A weasel word is a term used in academic or political discourse whose meaning is so imprecise or badly defined that it impedes the formulation of coherent thought on the subject to which it is applied, or leads to unsubstantiated conclusions. In this symposium we consider several key terms central to the study of postcommunist politics and discuss the extent to which they fall into this category. The terms discussed here include regime terminology, the notion of postcommunism, the geographic entity “Eurasia,” socialism, populism, and neoliberalism.
“Populism” has claimed enormous amounts of popular and press attention, with the Brexit vote of 2016, the election of President Donald J. Trump, and the rise of self-proclaimed populists in Europe and elsewhere. But what exactly is populism? And is populism in Poland the same phenomenon as in the United States? Does populism have the same set of universal causes, or are there many paths to populist resurgence?
“Global Populisms and Their Challenges” finds that established mainstream political parties are the key enablers of populist challenges—and the key solution.
How do the successors to authoritarian ruling parties influence subsequent democratic party competition? The existing literature does not distinguish among these parties, nor does it differentiate among the distinct strategies of their adaptation to the collapse of authoritarian rule. As a result, the impact of these parties on democracy has been unclear and difficult to discern.
Since the publication of the Journal of Democracy began in 1990, the political climate has shifted from one of democratic gains and optimism to what Larry Diamond labels a “democratic recession.” Underlying these changes has been a reorientation of the major axis of political polarization, from a left-right divide defined largely in economic terms toward a politics based on identity. In a second major shift, technological development has had unexpected effects—including that of facilitating the rise of identity-based social fragmentation.
The failure of mainstream political-party competition fueled the rise of populism in Europe. Popular anxieties about immigration, economics, or cultural change are not sufficient to explain the surge in populist support. Mainstream parties on both the center-left and the center-right have failed to represent constituencies, to articulate their needs, and to propose distinct policy solutions. The center-left has abandoned its traditional social-policy commitments, and the center-right has often failed to contain xenophobes and nativists.
The introduction to this symposium provides a working definition of populist parties and movements and then examines the rise in their support in Europe and the implications of populist rule. As does the symposium as a whole, it highlights the diversity of populisms, identifies the crisis of representation as a root cause of the populist rise, and examines the consequences of populist rule for formal institutions, informal norms of democracy, and representation itself.
Three themes emerge from this symposium. First, populism is largely shaped by (and is influencing) mainstream party political competition. Second, it has gained opportunities because of the economic policy decisions of governments regarding market reforms and liberal flows of labor and capital. Third, it is shaped by international forces such as the European Union. The symposium calls for further analyses of immigration, the fusion of cultural and economic threats, and what some call the “illiberal international.”
Poland and Hungary are two European countries where populist parties govern without coalition partners. Such undiluted power has meant they could target the formal institutions of accountability—courts, news media, and oversight agencies—and the informal norms of democracy, including tolerance and forbearance, by attacking the opposition, dividing societies, and reconfiguring national memories to justify their policies. The result is the authoritarian backsliding of these post-communist democratic pioneers.
In the second decade of the 21st century, the world experienced the rise of a global populist movement built around ethnic nationalism and hostility to foreigners and immigration. This movement has been led by the United States after the election of Donald J. Trump as President in 2016, and today includes leaders in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Brazil, and a host of parties throughout Europe that challenge the liberal international order. Canada, Australia, and the United States are three former British colonies that were settled by successive waves of immigrants from abroad.