Populist Mobilization and the Crisis of Liberal Democray

Friday, March 30, 2018
Cordova (InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile)
Dietmar Schirmer , Political and Social Sciences, Zepelin Univerity, Germany
Liberal democracies in Europe and beyond find themselves challenged by a variety of populist parties and movements. Political science’s search for the causes of populist mobilization revolve primarily around the question whether it is driven by increases in economic insecurity or fear of immigration and cultural diversity. While I agree with the assumption that these are indeed the prime candidates for explaining popular discontent, I suspect that they cannot properly explain why this discontent is being articulated as populism. For this, it might be helpful to turn to democratic theory, and especially the epistemological tension inherent in liberal democracy, i.e. the liberal orientation toward the protection of individual rights and the demotic orientation toward the collective exercise of popular sovereignty.

Populist rhetoric is unambiguous about its frustration with unresponsive political systems and ineffective political participation. In the paper, I argue that this reflects that the liberal ingredients of liberal democracy have increasingly overwhelmed the democratic ones. This can be observed both in democratic theory (not only in the Rawlsian mainstream, but also, for instance, in the variants of deliberative democracy) as well as democratic practice (were the logic of electoral competition has forced parties to become more alike and the need to build consensus incentivized political actors to frame issues as technical rather than normative matters). The paper builds on the “post-political democracy” literature in political theory, the depoliticization-literature in empirical political science, and early-20th century critics of liberal democracy (the most eloquent of whom was Carl Schmitt).

  • Schirmer, Liberal Democracy.pdf (276.1 kB)