We Might Have Reached Peak Populism

If the picture looked almost unremittingly bleak a few years ago, now distinct patches of hope are on the horizon.

Colored flags wilt on their flagpoles.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Feeling optimistic about the state of American politics is hard. The country is deeply polarized. Much of the debate consists of name-calling and demonization. Dissatisfied with a strategy of maximal obstructionism in Congress, Republicans in state houses are trying to make subverting the outcome of the next election easier.

But we can’t forget how much worse things could be right now—and what a major achievement it was for Joe Biden to have defeated Donald Trump. America booted an authoritarian populist from office in a free and fair election at the conclusion of his first term.

For those who are interested in the fate of liberal democracy around the world, that triumph raises a key question: Was Trump’s loss an aberration owed to specifically American factors? Or did it portend the beginning of a more difficult period for authoritarian populists around the world—one in which they might be held accountable for their many mistakes and misdeeds?

You could make the case for a pessimistic answer. In some countries, such as the Philippines, authoritarian leaders remain highly popular among voters. In others, such as Peru, the populist wave is just now coming ashore. And even in the United States, it is plausible that extremist leaders who have recently been ousted may soon stage a comeback—Trump is widely believed to be interested in running for the presidency in 2024, and the Republican Party seems to be growing more extreme by the day.

But you could also make the case for optimism. Recent developments in Europe and Latin America suggest that some of the populists and antidemocratic leaders who have dominated the political landscape for the past decade might finally be encountering serious trouble. If the picture looked almost unremittingly bleak a few years ago, now distinct patches of hope are on the horizon.

Take Germany. When the far-right Alternative for Germany first presented itself in national elections, in 2013, it fell just short of the 5 percent of the national vote it required to enter Parliament. Four years later, the party more than doubled its support, taking 13 percent of the national vote. If that rate of growth were to continue, the AfD would become the country’s largest party in elections this fall.

But as they say in financial markets, assuming that past performance is indicative of future results is a mistake. Far from continuing its rapid rise, the AfD is now losing popular support for the first time in its short history. Some polls suggest that the party may fall back to single-digit support in the September election. Even after Angela Merkel, Germany’s long-serving head of government, leaves office, there is little immediate reason to fear for the stability of German democracy.

The situation in neighboring France looks more precarious. Like his three predecessors, President Emmanuel Macron has quickly become unpopular, and the country’s traditional parties are sad shadows of their former selves. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally, who has long aspired to step into the void, should be in a strong position: Only about 52 percent of French voters prefer Macron to Le Pen, according to some recent polls.

Yet recent regional elections—widely seen as a preview of next year’s presidential race—have suggested that her position is weaker than many feared. Le Pen failed to win power in a single region, and the traditional parties, whose death has so often been prognosticated, were the ones that showed surprising signs of electoral resilience. For now, the defensive bulwark against Le Pen seems to be holding.

Other long-established democracies in Western and Northern Europe have also seen populists lose momentum. Sizable populist movements won parliamentary seats in Denmark, Sweden, Greece, and the Netherlands. In all of these countries, these movements will likely remain part of politics for the foreseeable future. But in all of them, they have also, for now, ceased to grow.

Extremist leaders remain in power in some of the world’s most populous democracies. But even some of those strongmen are now starting to face a real reversal of fortune.

Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain known for his extremist rhetoric and open nostalgia for Brazil’s departed military dictatorship, unexpectedly assumed the country’s presidency in 2019. But he is now in deep political trouble. Lacking loyal allies in the country’s Congress, Bolsonaro has so far proved unable to concentrate power and, thanks to his disastrous mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, his popularity has plummeted. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president better known simply as Lula, is likely to beat Bolsonaro in an upcoming election.

Extremist politicians in other Latin American countries are also doing poorly. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist, won Mexico’s presidency by making big promises about economic redistribution and an end to corruption. Even before the coronavirus hit, his government had failed to deliver. Then his mishandling of the pandemic—a deadly mix of complacency and denialism that was strikingly similar to that of López Obrador’s nominal ideological adversaries, Trump and Bolsonaro—further dented his popularity. In congressional elections in 2018, López Obrador’s party won a crushing majority. In elections last month, it bled nearly 20 percent of its support. While López Obrador’s party retains a nominal majority in Congress thanks to the support of two smaller allies, his ability to pass controversial legislation has been significantly curtailed.

Even some authoritarian populists who had long since seemed to consolidate their power now face some difficulty. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has recently suffered painful setbacks in important state elections. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan has grown highly unpopular amid a deep financial crisis. Though both are likely to remain in the saddle for the foreseeable future, their electoral stars are not shining quite as brightly as they did a few years ago.

Perhaps the most interesting case is that of Hungary, a country that, despite its relatively small population, holds special significance for scholars of authoritarian populism. Before Viktor Orbán concentrated immense power in his own hands, many political scientists thought that Hungary’s democratic institutions had “consolidated,” meaning that they should have been able to weather serious crises without much damage. But because of Orbán’s assault on independent institutions, Freedom House, the prodemocracy NGO, has found that the country is no longer fully free—a historic first for a member state of the European Union.

But now, the opposition is finally getting its act together. After years during which Orbán’s control over the media, judiciary, and electoral commission left him with little effective resistance, opinion polls for next year’s parliamentary elections suggest that a broad ideological alliance is running neck and neck with his ruling party. If the united opposition ekes out a majority despite competing on an uneven playing field, the moment will be decisive for Hungarian democracy: Orbán will need to decide whether to ignore the outcome of the election, turning himself into an outright dictator, or give up the office on which he seemed to have such a firm hold just a few months ago.

It is far too early to declare that we have reached “peak populism.”

The coming years could well turn out to be even worse for liberal democracies around the world. By 2025, France and the United States might plausibly be ruled by Le Pen and Trump (or one of his family members), respectively. Modi and Erdoǧan will likely still be in office. Countries that are now governed by moderates could have new populist leaders of their own. This is hardly the time to stop sounding the alarm.

And yet, there is, for the first time in years, real evidence for the more optimistic scenario.

At the beginning of the populist rise, a new crop of political leaders made huge promises to voters and lacked a record on which they could be judged. But after winning power, they have largely failed to live up to their promises and bungled the handling of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Voters in many countries have thus started to grow disenchanted. Though populists usually retain a fervent following, their ability to build support from a broad cross section of voters seems to be rapidly fading in many countries.

The ability of mainstream parties to compete with populists has also improved. In many places, traditional parties had failed to realize how angry their own voters had become, and to what extent their policies were out of keeping with the preferences of the majority. Some have since corrected course, showing that they can beat populists at the ballot box if they steadfastly oppose extremism and take the grievances of ordinary voters seriously.

In a joke beloved by the writer David Foster Wallace, an old fish greets two young fish. “How’s the water this morning?” he asks them. Once the young fish are out of the old fish’s earshot, they turn to the other. “What the hell is water?” one asks. The moral of the joke is obvious: We often become so accustomed to our environment that we start to take it for granted.

The rules and norms that sustain liberal democracies are similar. In good times, most voters don’t care about who sits on the electoral commission or regulates the media. But when authoritarian leaders stack those institutions with loyalists, banning popular candidates or shutting down independent television stations, voters start to pay attention.

In many countries around the world, the past few years have been a crash course in the importance of the water we’re swimming in. And though the future remains highly uncertain, we have good reason to hope that people are more willing to fight for its preservation. Authoritarian populists remain a serious threat to the future of liberal democracy around the world. But the democratic fight back has begun in earnest.