Are Populists Democrat?

According to Takis Pappas, an expert on populism and one of my former professors, populism can be defined simply as illiberal democracy. The populist leaders believe, according to him, in democracy, and are found in democratic systems, yet they defend a form of democracy in which liberal values are not in place.

Can one be democrat if she is not liberal? The answer is a simple and plain no. In this short essay, I aim to briefly show why this is the case.

The Core of Democracy: Law and Legitimacy

We need certain criteria to be able to consider a system democracy. Two of them are universal suffrage and equal vote: if everyone (that will be affected by the made laws) will not be included in the ballot, and if everyone’s vote is not equal, we cannot talk about democracy. This is why in the academic circles, nowadays, they talk about the voting right of minors and non-citizen residents in a country, or if the citizens who live outside the country should have the vote. The former are affected by the laws and they should have the right to choose while the latter, although are citizens, are not.

Democracy, then, is superior to its alternatives because of its allowance of everyone to affect political process and outcomes. But how does this happen?

There is an issue in political science, namely legitimacy. A law is considered legitimate as long as a) it is made by the people who will be affected by it and b) it is universal. Democracy is the best system we could find so far simply because of this: it is more legitimate than its alternatives as long as the values are in place.

However much a law would represent the will of the people, as long as it is not made by them, its legitimacy is questionable. According to Carl Schmitt, one of the brightest yet evil minds of 20th century, though, who made the law is an irrelevant question and as long as it represents the will of the people, it is legitimate. But giving the power to some, be it a person or be it the whole population minus one, the voice of some are not hearable and there can be laws against their will. If one is not asked of her will, she has no moral obligation to obey the law as it is imposed illegitimately on her.

But this is not enough. The society may make choices which are discriminatory. In Turkey, vast majority of the people can vote for removing the voting rights of non-Muslims, gays, or those that are not originally/ethnically Turk. In this case, the first rule, universal adult suffrage, is overridden. As a result, the laws should be universal — that they would not take the rights of a person or group.

War as Politics, Politics as War

According to populists, the society is divided into two groups: the people, and its internal enemies (e.g. elites, liberals, seculars, Muslims, etc.). Every populist leader and movement fight with these enemies. In Turkey, these are the modern and secular portion of the people, as in Hungary and the US are the liberals. These people do not let the voice of the people be heard, and let these people live a decent, fruitful, and happy lives.

The solution? Defending these some people against the enemies, being their voice, etc.

According to von Clausewitz, author of the classic On War, war is the continuation of politics. We go to war when politics do not solve our problems. According to Schmitt, on the other hand, political is what divides us as friends and enemies, therefore the war is continuously going on. The nuance is that with politics, we do not use arms but we are ready to do so. War is just a form of politics, not where politics get stuck.

In populist mind-set, we find a Schmittean logic. There is a continuous war in politics and we are ready to fight with arms any second. Liberal thought is on the other end of this spectrum. As long as we follow the values, there is no need to go to war. War is unavoidable if and only if politics are stuck and there is no way of communication.

Liberalism vs Illiberalism?

Returning to Pappas, can we say that populists are democrats? If we can say that a king is a democrat, yes, we can.

Pappas has a right point, that these people are illiberal. But democracy is based on liberal values and without liberalism there cannot be democracy. Erdogan wanted to decrease the life quality of the modern and secular people, and for the sake of “democracy” we Turks allowed him. He wanted us to change our perception of a good life, and we have done so. Today we cannot talk about democracy, as the most basic rights are either taken from us, or limited, by democracy.

But how much of democracy was it? If you care about the procedures, surely you can argue that there was and still is democracy in Turkey. But the procedures have only secondary importance. In 1987, seven years after the coup, Turkey held democratic elections in which many parties, leaders, and ideologies were not allowed to participate (which was the second, not the first elections after the coup). There was universal suffrage and equal vote, but in practice these were highly limited as many people were imprisoned, went to self-exile, or could not find political parties to vote for. The world that the populists dream of is no different. And because populists do not make a revolution or a coup, they seize power within democracy and continue their work within democracy to remove democracy.


Consider a communist party winning the elections, and changing the system in two years rather than overnight. Can we say that the party is democratic, because they are elected in a democratic election and striped the rich from voting rights over time? The same goes for the populists. They are against democracy, and are nothing close to democrats. If we will not stop considering them as democratic alternatives, we will lose democracy more and more.

Here rises a question, which is our contemporary dilemma: these leaders receive more and more support. If democracy is the rule of the people, and if no democracy is the will of the people, what should we do? Should we let democracy slip, or should we talk to their worries? If we will talk to their worries, how will we remain democratic, as their will seems to be vice versa?

This is a very important and big question, and no precise answer can be given in a short essay. Yet in this series on populism, I will try to answer this question as I proceed.

(This post was previously shared at Medium)

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