The UnPopulist’s First Anniversary: A Ray of Hope, Even as Populist Authoritarianism Spreads
Plus five of our first-year essays that capture our mood and mission
Today marks exactly a year since The UnPopulist was launched to defend liberal democracies from the gathering threat of populist authoritarianism. This authoritarianism is fundamentally different from the old-fashioned variety, in that under populism, the relationship between the country’s ruler and its dominant people, who see themselves as the “real” people, is friendly, even loving, as opposed to oppositional. That’s why populism always and everywhere is associated with charismatic, larger-than-life, demagogic figures—Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Narendra Modi—who claim to embody the will of the people. The will of the people and the will of the leader become coextensive, and the latter no longer even seeks to serve as a check on the former. “We the people” becomes “me the people,” and the checks and balances—parliamentary, institutional, civic—that liberal democracies carefully construct to limit and contain the ruler’s power come increasingly under attack, setting up a confrontation between the forces of populist majoritarian tyranny and the defenders of liberalism.
How did each side do this past year? It’s a complicated question, with no clear answer.
In Places, the Threat Is Checked
Let’s begin with the good news: In America, liberal forces have gathered strength. They were caught off guard when Trump and Trumpism suddenly arrived on the scene. But they are getting their act together. There is an acute realization among defenders of liberalism—regardless of whether they are on right, left, center or another political dimension altogether—that they are in a race against time to fortify American liberal democracy against the populist onslaught that is surely coming in 2024. Former foes are becoming friends to fight this new threat, redrawing the political map.
More on these developments in America later.
In a few other Western countries—particularly Germany, Britain and France—liberal forces seem to have prevailed for now. Germany has been a top performer in this respect, with Chancellor Angela Merkel taking the wind out of the far-right Alternative for Germany party in the last election as she sailed into retirement. In Britain, nativism is affecting both parties, but the unceremonious ouster of Prime Minister Boris Johnson after his serious—and serial—COVID hypocrisy, merely three years after he was elected in a landslide, suggests that the British public and its parliamentary traditions are still capable of imposing accountability on populist leaders. Similarly, in France, President Emmanuel Macron, though far from a flawless leader, managed to give a nice shellacking to Marine Le Pen’s hard-right, Islamophobic and nativist National Rally Party after her spooky and sudden rise. And of course, Ukraine’s fledgling liberal democracy has refused to cave in to Putin’s imperialistic and authoritarian designs; Ukraine is, as of now, prevailing.
But there the good news ends.
Elsewhere, the Threat Advances
Sweden’s elections last week swept into the nation’s governing coalition the Sweden Democrats, a far right, xenophobic party that has roots in neo-Nazism and barely existed two decades ago. Yet it raked up 20% of the vote total, the second highest in the country, elbowing out the Moderaterna party, which had held that spot for 40 years. This is a stunning development for a country that has long prided itself on being a moderate, progressive democracy. In the Brazilian election in a couple of weeks, right-wing populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, who constantly railed against the elite establishment and appointed military officials to civilian posts during his term, is expected to lose. But just like his role model, Donald Trump, he is not planning to leave quietly. He is gearing up to challenge the election result, inviting violence and stressing the country’s already fragile liberal democracy. But even if he goes, he’ll be replaced not by a liberal democrat—not even a hypocritical one like Macron—but an outright left-wing, Castro-Chavez-loving demagogue: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who served time for corruption after his previous term. Watch here for pieces on the Brazilian and Swedish elections soon.
Then there is Italy, where the unexpected collapse of the country’s coalition government appears to have paved the way for the rise, amid an atmosphere of racial tension, of a new governing coalition of three right-wing, anti-immigration parties in the upcoming elections. In Hungary, meanwhile, Viktor Orban is using his second term to further consolidate his power, eroding checks and balances by weakening the press, judiciary and civil society, while amping up the culture wars against imaginary domestic enemies—Muslims and gays—that allegedly threaten Christian civilization.
Narendra Modi, Orban’s brother from another mother, is taking things to a new and terrifying level in India. Not a single day goes by without something suggesting that the world’s most populous liberal democracy is descending into authoritarianism. I recently wrote about the state of Gujarat’s August 15 release of the Hindu men who in 2002 gang-raped Bilkis Bano, a Muslim woman, and smashed the head of her three-year-old daughter; since then, Modi has condemned not their release, but those who are “defaming” the state of Gujarat. And a few weeks ago, Indian income tax authorities and other executive agencies raided several organizations, including Oxfam India, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting child health and education; the Centre for Policy Research, the country’s most prestigious foundation that has provided seed funding to media startups critical of the Modi government. NDTV, the only remaining TV channel that has had the temerity to question Modi, has been the object of a hostile takeover by a business buddy of the prime minister.
Even more alarmingly, Modi’s extremist virus is spreading beyond India’s border and radicalizing the Hindus among India’s far-flung diaspora. Just this week, a procession of young Hindu men marched through a Muslim neighborhood in Leicester, England, chanting provocative Hindu nationalist slogans, just as militant Hindus have in India.
Despite this, Modi is so far on track to be re-elected in 2024. He has remained wildly popular with India’s overwhelmingly Hindu majority; rigged, like Orban, the electoral rules to give himself an incumbent advantage; and totally devastated the country’s already weak opposition. At this stage, there are only two scenarios for India going forward. Under the first, the country’s economy continues to limp along, thanks to the fruits of the 1994 liberalization that Modi has done little to advance, while he continues to mobilize the majority Hindu population behind his religious nationalist agenda to cleanse the country of its “nonindigenous religions”—code for Islam and Christianity—without any pushback. Should this happen, Indian liberalism will continue to lose ground till the country becomes a quasi-theocratic Hindu nationalist state.
In the second scenario, Modi’s designs generate resistance in the form of political unrest. After all, it is not easy to simply oppress 200 million Muslims and 30 million Christians without retaliation. Indeed, the Leicester Hindu men’s march has already generated a counter Muslim march in Birmingham, England. In this case, India may at some point retrieve its liberal ideals simply to put an end to the religious warfare that Modi has triggered, much as Europe did in the 18th century after 150 years of bloodletting by Catholics and Protestants. But things will get much worse for liberal democracy in India before they get better. The only way India escapes these dire possibilities is if its opposition miraculously gets its act together in 2024 and either defeats Modi or severely cuts his party’s parliamentary majority.
Grounds for Hope
India is squarely part of the intensifying “democratic recession” that Stanford University’s Larry Diamond notes the world entered 16 years ago. Indeed, Freedom House found that last year the number of countries moving away from democracy exceeded those moving toward it by a wide margin, yet again.
This brings me back to America, which, for me, is the lynchpin of global liberal democracy. As the most successful polity that, after a very dark past, has managed to advance human rights along with economic prosperity, America has demonstration effects for the rest of the world. Dramatic as this might sound, if liberalism fails here, it will fall everywhere.
But as I noted above, I detect a ray of hope in America. Why? It’s not like Trump, who got the populist ball rolling, is close to giving up. To the contrary, he upped the ante—yet again—this week at an Ohio rally where he went full QAnon before adoring throngs, embracing this twisted conspiracy movement’s symbols and tropes, even warning direly in its lingo that a “storm is coming.” Trump is almost certain to run again in 2024, which means that the odds of political violence are going to increase exponentially.
Meanwhile, his political rise has spawned within the conservative movement at least three reactionary factions that have no use for liberal democracy, since it curbs their ability to deploy the iron fist of the state to advance their goals. These are, to wit, the “national conservatives,” who despise America’s diversity and want to reorganize the country around religiously, linguistically and ethnically homogenous lines; the Claremont Institute political conservatives who want nothing more than to crush the liberal political enemy and its regime of political correctness, if necessary by crashing America, like Flight 93, into the ground; and the Catholic integralists who fear America’s advancing secularism and progressivism and want to secure a safe space for themselves by ending the separation of religion and state and redefining the country around their precepts. These are overlapping—not mutually exclusive—schools of thought and pose a potent intellectual and political challenge to American liberal democracy.
So why am I still hopeful about my adopted country?
Because the forces of civilization here have not yet been exhausted, to paraphrase British Prime Minister William Gladstone. They are mounting a powerful defense against Trump and the perverse intellectual progeny he has spawned. Powerful figures and voices from virtually every conservative faction—neocons, paleocons, religious conservatives, libertarians—have risen to speak out. They are not just coming together in a new center-right fusion; they are also joining hands with sensible liberals to mount a united resistance against the illiberalism of the right and to make a renewed case for core liberal values: pluralism, toleration, openness and civility. At the same time, they are reinforcing liberal institutions against a populist takeover by reforming the Electoral Count Act, experimenting with creative new fixes for the polarization that our broken primary system is generating, strengthening civilian control over the military and much, much more.
And then there is the Jan. 6 congressional committee, whose efforts to hold Trump accountable for his role in instigating the insurrection are finally bearing fruit. He might not only be indicted in a court of law, but also in the court of public opinion, where slowly his former defenders are beginning to turn on him. No less than Ann Coulter, herself an agent provocateur, has declared that he is done.
Our Ongoing Mission
The UnPopulist very much considers itself part of this growing liberal effort. We believe that liberal democracy, for all its flaws, is the best political system yet devised, and that it needs to be reformed, not burned down. To defend it, we will, in Frederick Douglass’ words, “unite with anyone to do right, and no one to do wrong.” We will build intellectual bridges with anyone who wants to defend liberal democracy, while not refraining from calling out liberalism’s enemies, even if they were former friends.
We realize that this is going to be a long, occasionally bitter, struggle. But with your support and encouragement, dear readers, we will persevere. We have big plans for the next year. But we also want to pause for a moment to highlight what we consider to be the five UnPopulist essays that best capture our mood and mission. You’ll see links to them and brief excerpts below.
As we look ahead, wish us luck. We want to continue to deliver high-quality work to your inbox free of charge. In return, all we ask is that you continue to subscribe, ask your friends to do the same, and share, like, circulate and respectfully comment. Your support is our currency.
From Our First Year: Five Pieces That Capture Our Mood and Mission
The five articles appear below in the order in which they were published.
Fabio Rojas, “The Good and Bad of Critical Race Theory,” February 8, 2022
From the article:
”Outright rejections of critical race theory are unhelpful. Classical liberals have something to learn from this school of thought—and also have something to teach it: They need to fully appreciate that people like to create racial groups and gain status and advantage from membership in these groups. But what advocates need to learn is that liberal institutions such as free speech, private property and limited government are not their enemy. These things can meaningfully address racial repression in a way that statist solutions cannot—no matter how much these solutions put radical equality at the center of the critical race project.”
Aaron Ross Powell and Shikha Dalmia, “The Past, Present and Future of Populist Politics in America,” Reactionary Minds podcast, May 6, 2022
From the interview:
”A populist movement, if you read the literature on it, which admittedly is murky, it's about pitting the ‘real’ people against some other entity, and that entity is the elites. The elites are considered to be these corrupt oligarchs, and the people are supposed to be something pure, representing something good. There is instantly this division between the elite, which controls ‘the establishment,’ and the pure people whose interests are being avoided. Now, even that exactly doesn't capture the problem with the term populism. The term populism gets its bad odor from the fact that it's not just that the real people are trying to get their way and have their preferred policies enacted, it is more that they want to flatten certain elements of liberalism, the deliberative process, the representative process, because they believe it's been captured by some bad people, by The Establishment which is not representing them.”
Thomas Shull, “Zelenskyy: The Quintessential Classical Liberal Hero,” May 11, 2022
From the article:
”The wellsprings of the [West’s] response [to the war in Ukraine] are many: shock at Russia’s naked belligerence; the eruption of massed warfare in Europe after decades of relative peace; the threat of a broader conflagration; the extraordinary tenacity of Ukraine’s David against Russia’s Goliath. But at the heart of it all is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a man whose surprising leadership is a compelling blend of ancient and classically liberal virtues, among them courage, fair-mindedness and a resolution to serve his people, forgoing the abuses of populism. At a time when the West is deeply anxious and divided over liberal democracy, Zelenskyy is helping us remember that we do care about liberal democracy, and that it is, perhaps, stronger and nobler than we think.”
William Galston, “There Is No Good Alternative to Liberal Democracy,” May 14, 2022
From the article:
”Many people on the religious and nationalistic right have turned sour on liberal democracy because, they claim, it offers no glue or vision for unifying and ordering society. So two pivotal questions arise: Can liberalism survive? Should it? We must hope so, because all the alternatives are far worse. To begin, let’s be clear about what’s at stake. The antonym of ‘liberal’ is not ‘conservative,’ but rather “total.’ Liberal democracy is limited democracy.”
Asma Uddin, “The Religious Freedom of Muslims and Christian Evangelicals Is Bound Together,” July 16, 2022
From the article:
”The collective dynamics end up in a triangle of sorts: The more the Left challenges Christians’ traditional beliefs in marriage, the more fiercely Christians oppose everything the Left stands for. Correspondingly, the more advocacy for Muslims’ rights becomes a ‘lefty’ thing to do, the more conservative Christians oppose Muslims’ rights. How do we find our way of out this quagmire? Recent political science data suggests a path forward.”
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