By Uros Ugarkovic
One of the principal controversies surrounding the phenomenon of populism, which spark lively political and academic debates, concerns its relation with the category of democracy. The empirically oriented political scientific literature seems to suggest that populism, particularly populism in power, tends to be detrimental to what can be constructed and perceived as the quality of democracy. The conclusion that populism is detrimental to democracy, however, leaves us exposed to the question of how can populism, with its insistence on the sovereignty of the people, be detrimental to democracy being that the popular sovereignty, kratos of demos, is the core democratic principle.
One way of understanding the relationship between democracy and populism entails distinguishing between what could be called politics of democracy and democratic politics. Politics of democracy refers to the use of the category of democracy in the political struggle, that is, its construction and application to a particular political project with the aim of praising or disqualifying it. One can easily identify instances of this phenomenon. Western political leaders’ critique of Erdogan’s regime for being undemocratic are countered by Erdogan’s insistence that Turkish regime is more democratic than regimes of those who critique it. In Hungary, Orban counters similar critique by claiming that his regime is an instance of democracy freed from shackles of liberalism, while accusing the west, and the European Union in particular, of absolutism.
Democratic politics, on the other hand, refers to all politics done within the democratic symbolic framework, which implies the legitimation of the political agency by the reference to the sovereign people. Populism, in this view, would certainly be a form of democratic politics. Its principal characteristic, however, which makes it a particular form of democratic politics, is antagonism. Populism is an antagonistic form of democratic politics, for it implies the construction of the sovereign people in opposition to the antagonistic ‘other’, be it the elite or else, thus dichotomizing the political field and externalizing a part of the society from such understood popular subject. It is precisely the antagonism and its inherent antagonistic drive, not the reference to the people itself, that accounts for many of the detrimental effects associated with populism. Populism, therefore, is characterized not by the fact that it refers to the people as the ultimate source of political legitimacy, but rather by how, in doing so, it constructs the people as the sovereign entity.
This thesis leads us to the question of populism’s opposite. What concept should we use to refer to the non-populist, non-antagonistic form of democratic politics? The academic literature tends to contrast populism with political liberalism. Although there is no doubt that there exists a series of incompatibilities between populism and political liberalism, framing the two as a pair of opposites can certainly raise objections due to the difference in the nature of the two phenomena. Populism is of a formal nature, as it represents a form of understanding and doing politics – a ‘political logic’ as the so-called Essex tradition characterizes it – which is very different from political ideologies such as liberalism. Political logics refer to the formal aspect of a political project which can have different sorts of ideological and programmatic content. A political project is not populist because it forwards populism, but rather because it forwards its ideological and programmatic principles in a populist way. Populism, in this sense, is recognizable in the discursive frame a political project uses to articulate its content which, as we can appreciate in the empirical reality, can be based in ideologies from across the ideological spectrum.
The literature offers another, counter-intuitive yet interesting answer to the aforementioned question: parliamentarism. This answer does not seem to be acknowledged and systematically considered by politics and populism scholars as much as it should be. Clearly, parliamentarism is hereby not understood in the narrow sense as the parliamentary institutional system, but rather as a form of understanding, approaching, and practicing politics, that is, as an ideal type of acting and thinking politically. Parliamentarism is based on the assumption of the intrinsic and irreducible social heterogeneity and pluralism of identities, demands, and interests, and implies equalizing the limits of the sovereign people with the limits of the intrinsically heterogeneous society. The political decision-making within such understood popular subject should be based on the process of free and fair deliberation in utramque partem – observing and discussing an issue from different points of view – between the representatives of the social heterogeneity. Unlike populism, which tends to reify an ‘existing’ uniform popular will which precedes the debate and can be imposed on those antagonistic others who, although form a part of the society, are excluded from the notion of people, parliamentarism resists the idea of searching for a commonly accepted consensus on the rationally and objectively best way to organize the social life. Indeed, the existence of such consensus would be nothing but an indicator of hegemony of one particular narrative. The intrinsic social heterogeneity implies the plurality of perspectives, values, and the criteria for evaluation of desirability of certain modes of social organization, which makes the deliberation in utramque partem a sine qua non of parliamentarism. Populism and parliamentarism as two contentious political logics, therefore, imply two radically different forms of the construction of the people, dealing with the political differences and approaching the ‘other’, as well as political decision-making in the context of the intrinsic and irreducible social heterogeneity.
Understanding parliamentarism as a form of acting and thinking politically might initially seem counterintuitive, for the term itself is still most commonly associated with the parliamentary institutional system. Yet, using the concept of parliamentarism to refer to an ideal type of acting and thinking politically might not be such a radical conceptual innovation after all. We just need to take a closer look at the political discourse around us. As a foreigner living in Chile, a country with the presidential system whose legislative body consists of the chambers called the congress and the senate, it has caught my attention that the political agents from across the political spectrum on particular occasions use the verb to parliament (parlamentar) in order to refer to a particular form of interaction with political adversaries. The fact that the verb parlamentar is not at all a commonly used term in the every-day parlance indicates the conscious and intentional character of its use in the political discourse. Political agents using it seem to have found that the verb to parliament transmits a specific meaning which is different from the one transmitted by the terms such as to discuss, debate, talk, or negotiate. Unlike debating, which implies defending one’s own argumentative position, or negotiating, which implies acting from one’s own position in a process of give-and-take leading to a mutually acceptable compromise, parliamenting implies the willingness to go beyond the strict adherence to one’s ideological or partisan positions and engage in a deliberation in utramque partem, which entails discussing an issue from different points of view in order to come to a decision which would seem to be most pertinent within the given set of circumstances. Parliamentarism, as in the parliamentary form of thinking and practicing politics, is not an uncommon notion in the political discourse. However, it is not systematically problematized as such by the mainstream academic literature. Perhaps it should be.