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In your book Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis (Oxford, 2019), you speak of democratic illiberalism, thereby reversing the terms used in Zakaria’s famous text on illiberal democracies. Can you explain to our readers how you define democratic illiberalism?

In my work, populism is conceptualized and defined minimally as “democratic illiberalism,” which points to modern political systems, political parties, or individual politicians combining adherence to electoral democracy and liberal democratic principles. I also use the term “populist democracy” with reference to political systems in which both the ruling party and major opposition forces are populist. I first used these terms in an article that compared Greece and Hungary as typical populist democracies and was published in 2013 in Government and Opposition. (Notice, by the way, that this Hungary-specific article preceded by at least a year Orbán’s now-famous 2014 speech in Transylvania, after which this term became common.) Anyway, my definition of populism recalls Fareed Zakaria’s terminology but the puzzles that motivate my research, the empirical cases I focus on, and the theoretical propositions I put forward are entirely different than his. The contrast is very interesting from a sociology-of-knowledge point of view, so let me say a bit more about it.

Zakaria wrote his very insightful essay on the rise of illiberal democracies back in 1997, when the word “populism” was not in common usage, and if you go back to the text, you will find no mention of this word, nor will you find a proper definition of what he meant by “democratic illiberalism.” But everything else is quite clear. Recall, first, that Zakaria wrote his essay only a few years after the collapse of Soviet communism and, second, that he was a former student at Harvard of Samuel Huntington, who believed in the incessant expansion of democracy worldwide. It was within that historical and intellectual context that Zakaria noticed an apparent paradox, namely, that many of the recent converts to democracy were not essentially democratic, nor, most certainly, was there any trace of liberalism in them. Among the cases he observed, and which are mentioned in his essay, were formerly communist Romania and Slovakia, autocracies like Belarus and Kazakhstan, war-torn Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, the Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan, and failed states like the Palestinian National Authority or Haiti.

Evidently, Zakaria’s “democratic illiberalism” was not related to modern populism. If it had been, he should have both taken issue with the most obvious case of populism at the time, which was Berlusconi’s Italy, and made plain use of the word “populism” in his essay. But Zakaria’s main concern was not populism in today’s sense. It was whether the recently democratized states would be able to consolidate pluralism and develop some semblance of Western-type liberal democracy in the future. Today, a quarter of a century later, and with the exceptions of Slovakia and Romania by reason of their membership of the EU, the countries mentioned above remain despairingly illiberal; some are not even democratic any longer. Add to that the Arab nations, in which incumbent presidents let opposition parties run in elections but with no hope of winning them, and you will see that Zakaria’s notion of “illiberal democracy” is valid but useful only for describing premodern states with deficient institutions ruled by fraudulent autocrats. But that concept is entirely unrelated to modern-day populism.

My work addresses a different puzzle. I begin with Fukuyama and his famous—and famously erroneous—thesis about liberalism signifying the end of history. After 1945, it seemed that liberal democracy was the superior political system and that most states the world over would try to imitate it. And, in fact, many did, including the southern European nations after their democratic transitions in the 1970s, Latin American countries that became democratic around the same time, and Central and Eastern European states after the fall of communism in 1989. But what I observed was that many of those states were often doing away with their liberalism and, under the spell of charismatic leaders allegedly acting in the name of an oversoul people, turning to illiberal politics while remaining fully democratic. The combination of allegiance to democracy and illiberal practice struck me as a historical novelty and most of my work has been about unraveling this paradoxical situation.

The combination of allegiance to democracy and illiberal practice struck me as a historical novelty and most of my work has been about unraveling this paradoxical situation.

In your research in general and your work on European political parties in particular, you dissociate populist parties from nativist and nationalist ones, which you classify as belonging to the liberal category. Can you explain the three categories, which are often mistakenly confused? What are the gaps and overlaps between them? Are we talking about ideal-typical categories or can we clearly identify movements that have one feature but not the others?

Populist, nativist, and nationalist parties are often confused due to a lack of conceptual clarity, an inability to operationalize the cases, and, ultimately, a failure to provide fine conceptual distinctions.

Populist, nativist, and nationalist parties are often confused due to a lack of conceptual clarity, an inability to operationalize the cases, and, ultimately, a failure to provide fine conceptual distinctions. But those are entirely different types of parties—and if you focus on their core characteristics, you will be able to distinguish them effortlessly and clearly enough. Based on such core properties, I have produced a typology that, in simple infographic form, presents a hierarchical systematization of all parties into clearly defined types that are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. With such a typology at hand, it becomes easy to classify parties into distinct categories, each with its own specific characteristics. It is also easier to understand what is important about each party type and, therefore, to provide concise definitions of them.

As already mentioned, I see populism as a postwar political phenomenon that retains democratic electoral rules while at the same time opposing modern liberal institutions. Accordingly, populist parties are those championing a polity that is at once democratic and illiberal. Parties that do not do both those two things cannot be populist.

I distinguish nativist parties on the basis of simple lexical definitions of the term such as, for instance, the one of the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “nativism” as “the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.” Nativist parties, then, are those that promote a nativist policy agenda. Importantly, no European nativist party can be said to be illiberal, at least with respect to the rights of native populations.

Finally, in the European political context, nationalist parties are those that either pursue national independence from a centralist state (for instance, the Scottish National Party) or want their nation to maintain sovereignty from supranational political entities (for instance, the UK Independence Party). These parties are on the whole liberal with an obvious nativist tint; it is their nationalism, however, that remains their distinguishing characteristic.

Having said all this, one should also not forget that parties are like moving targets. They evolve in historical time and often change their ideas, positions, and goals—which means that they may also transform from one party type into another, and then another.

You have been comparing Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Can you briefly describe the specificities of populism in each of these regions and the political traditions that make them different? Or maybe you discern more similarities than differences?

The greatest advantage of defining populism minimally as “democratic illiberalism” is that you can single out all the cases that fit the definition and study their ensemble in fine comparative perspective. This is precisely what I have been able to do in my work. So, from the universe of postwar states in Europe and the Americas with previous liberal experience, I selected all those in which a populist party had come to power. As analyzed and compared in my book, these countries include Greece, Italy, Hungary, and Poland in Europe; Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela in Latin America; and the more recent case of the United States under Trump. Two other cases of populist parties—which emerged in power after I had already begun research and so were not included in my book—are Poland and Mexico. In retrospect, I think that both cases validate my original findings.

Now, you may think that all these cases, which cover different geographical regions, span several postwar decades, and include both right-wing and left-wing populist parties, are more different than similar. My research suggests otherwise. I show how each and every one of these cases tells the same story—the story of societies with a certain experience of liberal democracy that nonetheless elected to turn populist. Once that realization was made, the task I posed for myself was to see under which conditions, and in which ways (or mechanisms), the transformation from liberalism to populism became possible. I examined each country at three successive stages of the process—populist ascendancy, populism in office, and populist aftermaths—and then put all those processes under a comparative lens. I found that, their differences notwithstanding, these countries followed remarkably similar pathways at all three stages. The rest is in the book.

I examined each country at three successive stages of the process—populist ascendancy, populism in office, and populist aftermaths—and then put all those processes under a comparative lens. I found that, their differences notwithstanding, these countries followed remarkably similar pathways at all three stages. The rest is in the book.

What role does charismatic leadership play in populist success? Can a populist movement succeed without that leadership? I am thinking, for instance, of the PiS in Poland, where even if the Kaczyński brothers were/are key figures, we are still lacking the kind of archetypal charismatic leader that can be found in, say, Hungary.

One of the main lessons I drew from my comparative analysis of the cases is that, in order for populism to succeed, a charismatic leader is required. I even presented it as an axiom: “No charisma, no populism.” Of course, the difficulty here is to conceptualize and define “charismatic leadership,” but this is a topic on which I have done plenty of conceptual and theoretical work in the past. It was therefore easy to identify empirically how extraordinary agency interacted with existing political structures and activated the micro- and meso-mechanisms that are necessary to produce, and sustain, populism.

In order for populism to succeed, a charismatic leader is required. I even presented it as an axiom: “No charisma, no populism.”

I understand, and have defined, political charisma as a distinct type of legitimate leadership that is personal and aims at the radical transformation of an established institutional order. Under this definition, charismatic leaders are not identified as such by their electoral success, which would make for a tautological analysis, nor by any physical or personal characteristics, such as physical height, oratorial skills, and the like. My definition of charisma requires leaders to combine two characteristics: full personal authority and radical political aims. Come to think of it, this type of authority is both extraordinary and rare. For, in the reality of ordinary politics, most parliamentary democracies are ruled by collective decision-making processes in the pursuit of moderate and piecemeal reforms, not radical change. But then, when I looked at my cases of populism, I realized that, with no exceptions, they had emerged out of extraordinary leadership action. Typically, charismatic populists had founded their own parties (or, as in the case of Trump, taken full control of existing ones) and, by exercising full control over the party organizations, used them as their means of radically changing liberal democratic systems into illiberal ones. By the way, all successful populist leaders are male.

Now, to Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński. It is true, of course, that his personal characteristics do not fit what we have in mind when using in our everyday discourse the word “charismatic.” He is introverted and secretive, not particularly attractive or likely to arouse mass enthusiasm. But similar could be said about, to use two seemingly sharply different cases, Serbian Slobodan Milošević and British Margaret Thatcher. Only that here we are not talking simply about personal characteristics; what we are talking about and trying to understand is a certain type of authority and how it is achieved. In this sense, I classify the three previous leaders as “charismatic” because they meet my two core requirements, namely, full control over parties they have either founded (Kaczyński) or taken hold of (Thatcher and Milošević) and the successful implementation of a radical political program, be that Polish populism, Thatcherism, or the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

You have devoted a good part of your work to Greece. Would you say Greece has been a pioneer in developing a new populism following the 2008 recession?

Populism came to Greece decades before the recent Great Recession. Most people who study populism are unfortunately not cognizant of the fact that Greece was the first country in postwar Europe to see a powerful populist win state power. That was back in 1981 and that party was PASOK, founded and led by the charismatic Andreas Papandreou. PASOK stayed in power for many, many years and led the country in an illiberal direction that, in many ways, was a long preparatory stage for the Greek drama during the 2010s. On a more personal note, since I happened to experience several of the many episodes in the development of populism in situ while living in Greece, this gave me a better angle than those living and working in populism-free countries for understanding the logic, appeal, and causes that lead a country to transform from liberal to populist. Thankfully, I was lucky to also experience twice the opposite process—that is, the reversal from populism to liberalism.

Greece was the first country in postwar Europe to see a powerful populist win state power. That was back in 1981 and that party was PASOK, founded and led by the charismatic Andreas Papandreou.

How should the presence in many Southern European countries (including Greece, Italy, and Spain) of both a leftist and a rightist populism be interpreted?

The osmosis between left and right populisms is not unique to Southern Europe. In Argentina, Peronist populist began as a right-wing movement and then oscillated between neoliberal right (under Carlos Menem) and radical left (under both Néstor and Cristina Kirchner). The Peruvian Aprismo was also a synthesis of leftist and rightist populist groups. In Italy, the Five Star Movement, which was originally populist, moved progressively from rather leftist to more rightist positions; in the end, because it lacked charismatic leadership, it became a mainstream liberal party. In the US, it is not difficult to discern an, albeit fluid, populist movement on the left that could take a more concrete political shape in the future if a charismatic leader appears and is willing to take his or her chances. By far the most impressive case of osmosis between left and right populisms has been Greece, which thus achieved another first in the annals of world populism. In 2015, the left-populist Syriza and the right-populist Independent Greeks formed a coalition government that lasted, with almost no friction, for over four years!

Explaining the co-existence, let alone the occasional symbiotic relationship, of leftist and rightist populism is not that difficult if one considers that populism, far from being an ideology, is a novel type of democracy that opposes established political liberalism, an illiberal democracy. Which means that, once populism grows strong in a polity, the old left-right political cleavage is replaced by a new one between liberal- and illiberal-minded voters. In such a political configuration, as Timothy Garton Ash has nicely put it, the crucial difference is between liberals of right or left and illiberals of right or left.

Explaining the co-existence, let alone the occasional symbiotic relationship, of leftist and rightist populism is not that difficult if one considers that populism, far from being an ideology, is a novel type of democracy that opposes established political liberalism, an illiberal democracy.

And a last question on terminologies and concepts. The major concept you work on is populism. Our Program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. What does illiberalism bring to the discussion?

(Illiberalism) also helps to distinguish populism qua democratic illiberalism from no less than four other kindred concepts: pre-liberal democratic illiberalism

Good question, especially given my craving for clear concepts and robust definitions! I think that the move of making democratic illiberalism a synonym of modern-day populism enables us to effectively distinguish populism from neighboring and often overlapping concepts, thus avoiding notional and terminological confusion. It also helps to distinguish populism qua democratic illiberalism from no less than four other kindred concepts: pre-liberal democratic illiberalism; liberal democracy; non-democracy; and undemocratic liberalism. Let me very briefly explain their differences.

Pre-liberal democratic illiberalism, first, refers to the cases observed by Fareed Zakaria but also extends to other contemporary cases such as Indonesia, Malaysia, or India, none of which have in their respective national histories a noteworthy liberal tradition. Those countries are designated by using adjectives such as “hybrid regimes,” “competitive authoritarian,” or “flawed democracies.” I would suggest settling for the term “Zakarialand”!

Liberal democracy, second, combines free and fair elections with rule of law and the protection of minority rights. Its beginnings coincide with the end of the Second World War and today many are concerned about its fatigue and possible decline. Here belong most of the countries in Europe, the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, among a few others. In the Economist Global Democracy Index, those countries are classified as “full democracies.”

Non-democracy, third, contains nations with no free and fair elections or social pluralism. Here, quite obviously, belong countries like China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, but also Russia, Belarus, Turkey, and Syria, among many others. Their individual differences notwithstanding, all these countries are ruled by nondemocratic, and therefore illiberal, parties.

Undemocratic liberalism, finally, sounds like a theoretical absurdity and would be a mere contradiction in terms were there not at least one country on earth that, to the best of my knowledge, meets most criteria of liberalism without offering free elections: Singapore.


Takis S. Pappas (PhD, Yale) is a former professor of political science in Greece and currently a scholar associated with the University of Helsinki, Finland. He has written several books, of which the most recent is Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2019). He has produced several policy briefs, a TED-Ed video on populism, and a series of infographics that popularize the topics on which he conducts academic research. He is a regular columnist for the major Greek newspaper Kathimerini and maintains the blog www.pappaspopulism.com. He lives in Brussels, Belgium, and Athens, Greece.

illiberalism.org

illiberalism.org

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.