The American political sociologist Barrington Moore once said, ‘No bourgeoisie, no democracy.’ We are now seeing that formula being put through an interesting test. It seems that in just about every Western liberal democracy right now, the preconditions of democracy are under challenge. The Western middle classes are lashing out.
At least that is one interpretation of recent events. The Trump presidency in the United States, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, Marine Le Pen and the French presidential election, yesterday’s German election – these are all signs of widespread discontent with the democratic order. The middle classes are feeling squeezed, left behind, forgotten, or betrayed by change. There is a sense that Western democratic liberalism is in retreat if not crisis. It is being challenged by a new political populism.
There has been considerable debate about populism and whether it is a good thing. While some regard populism as a pathological force – something inconsistent with a pluralistic liberal democratic order – others would contend it is good for democratic politics in giving voice to people’s interests and concerns.
To some extent, your view of the matter depends on what kind of populism you’re talking about. Many would accept that some dose of populism has its place in liberal democratic politics. One criticism of modern politics is that it is bland and sterile – that its protagonists are dominated by well-educated professionals, who share the same technocratic mindsets, and speak in a language that is remote from the lives of those they represent. Populism can be a welcome infusion into an otherwise anaemic politics.
Yet other manifestations of populism can go beyond the pale. Indeed, when we are referring to expressions of populism today, we’re not referring to benign authenticity or readjustment. Rather, we are talking about far-right versions of populism associated with nationalism, xenophobia and racism. To anyone who accepts liberal democratic standards of equality and non-discrimination – and to the idea that political debates should be governed by a sense of rationality and civility – such populism is far from welcome.