The Rise of Populism
Notre Dame experts analyze the worldwide decline of democracy
Vittorio Hösle had a front-row seat for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a philosopher and public intellectual held in high regard in Germany.
That seminal event kicked off what he now calls a golden quarter century in which liberal democracy not only flourished but was seen as the logical crowning achievement of civilized progress. Yet the worldwide rise of populist autocracies in the last five years has punctured that confidence and raised troubling questions that fascinate and worry Hösle, who holds concurrent positions in the departments of philosophy, political science and German at Notre Dame.
“These phenomena show us that the classical liberal democracy is not, as people believed in the 1990s, the natural outcome of history, but it is almost an endangered species that we have to make a great effort to maintain,” he said. “It is an intrinsic danger in modern democracies that for many reasons — the erosion of the working class, the creation of a lot of people who feel declassed and not taken seriously in the globalized world — it is likely that pressure towards authoritarianism will increase everywhere. That is fundamentally the thesis of my book.”
The book is “Global Centrifugal Forces: A Mapping of the Present from the Point of View of a Philosophy of History.” First published in German in 2019, a new translation into Portuguese is coming out this year due to interest in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro embodies the fundamental tenets of populism. This third edition includes 50 new pages on the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Abby Córdova, an expert in Latin American politics who was recently selected as a 2022 Harry Frank Guggenheim Distinguished Scholar, is an associate professor in the Keough School of Global Affairs. She shares Hösle’s concerns about the recent rise of populism and explains its basic parameters.
“An important component of populist governance is oftentimes to undermine the other branches of government as leaders see themselves as having this mandate from the people,” she said. “In addition to attacking the legitimacy of democratic institutions, populist leaders engage in these narratives that infuse fear among the population of supposed threats that are coming or there, setting themselves up as the only one that can provide safety.”
Hösle and Córdova specialize in different areas of the world (Europe and Latin America) and discern different causes for the rise of populist autocracies in their respective regions. Yet they share a similar concern about the threats to political freedom around the world, as well as a personal connection to the dangerous outcomes of declining democracy.
Hösle grew up in a Germany chastened by the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s that led to the Nazi reign of Adolf Hitler and a world war. He witnessed the political suppression of dissent under the communist rule of the Soviet Union.
Córdova grew up in El Salvador during a civil war and has watched a democratically elected president, Nayib Bukele, follow the path of other populist authoritarian leaders who consolidate power in the executive branch. Bukele has also retaliated against academics who speak out about his abuses.
Hösle was born in his mother’s native Italy and moved to his father’s native Germany at the age of 6, which explains the mixture of cultures in his name. He was a polyglot from a young age, studying Latin from the age of 10 and picking up English by reading Shakespeare. He speaks seven languages fluently and reads 10 more, including ancient Greek and Sanskrit.
He raced through college, earning a doctorate with a concentration in philosophy, classics and Sanskrit when he was only 21. Four years later, he earned his “habilitation,” a second title required in the German system for accreditation as a university teacher. These feats sparked comparisons with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who also began teaching university at 25, and Boris Becker, a tennis prodigy at a young age.
Public intellectuals in Germany can attain a celebrity status rare in the United States, and Hösle was the subject of two documentaries shown on TV throughout Europe. His 34 written or edited books and 180 scholarly articles range from the tragedies of Sophocles and the spy thrillers of John le Carré to his magnum opus, the 1,000-page “Morals and Politics.”
Hösle came to Notre Dame in 1999 as the Paul Kimball Professor of Arts and Letters and was the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study. He said he came to America as a natural admirer of President George H.W. Bush because his party helped with German reunification and promoted global free trade. Then Hösle watched the party change while the Democrats became less isolationist and xenophobic by comparison.
“That the party roles changed quite radically was for me a very fascinating aspect,” he said. “I decided to write this book to understand what’s going on.”
The first warning sign he saw was the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, which marked the first cross-border attack in Europe since 1945. But he calls 2016 the “annus horribilis of the 21st century.”
That was the year of the Brexit referendum, the first withdrawal from the European Union since its 1993 inception. In Turkey, an attempted coup led to a political crackdown and shift toward authoritarianism. The Philippines elected a president who had openly bragged that he would kill criminals and then pardon himself. And the United States elected Donald Trump.
“And for demagogues that’s exactly the tinder they need in order to inflame a society.” —Vittorio Hösle
The immediate causes, Hösle said, were forces of globalization and automation that had hollowed out the working class over decades. Growing inequality sparked anger toward the elites leaving others behind. Blue-collar jobs were shipped overseas or replaced by machines, and the frustration was felt most strongly among white males.
Women now outpace men by 3 to 2 in college graduation rates, leading to better jobs. The new jobs require social skills rather than physical strength, threatening men with a loss of status.
“The other aspect that is important to explain this populist backlash is the loss of the traditional male role,” he said. “And for demagogues that’s exactly the tinder they need in order to inflame a society.”
Hösle said the results in Europe are seen most clearly in Hungary and Poland, with Slovenia leaning in the same direction. Populist leaders there, employing folksy propaganda that appeals to emotions, have exploited anger and nationalist sentiment to attack intellectuals as elite globalists. The leaders claim a mandate from the people to curtail freedom of the press and undermine the independence of the judiciary.
But like the fascists in the earlier era, populist leaders have come to power legally and then methodically undermined democratic institutions that limit their authority, he said. Maybe most dangerous is their efforts to question the idea of objective truth, such as wrongfully claiming fraud in elections.
“I think in Germany, you are aware of the enormous dangers of authoritarianism, probably more than other countries because we have gone through it,” Hösle said. “But we have only a chance to avoid the future if you try to learn lessons from the past.”
Córdova is similarly concerned by the recent rise of populism in Latin America because leaders there have also consolidated power and curtailed political freedom.
While the outcomes are similar, the reasons and methods have differed there because globalization appears to play a less influential role in explaining the decline of democracy. Instead, Córdova pointed to corruption and organized crime as the major drivers that recently softened the ground for populist leaders in several countries.
“Citizens became disenchanted because they felt democracy really wasn’t delivering for them,” she said. “This led the population to seek alternatives. People’s trust in conventional political parties was undermined because either right-wing or left-wing parties were accused once they took office of committing massive corruption.”
“Citizens became disenchanted because they felt democracy really wasn’t delivering for them.”—Abby Córdova
Secondly, Latin America has among the highest incidence of criminal violence in the world, combined with a evidence that the criminal organizations are intimidating or colluding with the government.
“Some frustrated people started to favor politicians with an iron fist rhetoric, hoping they would to fix these problems, contain corruption and improve safety,” Córdova said. “You have the room for these populists to campaign around these issues as strong leaders.”
Examples include her own country of El Salvador and Brazil, but also signs of a slippery slope in Mexico. Bukele, Bolsonaro and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador were elected to office but are now questioning the same electoral institutions under which they won before.
“As they start to think about how to remain in power in the next election, they question the integrity of elections and undermine confidence among the population, particularly seeing that the numbers are not favorable in the polls as in the case of Bolsonaro,” she said.
Córdova, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Vanderbilt University, first came to Notre Dame in 2019 as a guest scholar in the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. Previously, she was a visiting scholar at Harvard University and a Fulbright scholar, and worked as a consultant for the World Bank’s Poverty and Gender section for Latin America.
She noted that like the U.S., Latin American countries generally have a presidential system with direct elections for the executive branch. Many European countries have a parliamentary system where the legislative branch elects the country’s leader.
“Populism finds fertile ground in countries that have a presidential system,” she said. “In the Americas as a whole, that ability to concentrate power in one branch of government is more likely to materialize.”
However, she also points out that “populism is not determined by ideology itself.”
In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez rose to power through a left-wing populism that sprung from opposition to U.S. imperialism and international companies exploiting national resources. Obrador in Mexico also campaigned from the left.
“In practice, ideology might influence the kinds of policies right-wing or left-wing populists might implement,” Córdova said. “For right-wing leaders, the emphasis is more on fighting crime and militarization and promoting growth, rather than the social justice policies and protecting vulnerable populations of a leftist government.
“However, the common elements of these leaders is militarization as a strategy to contain crime and trying to delegitimize democratic institutions.”
Neither Córdova nor Hösle predict that democracy will naturally regain dominance. Hösle said it is very difficult to re-establish democracy in places where it is lost. He said Germany had to go back to older leaders after the war and at least had some democratic traditions to fall back on.
“Democracy presupposes a certain culture, certain practices,” he said. “We all were very naive when we thought that Russia could become a democracy.”
Most countries instead have a long history of authoritarian dictatorship. Even the world’s oldest democracy, the United States, was recently added to a list of “backsliding democracies” in a November report by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
“The world is becoming more authoritarian as nondemocratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression and many democratic governments suffer from backsliding by adopting their tactics of restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law,” the report found.
Córdova said that the most obvious outcome of the rise in populism is highly polarized countries. “That has created clashes in the streets between those who support the regime and those who criticize it,” she said. “This polarization is not just part of a democratic game; it can have really undermining consequences for democracy.”
One illustration of populism polarization is the current attitude toward vaccines. Anti-vaccine hot spots tend to be the same areas where national populists hold sway. These sentiments fit with the populist suspicions of government, globalization, multinational corporations and big media.
Academics such as Córdova and Hösle study causes, but solutions can be more difficult, partly because they risk accusations of partisanship.
“I’m not afraid of negative statements,” Hösle said. “If a person tries to overthrow the Constitution, I say that he tries to overthrow the Constitution. But this is based on an analysis of facts and actions. My political judgments are based on a complex ethical theory. They are more than subjective preferences based on feelings.”
Córdova agreed, even though she fears retaliation every time she talks about El Salvador.
“But at the same time, I realize that it’s just impossible to stay quiet when you actually not only care about the countries and the well-being of the populations,” she said, “but really your work as an academic is a platform to identify policy solutions and let others know what’s going on in these countries.”