The rise of populist political candidates and movements in the United States and some European countries has provoked many questions about democracy, its effectiveness as a governing model, and its specific characteristics in America and elsewhere. Elites in the United States and the European Union are especially troubled by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, and similar backlash against elites and government institutions elsewhere.
But voter anger is natural at a time when many voters are profoundly frustrated with economic conditions—and with political elites. Moreover, even angry citizens widely accept that whatever its flaws, democracy has important advantages over its real-world alternatives.
America’s founders established a republic with elected leaders and a limited government because they understood human nature. As religious men, they knew that both humans and human institutions are inherently flawed. As a result, they believed, it was essential that society should impose limits on government. In the Federalist Papers, a series of anonymous essays urging ratification of the U.S. Constitution and written variously by James Madison (who became the fourth U.S. president), Alexander Hamilton (who became the first Secretary of the Treasury) and John Jay (who became the first chief justice of the Supreme Court), the authors argued that
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
Thus, they continued, it was not enough to subordinate government to the people through elections—it is also necessary “to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.” In the United States, this led to three equal branches of government, the executive, the legislative and the judicial, with the legislative branch—which the founders believed most powerful in a republic—further divided into a Senate and a House of Representatives that would limit one another.
European parliamentary systems, most of which evolved organically rather than as products of a comprehensive effort at a specific point in time, typically merge executive and legislative functions, drawing executive government ministers from the parliamentary majority. However, their multi-party systems are more fractured than the U.S. two-party system. The coalition governments that often result from this constrain government power in a different way, by setting the political interests of governing parties against one another. Though America’s first president George Washington warned against “the spirit of party,” which he saw as corrosive to good government by elevating private interests above the public good, successive generations of leaders and thinkers in the United States and elsewhere have come to see parties, and opposition, as necessary.
At the same time, democracies rely heavily on a free press to limit government. Benjamin Franklin, one of the drafters of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, wrote that “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics and limited monarchies derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.”
How does this connect to today’s populist leaders and movements? Because the limits on government power in the United States and many European democracies make it difficult for governments to act. At the same time, free media subject governments to extensive public criticism for their inaction. It is therefore hardly surprising that governments are sometimes slow or ineffective, that this makes some voters angry, and that continuous media scrutiny of government inaction and public irritation undermines faith in government institutions. From this perspective, populism is a predictable consequence of democracy’s political model—a model deliberately designed to limit government power by limiting government action.
In fact, populism can serve as a useful and constructive force in conveying strongly held public sentiments to leaders. In a well-functioning democratic political system, populism can stimulate reforms, forcing governments to act when they otherwise might not be able to do so. Over time, this can address the sources of public frustration and reduce the appeal of populist slogans and candidates.
Populism’s two greatest dangers arise from the fact that the popular will can be vague or poorly informed and the possibility that populist leaders might abuse their power. These are not new worries; as George Washington began his second term in office, France’s populist and revolutionary Committee of Public Safety began its so-called Reign of Terror. Before this explosion of brutal violence, the French Revolution divided America’s founders. Washington’s vice President, John Adams (who succeeded Washington in office), found the bloody revolution deeply disturbing and questioned its future, while his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (who eventually succeeded Adams) initially saw it as a necessary renewal of France’s corrupt aristocratic system.
Most democracies minimize the first of these risks through representative systems—voters elect representatives who in turn make and implement laws. Still, at times they turn to direct democracy, such as referenda, to seek public support for important decisions. For example, in many American cities, counties and towns, voters (as taxpayers) must approve issuing bonds to borrow money for government expenditures. In other cases—like the Brexit vote or Columbia’s recent surprising rejection of a draft peace agreement with Marxist FARC rebels—national leaders chose to subject key decisions to public approval after apparently overestimating public support for their preferred policies. These outcomes are therefore often leadership failures, not structural weaknesses of democratic government.
The second risk, abuse of power, is a danger in every political system; as Britain’s Lord Acton reportedly said, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” However, America’s founders designed its political system specifically to resist this threat. While the U.S. system has not been perfect in preventing official abuses of power, it has generally succeeded in avoiding them and—failing that—in exposing and punishing them. Indeed, the consequences of public exposure and humiliation are among the strongest deterrents to official misconduct. It is precisely because Americans (and citizens in other countries) see abuses of power as so dangerous that charges of corruption or other illegal conduct are so common and so damaging in politics, whether connected to the Clinton Foundation, Donald Trump’s business dealings, or similar accusations in other nations.
The fundamental problem for all human societies is that no matter how we build our political systems, our politics arises from relationships between specific people with particular and personal aims. Democratic political systems try to establish constraints on those relationships to limit the pursuit of private interests at the public expense, but do not always succeed. Other political systems seek to manage this problem in other ways, but have been demonstrably less effective in historical terms, often because they are more selective in applying the rules. (Democratic systems can also be selective, but are usually less selective.) As former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried.” Despite populism’s real dangers, Churchill still seems right today.