Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in Brazil. Donald Trump in the US. In other countries, similar politicians are gaining popular support. Some are calling these politicians “populists”. I don’t really know what they mean by this term. The populists that I know better are Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s president for almost 20 years in the mid-20th century and Juan Peron, a leading political figure in Argentina in the same time period. What they had in common? Both fought the communist influence in Latin America, favored the labor movement and were anti-liberal. They were also extremely personalist, leading to something that could be understood as a cult of personality. I completely fail to see important similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro on the one hand and Vargas and Peron on the other. But I can see some similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro. The latter two both came to power against what the left became in the last few decades.
Once upon a time, there was a young German philosopher called Karl Marx. He was very well read but wasn’t very bright on economics. Anyway, he decided that he would correct the classical liberal economic theory of Adam Smith. The result was that Marx concluded that in the center of the economy, and actually in the center of history itself, was the class struggle between the workforce and the bourgeoisie. Of course, although appealing on the surface, Marx’s economic theory is pure nonsense. Maybe Marx himself knew it, for at the end of his life he was more interested in living a peaceful life in London than in leading a revolution. But this didn’t stop Marxists from starting Revolutions throughout the world, beginning in Russia.
Ludwig Von Mises brilliant pointed out that Marxism would never work as the economic foundation of a country, for it ignored private property. Without private property, there is no price formation and without prices economic calculation is impossible. In doing so, Mises founded the Austrian School of Economics. The economic debate between Austrians and Marxists ensued, but arguing with a Marxist is like playing chess with a pigeon. He will climb on the board, knock down the pieces and believe that he won. Regardless, facts don’t care about your feelings, and reality proved again and again that Mises was right.
However, at the same time, something else was happening. In Italy, a Marxist named Antonio Gramsci concluded that armed revolution was not the best way to power. He believed that a cultural approach would be better. Some German scholars in Frankfurt concluded pretty much the same. Their question was “why the proletariat will not follow us?”. The answer was that they were too alienated by capitalist culture.
Following Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, Marxists all over the world gave up studying economics and decided to study culture. They concluded that everyone can feel oppressed. The class struggle seized to be between factory workers and factory owners and turned into a fight between man and woman, black and white, gay and straight. Identity politics was born.
And that’s how the “populists” came to power. It is not so much that the common people (and especially conservatives and libertarians) are crazily in love with Bolsonaro or Trump. It is just that people eventually get tired of being called oppressors. The left, once legitimately concerned with the conditions of the poor, ignored that the best solution for poverty is the free market. Instead, they decided they would crush the common people they swore to protect, calling them homophobic, misogynists and so on. Common people answered by voting for whoever was on the other side of the political spectrum.
Usually, the debates in Germany’s highest political body – The Bundestag – right before Christmas are not that exciting for the public. Parliamentarians are exhausted from long nights and intense discussions from the past weeks. But on Friday the 14th December, the last scheduled plenary session this year, something remarkable happened in the Bundestag, symbolically standing for the erosion of political norms, which democracies experience for a few years. The topics this day were not too fascinating – they discussed how to make the country more appealing to top-level researchers and if fixed book prices should be abolished. Not trifling, but nothing too crucial either.
But around noon the right-wing party AfD decided to initiate a Hammelsprung. The Hammelsprung is a control mechanism to ensure two crucial things.
First, it can be used to achieve absolute clearness of a voting result. Since the counting of votes mostly takes place via counting hands, a Hammelsprung can help to bring about a final decision in close polls. The process is relatively old-fashioned and quite funny in my opinion: The parliamentarians have to get out of the plenary hall first and then reenter through doors labeled “Yes,” “No,” and “Abstention” while an official counts these votes loudly.
Second, it is a tool to assure that crucial decisions of the parliament are made by a majority of the parliamentarians. If a parliamentary group has doubts that more than half of the parliament’s members are present to an assembly, it can propose a Hammelsprung to determine the exact amount of parliamentarians present. If there are less than half of the parliamentarians present, the parliament does not have a quorum and thus the parliamentary session gets canceled.
How the parliament works
At this point, it is important to mention that the German parliament is a working parliament rather than a debating one (such as the British house of commons). Hence, most of the parliamentary work takes place in exclusive committees. These committees consist of members from each party and are all dedicated to certain political topics such as defense policy, health policy and so on and so forth. Parties look for alliances to back up their policy proposals within these committees. Thus, the majority ratios regarding political proposals are played out not in the big parliamentary debates, but in rather small expert working groups. So one can expect that what gets resolved within a committee, gets resolved in the parliament as well.
These committees meet simultaneously to the parliamentary debates. On top, a parliamentarian has to inform himself, manage his team, be present in his election district and many more things. So it is impossible for him to be present in every parliamentary session. So over the years the norm established, that not every member of parliament need to be physically present during the parliamentary session, but only the experts in the certain relevant subject. During their election campaign, the AfD aggressively attacked this particular norm by labeling parliamentarians of established parties as “lazy” and “self-indulgent”, referring to the many empty seats during parliamentary debates.
A battle against norms and the establishment
The AfD used the Hammelsprung on Friday the 14th December in the second meaning mentioned above: To enforce a cancellation of the parliamentary session regarding the acquisition of top-level researchers. This was not a topic related move to ensure the necessary quota, it was rather yet another milestone in the ongoing battle against existing norms. We can say this for certain because AfD didn’t even re-enter the hall: they purposely stayed outside in order to enforce a cancellation of the session. Alexander Gauland, the party whip of the AfD, explained that they wanted to show that the AfD wants to give the government a “hard time” and added: “He that will not hear must feel.” This can be seen as an act of revenge against the parliament because the AfD’s candidate for the vice presidency of the Bundestag failed to get elected a second time in a row. Contrary to their expectations, enough parliamentarians somehow made their way quickly enough into the parliament to reach the quota necessary to proceed with the debate.
How norms foster social cohesion
But the danger remains: There are several tools populist parties (right or left wing) can use to impede effective governing within a perfectly legal framework. This development is not at all a specifically German one. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provide an in-depth description of the erosion of norms in the American political system in their book How Democracies Die. According to their theory, functioning democracies do not only rely on a thought-out constitution and functioning political organs but also on shared norms. The most important norms for Ziblatt & Levitsky are mutual tolerance and forbearance.
Mutual tolerance describes the recognition of the political enemy as an opposed actor instead as an existential threat to the country. Contrary, forbearance means to restrain the urge of using every legal means to achieve a political end.
It is certainly not too difficult to quantify the erosion of these two norms in America, specifically when one pays closer attention to the skyrocketing amount of “filibustering” in the Congress or, as seen recently, to the increasing times of governmental shutdowns caused by a lack of agreement between Republicans and Democrats over the federal budget. We can see the effects of this abandonment of norms on a daily basis: The more hostile political environment, the lack of respect for other political opinions, the increasing difficulties for finding a compromise between parties. The political opposition is on the verge of drifting away from constructive criticism towards impeding the government in every possible way.
A liberal response?
In my opinion, there are two ways to react to this threat.
First, we could change the rules of the game and narrow the legal framework for processes which can be used to impede effective governing such as filibustering and the Hammelsprung. I do not think that this is the right way to counteract populist parties (or tendencies more generally). These processes exist for a good reason. But they hinge on the observance of forbearance. There was no extensive problem of filibustering in the Roosevelt, Truman, or Wilson administrations, although their policies were also quite controversial. The problem is not the rules themselves, but the lack of shared norms for a solid foundation to put them to good use. Furthermore, changing the rules would only foster the thought that a perfect constitution is somehow reachable. And here I see the danger, that we might jeopardize the status of the law as a neutral guardrail for society and it instead becomes an arbitrary mean to achieve political ends, as Frederic Bastiat describes in his work The Law.
The second option is to adjust our own behavior to the changing circumstances brought by the new populist players one the pitch. Therefore the established political actors need to carefully reevaluate the importance of certain norms and if necessary transform them. Of course, this is not as easy as said: It presupposes a willingness to cooperate among established actors (which is nothing to take for granted in today’s times) as well as a vigilant public, which backs up those norms. Additionally, norms do not emerge from scratch. They are rather the result of a slow change in the mutual understanding of social human interaction.
What the future will bring
The AfD already has announced that they want to continue to use every legal (and in some cases illegal) way to make it harder to govern the country, which is their way to battle the establishment. Whereas the established parties tried various strategies to cope with this right-wing populist party ranging from ignoring to direct confrontation. Still, nobody knows exactly how to deal with these new political circumstances. But what is for certain is the political landscape is further going to change; and thus also politicians and parties will need new strategies, structures, and norms.
Although this development is mostly seen as the road to a gloomy and authoritarian future, I believe (or at least I hope) that democratic parties will find new ways to counter right and left wing populist proposals. Instead of trying to engineer our legal framework to preclude populist from polls, politicians should focus on giving scope for spontaneous order and new alliances. This process is incredibly exciting to me. As Steve Davies describes it, we are currently witnessing a “great realignment” of party structures in Europe. And where old structures break up, there is room for new ones. European liberal party leaders (carried by the Axis of Linder – Rutte – Macron) are still looking for their place in this new power vacuum. Nobody can predict where this development will lead us. That is why we must proceed to fight for our liberty: inside and outside of political party structures.
- What cafés did for liberalism Adam Gopnik, New Yorker
- How the Catholic Church created our liberal world Tanner Greer, American Conservative
- How meritocracy and populism reinforce each other’s fault Ross Douthat, New York Times
- Extraterrestrial preservation of terrestrial heritage Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? A conservative knows when she has lost.
A conservative respects the status quo for the sake of stability. The reactionary rebels against it. Unfortunately, it is the reactionary impulse within Brexit that now threatens to hem in the liberties of British citizens, and threaten the rights of foreign residents, for a long time to come. A looser but productive relationship that Britain could have had with the European Union was lost, first at Maastricht in 1992, then again at Lisbon in 2007. A conservative recognizes this loss and adapts her politics to the new landscape. The reactionary tries to reconstruct those lost pasts in vain as the chaotic debates in Britain and the increasingly disappointing outcome illustrates.
Does this mean that referendums are bad? Do they only embolden radicals and reactionaries? It depends. If referendums are used to rubberstamp the decisions of a party in power, or as a way of deferring political judgement, then they are useless at best, dangerous at worst. By contrast, if they are part of the fabric of a democracy, and act as a real veto on constitutional change, rather than a populist rallying point, then they can be enormously valuable. They act as an additional check on the political establishment that might be irrationally fixated on some new governance structure. It ensures that every major change carries with it some level of majority support.
Ten years ago, I wrote a monograph Total Recall: How direct democracy can improve Britain. I advocated supplementing representative democracy with a norm or statutory requirement for referendums on constitutional issues and new local initiative powers. I focused on direct democracy in US states that mean that US state elections often involve both voting for representatives and on propositions. Referendums are required for state constitutional changes. In some states, citizens can initiate new legislation through propositions.
There are parallel constitutional requirements in force in parts of Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Norway and Ireland. It is hardly a coincidence that direct democratic mechanisms have slowed down European integration wherever they have had statutory rather than merely advisory force. Ireland had to go to the polls several times to get the ‘right’ answer but at least this meant that a majority of Irish eventually accepted the new EU arrangements. By contrast, Switzerland and Norway, against the wishes of their political establishments, took European integration only so far before settling with generous trade relations and much more limited political integration. The cost-benefit calculus of their arrangements are up for debate, but fewwould deny their legitimacy. Britain’s future position, by contrast, may turn out to look much worse and all because its people never had the chance to say ‘no’ until long after the facts on the ground changed.
It’s the ability to say ‘no’ that’s important, with the implication that the status quo must still be a viable option. A people cannot be legislators. Mass votes can’t add up to complex judgements to inform actionable law. Hence the Brexit referendum for leaving the EU for an unknown alternative was bound to lead to chaos which, in the long run, may undermine the legitimacy of representative government, let alone popular democracy, rather than strengthen it. There is no status quo ante to return to.
At the time I was writing Total Recall, the spirits of referendums never voted on haunted British politics. Referendums were promised on adopting the Euro and the European Constitution. Both were abandoned when the Government realized they would almost certainly lose. So we stayed out of the Euro but signed what became the Lisbon Treaty. This turned out to be a deadly combination that eventually led to Brexit. The Euro is quite badly managed as an economic scheme. As a political mechanism, however, it binds members of the Euro much closer together. Leaving the European Union, as Britain is doing, is perilous and costly. Leaving the Eurozone would be even more difficult as it would involve establishing a new currency from scratch. If New Labour had been serious about putting Britain in a federal united states of Europe, it should have gone all in with the Euro from the beginning.
So Brexit could have been avoided but not by ignoring majority sentiments. If British referendums were constitutionally mandated rather than the random outcome of internal (in this case, Conservative) party politics; if referendums were required to change the status quo rather than a mechanism for a belligerent minority to relitigate past losses, then, like Switzerland and Norway, we would be in a much better position now.
Will our political leaders learn this lesson for the future? That I doubt.
- Will Mexico get the populist “full package”? Alberto Mingardi, EconLog
- What is populism? Christopher Caldwell, Claremont Review of Books
- The poverty of the Brexit debate Oliver Wiseman, CapX
- Jews revolutionized the university. Will Asians do the same? Barbara Kay, Quillette