Can the young save democracy from the grip of neoliberalism and populism?

Populism is not just a symptom of older people’s nostalgia for traditional values, writes Henrik P Bang. It is a rejection of a global neoliberal creed that pits individuals against each other. The hard-won social capital and notions of fairness that older generations prize have been replaced by a race for success in which human relationships exist as much online as in the real world. But if the young are not tempted by populism, they should realise that the technologies they have adopted can be used for political as well as technocratic ends.

woman phone

A woman uses her phone in Trafalgar Square. Photo: Vladimir Yaitskiy via a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

It is commonplace to discuss populism as an interim obstacle to liberal democracy’s development towards freedom and equality. Populism is widely claimed to result from a periodic growth and legitimation crisis, creating rising economic inequality and cultural backlash. This crisis threatens the crucial equilibrium between pluralism and stability in liberal democracy which is a precondition of keeping power in check and hinders its concentration and abuse. As Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart claim in Trump, Brexit and the Age of Populism (Harvard Kennedy School, 2016, p. 31):

‘Western societies face more unpredictable contests, anti-establishment populist challenges to the legitimacy of liberal democracy, and potential disruptions to long-established patterns of party competition’.

Populism is considered a menace because it leans towards authoritarianism and makes use of ‘gaslighting’ to win the public debate over those who try to reason and deliberate with it. Populism favours conflict over consensus and the national home of ‘the people’ over the globalised world of reflexive individuals.  But liberal democrats can console themselves that populism mostly enjoys support from the older generations (2016, p. 7):

‘They are the groups most likely to feel that they have become strangers from the predominant values in their own country, left behind by progressive tides of cultural change which they do not share.’

In particular, older white men are intolerant of all progress – ‘but this is a shrinking sector swimming against the tide of generational value change’ (p. 31). They will not be able to hinder the progress of values of globalisation and multiculturalism.

Populism in Norris’ and Inglehart’s analysis is more a generational conflict than a reaction against liberal democracy as such. In my view, however, it is neither. What nativist populism primarily reacts against are globalist neoliberalism, and its professionalisation and individualisation of politics from the local to the global. The reason why in particular ‘older white men’ have become so angry and hateful is surely not ‘traditional values’ but the undermining of the liberal democratic values of fairness, trust and equal opportunities that they have grown up with.

In fact, the neoliberalist takeover of liberal democracy has put an end to popular democracy as they know it. Only professionals from the private, public and voluntary domain count in globalist neoliberalism’s political system, and their networking and competitive games have left ‘the amateurs’ in their political community largely voiceless and powerless.  As Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser put it in their inspirinPopulism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2017):

‘we define populism as a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.

Norris and Inglehardt (2016, p. 6) take Mudde and Kaltwasser’s definition to mean that populism is ‘a loose set of ideas that share three core features: anti establishmentauthoritarianism, and nativism.’ But this is not their position. In his view ‘populism is most fundamentally juxtaposed to liberal democracy rather than to democracy per se or to any other model of democracy.’ Hence, Mudde and Kaltwasser do not think that populism is ipso facto authoritarian, but, like Norris and Inglehardt, they do blur the difference between liberal democracy and neoliberalist democracy.

However, later on in their book, Mudde and Kaltwasser do admit that although populism mostly has occurred within the context of liberal democracy, it is primarily a reaction against the surrender of all ‘government-able’ parties on the left-right axis to globalist neoliberalism’s political economy.  As they emphasise: [even] ‘social democratic parties…have embraced economic globalisation, European integration, and multiculturalism.’  No one has expressed this change of goal in democracy from equal freedom to unceasing competition and growth better than the former Danish Minister of Finance, the social democrat Bjarne Corydon. In an interview from 2013, he announced: “I believe in the competition state as the new welfare state.”

Social capital and equality have been sidelined

The crisis for social democratic parties and the flight of their members and supporters towards populist parties has very much to do with their surrender to globalist neoliberalism’s idea of progress as based on professional managers’ permanent reform efforts. This is also why populism cannot be identified by ‘cultural backlash’ and ‘economic decline’ only – or even primarily. In the US, for example, liberal democracy has always been claimed to rely on the accumulation of social capital in the civic culture.  As Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein most succinctly have defined it in Better Together (N.Y. Simon and Schuster 2004, p. 9):

‘Creating robust social capital takes time and effort. For the most part, it develops through extensive and time-consuming face-to-face conversation between two individuals or among small groups. [This is required] to build the trust and mutual understanding that characterise the relationships that are the basis of social capital. So we see no way that social capital can be created instantaneously or en masse.’

The social democrats who shaped the Nordic welfare states were heavily influenced by this notion of social capital inherent to the US civic culture concept (Almond and Verba 1963). Like ‘older white men’ in the US they grew up in ‘slower’, less globalised and diversified times where communication and interaction were very much face-to-face and local in nature. They were socialised into believing that deliberation, negotiation and compromise take time and depend on ‘copresence‘, and relations of mutual trust. But neoliberalism prioritises competition and inequality over social capital and equality, and that obviously favours those ‘professionals’ who are better at exercising their human faculties for getting success and ‘making a difference’.

No wonder, therefore, that the tension between actors in political institutions and associated individuals in the political community today has grown to the point where democracy is approaching an existential crisis. Liberal democracy has traditionally emphasised the relationship between the building of robust institutions and the accumulation of social capital. But the populist notion of popular sovereignty as relying on the exercise of strong and decisive leadership has always been an element of liberal democracy as well. So in a way liberal democracy and populism form a political unity:

Table 1: The liberal-populist model

System Lifeworld
Populism Strong, decisive leadership Popular sovereignty
Liberal democracy Robust institutions Social capital

The crisis for democracy is that globalist neoliberalism is articulated up against all four cells in the liberal-populist model: it revolves around the relationship between soft and smart professional managers in the system, and reflexive individuals in the lifeworld. Globalist neoliberalism has converted politics into a public spectacle for ‘celebrities’ front stage and a technocratic reform game for managers backstage. It’s no wonder that populism has succeeded in portraying ‘the system’ as ‘rigged’ and as having robbed ‘the people’ of its dignity and sovereignty.  Meanwhile, populism is a reminder of the ‘good old days’ where popular rule was more than an empty word.

Why the young reject populist politics

But populism does not resonate with the young, who have grown up with global neoliberalist management. This has ‘nudged’ them to seek success above all else from the day they met each other in the daycare centre. The young are not disciplined to comply by ‘hard power’ and ‘duty norms’ but by ‘soft power’ and ‘engagement norms’. In addition, they have learned from day one that their own life is not a life peculiar to themselves. Everyone has to be active, inventive, faster, ‘change ready’ and self-responsible to attain success in neoliberalism’s competitive world.

Most young people would consider the idea of ‘robust, creative social capital’ surreal. They have no time for living such a slow and quiet life in any of their everyday practices. To the degree that they communicate and interact ‘face-to-face’, it is mostly online. They live their life in the virtual realities provided by smartphones, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and technological gadgets. Understandably, the old do not feel so much at ease in this virtual space as do the young. To the old, all the new gadgets are merely tools, whereas to the young they are inseparable parts of their personality.

The anxieties called forth by accelerating globalisation differ substantially between the generations. Many older people feel that their private and social spaces are being invaded and intimidated by undemocratic foreign forces and influences. In contrast, most young people are rather afraid that they will be outpaced by globalist neoliberalism and miss the possibilities for personal success and development afforded by it. This is another reason why populism mostly appeals to older generations. It reminds them of a more nativist, harmonious and quiet past where they did not always have to fear losing their jobs, houses or life due to ‘intruding foreigners’.

Perhaps the young can save democracy, and recouple system and lifeworld? The everyday world they live in is not like the system world of ‘professionals’. They are not just reflexive consumers and dedicated to success. They connect with each other in movements and organisations online and offline, to problematise how the globalised neoliberal technocracy handles the risks and challenges they confront in their everyday life.  They show that the road ahead for democracy is to ‘think globally and act locally’. It’s about time for the young to realise that they must extend these practices to cover active participation as voters, supporters and members of parties.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

henrik p bangHenrik P Bang is Professor of Governance at the University of Canberra Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis. This post reflects a recent talk given at the Politics Department, University of Sydney.

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