Democracy in the Grip of Neoliberalism and Populism: Can the Young Save Democracy?

Henrik Bang

Henrik is Professor in Governance at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra (UC)

It is common place 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 (2016, p. 31):[1]

‘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 globalized 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 globalization and multiculturalism.

Hence, populism on 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 professionalization and individualization 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 made 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 puts it in his inspiring introduction to populism (2017, Kindle Location (KL) 703-706):[2]


‘we define populism as a thin-centered 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’s definition to mean that populism is: ‘a loose set of ideas that share three core features: anti-establishment, authoritarianism, and nativism.’ But this is not Mudde’s position. In his view (KL 639-640): ‘populism is most fundamentally juxtaposed to liberal democracy rather than to democracy per se or to any other model of democracy.’ Hence, Mudde does not think that populism is ipso facto authoritarian, but, like Norris and Inglehardt, he does blur the difference between liberal democracy and neoliberalist democracy. However, later on in his book, Mudde does 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 Mudde emphasizes (KL 2099-2101): [even] ‘social democratic parties…have embraced economic globalization, 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[3] he announced: I believe in the competition state as the new welfare state.

Thus, 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 (2004, p. 9):[4]

‘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 group. [This is required] to build the trust and mutual understanding that characterize 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 have grown up in ‘slower’, less globalized and diversified times where communication and interaction were very much face-to-face and local in nature. They have been socialized into believing that deliberation, negotiation and compromise take time and depend on ‘copresence‘, and relations of mutual trust. But neoliberalism prioritizes competition and inequality over social capital and equality what obviously favour those ‘professionals’ who exercise their human faculties for getting success and ‘making a difference’ best. 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 emphasized 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

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 back stage. Hence, it cannot wonder that populism has succeeded in portraying ‘the system’ as ‘rigged’ and as having robbed ‘the people’ of its dignity and sovereignty.  However, populism is a reminder of the ‘good old days’ where popular rule was more than an empty word. 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 with one another in the day care 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 other technological gadgets. Understandably, the old do not feel ‘natural’ to the same degree 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. Thence, the anxieties called forth by accelerating globalization differ substantially among 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 also why populism mostly appeals to the older generations. It reminds them of a more nativist, harmonious and quiet past where they did not always had to fear for 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 either. They connect with each other in movements and organizations online and offline to problematize how the globalized 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’. Now it is time to convince the young that they must extend these practices to cover active participation as voters, supporters and members of parties. 

[1] Norris, Pippa and Ronald F. Inglehart (2016) ‘Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism.’ Harvard Kennedy School: PP 1-52

[2] Mudde, Casa md Cristoba Rovira Kaltwasser (2017) Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press

[3] 16/01/2017

[4] Putnam, Robert D. and Lewis M. Feldstein (2004) Better Together. N.Y. Simon and Schuster

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