The Sovereignty of the People: Do Populist Citizens Oppose Liberal Democracy?
Concerns about the negative repercussions of populism increase with the continued electoral success of populist parties. Yet, views on the relationship between populism and democracy vary. Those who view populism as a democratic threat focus on populism’s anti-pluralism (Zaslove et al., 2020; Rummens, 2017; Urbinati, 2017), while those who see populism as a democratic corrective high- light that populism can mobilize excluded voices and bring these disenfranchised citizens into the political process (Zaslove et al., 2020; Canovan, 1999; Laclau, 2005; Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2017).
Existing empirical research finds that populist radical right parties challenge minority rights (especially while populist parties are in power) (Huber and Schimpf, 2017) and that populist parties can constrain the freedom of the media (Houle and Kenny, 2018; Juon and Bochsler, 2020) and judicial independence (Juon and Bochsler, 2020).
As illuminating as these studies are, however, they are confined to the supply side. Demand side studies find that individuals who are more populist are more supportive of the “idea” of democracy than individuals who are less populist (Zaslove et al., 2020; Rovira Kaltwasser and Van Hauwaert, 2020). These demand side studies focus, however, exclusively on the relationship between populism and democracy as such and not on the relationship between populism and (Zaslove et al., 2020) liberal democracy.
The crucial question therefore remains: how do individuals who are more populist perceive liberal democracy? More specifically, in this paper, we are interested in whether individuals who are more populist are more or less supportive of the core features of liberal democracy, than individuals who are less populist.
The paper proceeds as follows. We begin by defining the core features of a liberal democracy. We then outline our approach to populism, underscoring the central features of the ideational approach. We subsequently map the link between populism and democracy, and in particular between populism and liberal democracy. We formulate a series of expectations regarding populism and the dimensions of a liberal democracy. We, then, test our hypotheses in the Netherlands, using newly collected 2019 data from the LISS panel from the the Wiv Referendum Survey (CentERdata, 2019).
Our paper finds that individuals who are more populist are indeed more likely to favour the idea of majority rule without external constraints from the judiciary. Second, more populist individuals are less likely, than less populist individuals, to view political parties as a necessary feature of political representation. Contrary to our expectation, we find no support that individuals who are more populist are more opposed to the separation of powers or to minority rights, than individuals who are less populist. Finally, individuals who are more populist are more likely to favour the idea that individuals should be free to express their opinion, no matter how extreme. The effect of populist attitude on support for unrestrained free speech is higher among individuals who are more right-wing. In the conclusion, we elaborate on the implications of these findings for liberal democracy.