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Relationship between Populism and Democracy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 1871 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Critically assess Margaret Canovan’s claim that populism follows democracy like a shadow.

Populism is when people believe that they have the liberty to rule out their government instead of giving the authority to a small group of politicians or elites who are well off. Populists voice out political issues or popular opinions being disregarded by the government and political parties. In this essay, I will evaluate and signify the claim of populism following democracy like a shadow as claimed by Margaret Canovan and some counter arguments of other famous political journalists. Canovan did not necessarily presents her stand on either for or against populism, but more on explaining how it happens and its relationship towards democracy. Populism might arise due to the different perspectives of the people which could be disparate from the ruling elites. Whilst some theorist mentioned that populism could be anti-democratic and seen it as a negative aspect of democracy, Canovan on the other hand had a lukewarm attitude towards it. Next, I will be analyzing the two faces of democracy as proposed by Margaret Canovan.

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With regards to populism being the shadow of democracy, Decker quoted that “we can assume that where is democracy, there is populism”[1]. This indicates that populism is a result of democracy and it can emerge in any democratic system. If people were to be dissatisfied by the way their government are ruling, populism will arise due to dissatisfaction. Due to the ruling of corrupt elites and disregards of the people’s concern, many people were in favor of electing a populist as their ruler. Populist party vow to make changes and voice out for people who were victims of politicians who govern badly. As a result, populism is the shadow cast by democracy in most democratic countries as Margaret Canovan claimed due to inability of the current ruling party to resolve current affairs in the country with an effective solution. Populists movement pertains to the people concerns rather than the democratic system as Paul Taggart explains it, condemning ruling parties for their ignorance of the public perception. The public perception is the difference between the things people knew which are formed on reality along with the implied fact from more popular point of view. With a contrast between the public’s view and their ruling parties, it emboldens their support for a stronger governorship with a charismatic ruler to represent the nations concerns. This implies that by virtue of democracy, more democratic countries are being governed by populist leaders. In relation to Margaret Canovan’s claim, populist leaders are being elected to advocate the voice of the people because of the imperfections and inequity in their current political system which illustrates the closely acquainted connection between populism and democracy. Margaret Canovan also see populism intriguing to the people in opposition to the formation of power and the dominant objective and worth of society. In favor of the populism following democracy like a shadow due to the close link between the two, President Abraham Lincoln once said that “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”, despite the small increase in the people’s capability initiate a growth in democratic standards. If the power of the people were to be taken away, democracy would not exist. Populist leaders do not abide by the legal process or enforce new rule instead they depend on the mobilization of their supporters. This indicates the gap populism brought about between a society governed by elites and a society following the aspects of modernization.

Whilst others, such as Sir Bernard Crick, refers to ‘populism as a spectre which haunts democracy as it is difficult or impossible to break free from current conditions of a populist free press’. This suggests that there is an inseparable connection between populism and democracy as it can be a threat or complement to one another which explains populism as a spectre rather than shadow. The emergence of populism can be a result of corrupted leaders and socio-economic factors like rise in unemployment or exploitation of tax payer’s money. This shows that with populism as a complement of democracy benefits the people as populist leaders promised to make the situation better if they were to be elected as a ruling party through campaigning when nearing election day. With the appeal of populist leaders to people who were never given a chance to be represented because of their race, religion or geographical location, more people from these minority groups will favor populist party to rule as a result of the failure of current ruling party due to their overlook on the problems faced by people in the minority groups. It can also be the cause of a lack of trust in the democratic system in reinstating social order formerly like a recession or problems with poverty, unemployment and hyperinflation. This implies that the people would turn to populist leaders as a way of resolving the crisis due to their method of solving public matters with straightforward methods. On the other hand, Fareed Zakaria explained populism as ‘illiberal democracy’ due to the dismissal of all constraints on the expression of people will, such as protecting human rights in minority groups and autonomy of important institutions. This in turn led to populist party creating their own political structure which might result in more problems as populist institutions are concentrated on the procedure and result other than the leaders. They adopt the mindset and associate themselves with the citizens as populist leaders regard themselves as an essential part of the people. There is an existence of anti-political perception amongst the people which initiated a propagation for the tendency of populist attitudes. From the populist point of view, they do not need a group of individuals who obtain political knowledge and make use of it to manage public matters. Politicians in groups are regarded as a problem in expressing the true mindset of the people because of the different beliefs of party members. Populists party tend to resolve problems without contemplating on the aftermath of their actions, which can be seen as a threat towards democratic systems. They do not want to dissipate their time on well planned debate within the party which threaten the elementary rules of democracy.

The key principle that Margaret Canovan outlined is the two faces of democracy ‘Redemptive’ and ‘Pragmatic’ which aid in our understanding towards the extent of vulnerability of democracy to challenges posed by populism. The coexistence of the two resulted in a continual spur in the mobilization of populism. Redemptive is the motion of popular power as people are the only source of legitimate authority. Redemptive in modern politics give more power to the people with a more anti institution with a thought that democracy is going to transform, create excitement for the citizens. Pragmatic is a way of coping peacefully with conflicts of modern societies through the collection of rules and practices. Pragmatic side consists of slower change on a day to day basis. The gap is getting wider between the two faces when democracy tends to be more pragmatic, more about daily management of a country by professional classes. If pragmatism were to exist without redemption, it would lead to corruption. Populists would exploit or manipulate people to get power through the creation of enthusiasm from people who do not usually engage themselves in political issues in the form of providing simple solutions to complex issues. Moving on to the tensions between the redemptive and pragmatic is a perpetual invitation to populist mobilization. However, just purely pragmatic is not a stable option as it has to rely on some aspects of redemptive. Paul Taggart argues that politics is not the only aspects that populist oppose to but also ‘representative politics’. Their aim is to abolish intervening institutions and it is achieved by the ignorance of the ‘silent majority’ in the political culture owing to the significance from the support by the majorities to the entire legitimate government. Thus, populist parties pose a challenge as they would become part of the parliament if they were to succeed in their election which cannot be entirely disregarded.

To conclude this essay, it shows the distinct connection between populism and democracy as inseparable. Populism would always emerge to the surface in democratic countries when the people were to be dissatisfied with the manner their ruling party respond to public affairs and resolve the matter or with the crisis of the system. The theory of two faces of democracy outlined populism following democracy as a shadow, in which many theorists agree with Canovan that populism will always have a place in democracy as the idea of democracy surrounded by giving power to the people, which many liberal radicals would strongly agree but it would lead to populism, which on the other side of the spectrum, moderate liberals would criticize it of being anti-democratic with a more hostile attitude towards the idea of populism attached to democracy. However, as citizens become more distrust in politician, the room for populism will continue to grow, indicating that populism always follow democracy like a shadow.


-         D. Albertazzi & D. McDonnell, Twenty-First Century Populism: The spectre of western European democracy, 2007

-         Tom Bryder, Xenophobia, Politics and Right Wing Populism in Europe, December 2009 https://politicalscience.ku.dk/international_students/present_international_students/taking_exams/past_papers/Populism___a_threat_or_a_challenge_for_the_democratic_system.pdf

-         Francisco Panizza, Populism and the mirror of Democracy, 2005

-         Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, The ambivalence of populism: threat and corrective for democracy, January 2011 https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2011.572619

-         Paul Taggart, Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe, august 2006 https://doi.org/10.1080/1356931042000263528

-         Margaret Canovan, Trust the people! Populism and the two faces if democracy, political studies, 1999

[1] Populism- a threat or a challenge for the democratic system, Page 4


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