis, precipitating rich discussion among the panelists of specific circumstances found in countries including Myanmar, Poland, Great Britain, Spain and yes, the U.S. Some patterns are discernible, however. Tudor cited parties in places have drifted into “internal decay;” Bonikowski cited the 1990s center-left “selling-out” of its base in places in favor of a more technocratic politics that drifted away from traditional social protections; Anduiza made the crucial distinction between emergent new actors on the periphery and mainstream parties that become occupied by extremist leaders, and how both pose different types of democratic “gatekeeping” problems.

To date in India, Europe, and the U.S., observed Tudor, with exceptions there’s been a notable reluctance of the liberal progressive left to embrace (an inclusive) nationalism. The right has filled the vacuum and deployed (typically exclusive) nationalism as its own resource.

So does the far right appropriation of populist nationalism – sometimes lurching into thinly veiled enthno-nationalism – constitute a threat to democracy?

The panelists shared broad agreement that it does. It threatens democratic norms and institutions themselves, and can create geopolitical instability “associated with cavalier, often amateurish politicians conducting international politics,” Bonikowski noted.

Most attendees understood what he was conveying. To push the conversation still further, during the Q&A period attendee and three-time CASBS fellow Norman Naimark, a renowned historian of European history and radical politics, grabbed the room’s attention by invoking precedent for enthno-nationalism descending into the “f” word – fascism.

It’s a word social scientists shy away from, wary of “facile” parallels to the 1920s and 1930s. But the panelists shared his concern to varying degrees with Anduiza, a Spaniard, relating to her country’s “complicated relationship with nationalism” under the Franco regime during much of the 20th century. Contemporary trends do not present an acute crisis, per se, but rather stoke worries about the death of democracy “by a thousand cuts…a sort-of gradual sliding back of norms,” as Bonikowski put it.

How it will play-out from country to country is a bit anxiety-inducing.

“I think a lot of these threats are quite long-lasting; it’s very difficult to reverse some of these developments. Once we take the genie out of the bottle it’s very hard to put the genie back in…we’re going to be living with these problems for a long period of time…”

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