Populism’s Threat to Democracy: Comparative Lessons for the United States

Populism’s Threat to Democracy: Comparative Lessons for the United States

By Kurt WeylandUniversity of Texas at Austin

How grave is the threat that populist leaders pose to democracy? To elucidate the prospects of the United States under president Donald Trump, I conduct a wide-ranging comparative analysis of populism’s regime impact in Europe and Latin America. The investigation finds that the risks have been overestimated. Populist leaders manage to suffocate democracy only when two crucial conditions coincide. First, institutional weakness, which comes in various types, creates vulnerabilities to populist power grabs. Second, even in weaker institutional settings populist leaders can only succeed with their illiberal machinations if acute yet resolvable crises or extraordinary bonanzas give them overwhelming support which enables them to override and dismantle institutional constraints to power concentration. Because none of these conditions prevail in the United States, an undemocratic involution is very unlikely. First, the federal system of checks and balances, rooted in an unusually rigid constitution, remains firm and stable. Second, President Trump encountered neither acute crises nor a huge windfall; consequently, his mass support has remained limited. Facing strong resistance from an energized opposition party and a vibrant civil society, the U.S. populist cannot destroy democracy. Instead, Trump’s transgressions of norms of civility have sparked an intense counter-mobilization that may inadvertently revitalize U.S. democracy.

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