A Real and Present Danger to Democracy

By John Howarth, PWB Co-Director

The recent lecture by Sir Richard J Evans presented to Gresham College in London entitled “Is populism a threat to democracy?” raises some interesting issues. Professor Evans’ central arguments are correct but, in my opinion, misses essential nuances about populism and fascism in the modern world.

Professor Evans is an expert in the history of the Nazi regime. His evidence was central to the debunking of the work of David Irving in the libel trail that confirmed Irving as a holocaust denier and applied costs against him. Professor Evans’ scholarship is undeniable and his work important. His contention in this lecture, ‘that all fascists are populists but not all populists are fascists’, is nothing about which anyone serious would wish to argue.

Many of the currents behind populism and many of those involved with contemporary populist parties would see themselves as neither racist, ethnically based nor militaristic. Populist movements such as M5S in Italy have a series of policy and social positions that are broadly to the left of centre and, while they do not translate to a coherent programme for government, are rooted in legitimate frustrations with the Italian body politic rather than imagined external threats (2). In Scotland the SNP has, while nationalist by definition and embracing populism to a limited extent, has carefully positioned itself in an essentially social democratic niche, some of the same could be said of Catalan nationalism. Both movements seem explicitly to reject notions of ‘ethnic’ nationalism (3).

Seeing populism as a series of political methods applicable across different ideological stances, Professor Evans defines the current around it opposition to existing ‘elites’, self-identification with and as ‘the people’ who as a body are said to be disenfranchised and in opposition to existing institutions of liberal and representative democracy deemed ‘corrupt’ and ‘against the people’. He sets these characteristics alongside those of fascism/nazism where violence, intimidation, militarism and nationalist expansionism are added to populist tactics.

Again, from a historical perspective, I would largely agree. Where I begin to disagree with the Professor is on conclusions on the character, behaviour and actions of contemporary populists in power. He says of Donald Trump:

“Trump might encourage armed protestors to storm legislatures in American states demanding an end to the lockdown, but I don’t see him putting hundreds of thousands of armed and uniformed stormtroopers onto the streets attacking and killing Democrats.”

But it was a question of degree: The use of the military domestically proved not be beyond his desires but beyond his powers. Leading Generals cited their oath to protect the Constitution above the orders of the Commander in Chief after Trump’s early responses to Black Lives Matter protests and summed up by the statement from former Defense Secretary and retired Marines General Jim Mattis (4). Trump’s ability on the other hand to deploy camouflaged federal agents with automatic weapons onto the streets of Portland illustrates the limits of checks and balances.

Neither is it logical to suggest that withdrawals of US forces from combat areas under Trump necessarily disqualifies him as a modern day fascist. US movements of the extreme right, under the slogan ‘America First’ were vocal in their opposition to US involvement in the war against fascism in Europe up to 1941. And while Trump will deny his racism like many of today’s populists, his courting of white supremacists within his base is political reality.

Professor Evans also states:

“Boris Johnson is not a populist by any means, since he operates within the normal constraints of the British constitution and British institutions, even if, on occasion, he threatens to disrupt them.”

Again a question of degree rather than an absolute. If populism is viewed as a disorder with a range of symptoms then Boris Johnson and his regime are firmly on the spectrum.

The current UK Government refers to itself as a ‘the peoples’ government’ (self defined and based on a minority of votes); it is seeking to implement an agenda to undermine and fundamentally alter the ‘neutrality’ of the UK Civil Service; it is critically examining judicial review provision; its outriders call into question the non-political nature of the judiciary, the police, public services and educational institutions and have continued the deep hostility to immigration brought into policy by his  predecessor when she was Home Secretary. Mr Johnson has done more than his fair share creating ‘alternative facts’ designed to undermine liberal democratic institutions. For someone who is not a populist Mr Johnson has spent a great deal of time employing populist methodology. At what point in politics does form define content? It is not merely a question, as Professor Evans contends, of electoral pressure forcing the Conservative Party to “adopt some of the policies and ideas of Farage’s populist Brexit movement” but of becoming the Brexit movement and adopting wholesale its strategy and tactics. The objective is not the mere winning of an election where Brexit is the key issue but the creation of ongoing ‘identification as Conservatives’ by those who had come to define themselves as ‘leavers’ in the process adopting a divisive approach to ‘the will of the people’ that actually reflects only a third of the people.

Trump, Modi, Urdogan, Orban, Putin are all authoritarian populists well onto the spectrum that blurs into the extremes of a twenty first century fascism rather than running up against strong boundaries of definition. In the modern age there is no reason why authoritarian rule would start from a position of uniform wearing gangs roaming the streets targeting individuals. In the 1920s the Nazis did all of that but also positioned themselves to appeal to existing trends, images, norms and popular aspects of German culture and politics, the references to socialism and workers in the party name designed to appeal to the working class. Their imagery was designed to have broad appeal. Violence, intimidation and individual terror were part of their weaponry, but their rhetoric did not begin with talk of a ‘final solution’. The perspective of the academic historian is limited. Fascism and Nazism are historical facts but they are not frozen in history. A fascism seeking to appeal to the 21st century will not style itself in the same way, why would the tactics and presentation of the extremes not evolve? 

Professor Evans key conclusion is, nonetheless, that modern day populist are the “enemies of democracy”. He’s right, but unfortunately I believe he rather understates the threat:

“… populism is a clear and present danger to democracy. In countries like the UK and the USA with strong and deep-rooted democratic institutions, it is still possible to resist it. In countries where these institutions are relatively weak, it’s a different matter.”

I find this unconsciously exceptionalist. How ‘strong and deep-rooted’ are the institutions of the UK? and how effective are the checks and balances of the US system?

With varying degrees of success Trump has attempted to circumvent the legislature and constitutional checks and balances since the first days of his administration about which his White House has been unapologetic in deploying false narratives. He has used the removal of officials and the threat to careers to gain traction on the wider government machinery. Commentators inside and outside the USA seriously question whether or not Donald Trump will be prepared to leave office if he loses the election on 3 November. Some have identified scenarios with historical precedent where, quite plausibly, the US system fails to cope with a close and deliberately disputed result. Each illustrates a fatal floor in the US democratic system that has long since proved its inability to reform itself.

In the UK our ‘deep rooted’ institutions have been undermined and the corridors of power are stalked by figures of power who hold both Parliament and the judiciary in contempt, who’s messaging skills were founded on trashing the political class and who have used powers in the current public health crisis to circumvent the established norms of public procurement, allegedly, to the corrupt advantage of themselves, family and friends. All this takes place in a system which is, in terms of practical political power, a uni-cameral Parliament with large majorities based on minority shares of the vote, where advancement is based on patronage, with very limited ability to hold the executive to account and that has proved wanting in terms of self-reform. The fourth estate guardians of pluralist democracy are largely tame of in cahoots.

Neither the USA nor the United Kingdom seem especially immune to the existential threat. These are, nonetheless, differences of emphasis and degree. Professor Evans lecture concludes with the central and urgent issue in a single sentence:

“We need to engage critically with the populists themselves, too; to develop effective methods of countering them and, ultimately, to expose them for what they are: enemies of democracy.”

No suggestions on how – and therein lies the problem. Without demonstrably failing examples of the alternatives, liberal democracy has proved inadequate in its own defence. As economic crisis developed, populism, national conservatism and the extremes of right and left proved a great deal more adept at using technology and new communication tools than have democrats. This has both historical precedent and political logic. Fascism effectively harnessed the communication innovations of the 1920s and today’s populists have done so again. Populist and nationalist movements are able to operate activist bases temperamentally suited to communicating centrally generated ‘party lines’ while liberals are by definition less regimented. Long confined to the fringes, unregulated social networking has provided massive amplification for tiny voices. The wreckage of the business model for fact-based professional reportage opened the door further to post-truth politics. Dark money continues to harness big data.

There is no short cut for democrats but to become more competitive. To develop ideas fit for modern times. To demonstrate the bad places to which populism leads. To challenge the notion that populists speak for ‘the people’. To become effective in modern communication and to find channels for truth. To build an identity for democrats that goes beyond the status quo.

The precedents of history are not good. The removal of far-right regimes has often involved war and destruction. The far left has more often than not left behind dislocation and social chaos. The challenge is not only ultimately to expose populists but to ensure their democratic and peaceful removal from power.



2. M5S – Movimento 5 Stelle, despite their policy leanings, made a series of bad choices, keeping dubious company in the European Parliament thereby enabling Nigel Farage to have both greater prominence and financial support. 

3. Both, however, inevitably define themselves as against their perceived ‘foreign’ oppressor. Whatever their arguments for self-rule it is a stretch to describe either country as lacking ‘freedom’.

4. Numerous reports. Full Mattis statement from 4 June 2020 here:

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