Courtesy of the Center for Fundamental Rights, we publish the the preface to the essay A nepszeruseg atka (“The Curse of Popularity”, by Heil Kristòf and Petri Bernadett) written by the Director General of the Center Miklós Szánthó.
"Too many politicians are listening exclusively to their national opinion instead of acting as a full-time European," said Jean-Claude Juncker, former president of the European Commission, a few years ago. In his own fashion, he quite aptly summarised the political agenda of the globalist, leftist-liberal elite, designating the "populists" as their main enemy. In other words, those who, in search of democratic legitimacy, do dare to say what the majority considers to be true and what common morality (common sense) considers to be right – regarding, for example, multiculturalism, child protection or a military conflict.
Nowadays, of course, there are many other "scientific arguments" in the mainstream public discourse (see the so-called fact-finding data-based journalism) that present "populists" and populism as the main enemy of the democratic Western culture of knife and fork users (sometimes because they are "Trumpist militants", sometimes because they are "Putinist supporters of peace"). Accordingly, populism is a 'new' trend that fundamentally shatters the established democratic order, destroys the liberal rule of law and deeply oppresses "marginalised", "intersectional", "progressive" identity groups. However, if we look a little more closely at the social manifestations of populist politics, we can see that this interpretative framework is rather out of touch with reality.
Populism is in fact the crossing of postmodern mass society and the mediatised public, their quintessence: the politics of common-sense people constituting a majority, that is, politics that reflects this majority.
It is therefore highly democratic, if democracy is understood on the basis of popular sovereignty. This approach understands nations as "large communities" – at least it seeks points of consensus that bind societies together – rather than as a set of different (minority) identity groups, as postmodern leftist-progressive concepts do. In fact, the liberal conception of democracy calls the "populists" to account for this, because the former does not regard the “rule of the people”, understood in a "more unified" sense, and the majoritarian popular mandate as the source of legitimacy, but considers the liberal "principles and international standards" as such (see the rule of law procedures launched against Hungary).
In the leftist-liberal approach, it is more important to have a system of checks and balances that is as extensive as possible (and supports the ideal of open society as much as possible) against the executive power, but above all against the legislative power, which secures its mandate in elections. The protection of the interests of minority groups, often artificially created, takes precedence over the will of the majority, because this is in line with the latest understanding of the "rule of law" or "human rights".
The main opponent of populist politics is therefore technocracy, interested in maintaining structures based on the liberal narrative and disconcerted by the possibility of ever larger masses turned against it by "popular" politics: that national grand coalitions will be formed against globalist elite networks. Superficially, of course, progressivism advocates action in "defence of democracies".
Their problem, which is difficult to solve with sophisticated logical reasoning, is that people, endowed with universal suffrage, secret ballots and equal voting rights, can be "pushed" to democratically oppose those behind the disguise of democrats.
However, the "democracy panic" of anti-populists – as Frank Furedi aptly described the phenomenon – only appears to stem from a genuine concern for the future of democracy; what they fear is too much democracy. On the one hand, they try to compensate for this by "finding out" about more and more national competences (i.e. "close to" popular sovereignty) that they fall in the competence areas of a supranational body with indirect legitimacy at best (such as the EU, UN, Council of Europe) – this is called the outsourcing of decision-making. On the other hand, they compensate by promoting the superiority of technocratic governance at the "local" level, pushing for the involvement of "experts" instead of elected officials and for the setting up of advisory bodies. What they mean by the "rule of law" is that the final, decisive say in major social issues is by no means with the people/human-centred politics but with institutions and impersonal procedures, which they seek to stealthily occupy and sensitise, leading to the emergence of legal-judicial overpower, for example.
In stark contrast with its criticism, "populism" itself is not at all a postmodern phenomenon of the 21st century, it already existed at the dawn of Western civilisation. Nor is populism the enemy of market-based representative democracy as traditionally understood, but rather its staunchest defender. Populism cannot be successful outside of the frameworks for the democratic exercise of power, and populists fully aware of this, will do everything in their power - and in their self-interest - to defend popular sovereignty. This political programme does not seek to eliminate identity groups, but creates national cooperation systems – such as a family-friendly, work-based society – by linking natural self-identities.
But the confrontation between technocratic elites and political movements embracing the will of the people is not new either. This was precisely the central issue in the political struggle between optimates and populares – one of the most well-known conflicts of European antiquity – in the late Roman Republic. During the strife in Rome dotted with civil wars lasting for almost a century, the party of the optimates rigidly insisted on the primacy of the institutions, particularly the senate, above all rational state interests, and tended to weaponise Roman law against its opponents, twisting it out of its original role. Meanwhile, "populares" politicians, relying on the popular assemblies and people's tribunes, the forums closest to the citizens of the republic, pressed for reforms to protect the status and material interests of free Roman citizens.
Thus, although this is indeed an "old political programme", the spread of civic democracy has been particularly good for populism. This is so true that populists, unlike their progressive critics who see real democratic values as an obstacle, now consider traditional democracy as a vital element.
Although extending the right to vote for as many people as possible was once a major liberal goal, today we have reached a point where the expression of the general popular will in elections is becoming, in many cases, increasingly unpalatable for enlightened – or should we say woke – progressives. The list of examples runs from the failure of the EU Constitution in 2005, through the Brexit referendum and Trump's victory, to the electoral success of the right-wing in Hungary, Poland or Italy.
And yes: from an argumentative point of view, securing a right-wing majority in Hungary, four times by two-thirds, must be a bitter fact for those who regularly accuse Hungary's government of "anti-democratic tendencies" while for them, fulfilling the will of foreign financiers is more important than meeting the expectations of their voters. In the end, they can only resolve the contradiction by saying that the people are "stupid", they want something bad for themselves, and only enlightened Eurocrats can bring the cure through migration, gender sensitisation and by explaining why it is good that the EU funds we are entitled to could be used to send German tanks rumbling on their way to Moscow.
Thus, the Left would give "experts" the power to decide on vital issues such as migration, children's sexual education (or war) because they think they know better than people what people need, while populist governance is about seeking points of national consensus and speaking the truth. And the truth is that the people and the state are sovereign; that the mother is a woman, the father is a man – and that peace is better than war.
Cover photo: Miklos Szanto speaks at the launch of the book A nepszeruseg atka [The Curse of Popularity] (Photo: Center for Fundamental Rights)
General director of Alapjogokért Központ (Center for Fundamental Rights) in Budapest. President of KESMA (Central European Press and Media Foundation). Graduate jurist at Eötvös Loránd University (Hungary).