The lesson here is that voters often resist a return to mainstream parties once they have abandoned them. They also don’t like to be reminded that they were wrong to jump on the populist bandwagon in the first place. Rather, it is up to the non-populist parties, the fetid mainstream, to convince the electorate that they themselves have changed and are ready to offer credible solutions. In Greece, SYRIZA managed to reclaim power in September 2015, even after its policies failed, partly because it faced a tired, unreformed opposition. Only when the underdog Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a younger reformist, won New Democracy’s leadership, did this old, tired party gain political traction.
Paradoxically, this suggests that there’s nothing like a populist experiment to re-legitimize the mainstream. With their promises in tatters and their incompetence on full display, populist parties are eventually exposed. At this point, they face the choice to either go mainstream or disappear. Populism may well be a necessary, perhaps effective treatment for the belief that there are easy solutions to hard problems—for belief that one can escape reality.
It is when populists falter that their internal contradictions and hypocrisies are exposed. In Greece, the supposedly hyper-democratic SYRIZA government has adopted policies that have eroded the institutions that are supposed to check the executive, including tighter control of the Supreme Court and attempts to restrict media opposition by limiting the number of operating licenses given to television stations and awarding winning bids to pro-government oligarchs.
Populists also often show they’re not immune to the temptations of corruption, despite their promises. As outsiders rather than insiders, they play up the fact that they are untainted by corruption, unlike the political establishment. Yet, they fail to deliver. In Greece, the populist government has already been embroiled in an array of scandals, including one involving preferential loans for political clients; it has shored up its very own “capitalist cronies” and used clientelistic practices to reinforce its political power, appointing hundreds of supporters to public jobs.
However, where democratic institutions are strong, populists face the choice between political death or mainstreaming. When this is the case, populist experiments might reinforce democratic institutions. They can serve as a mechanism for the renewal of the political system and a wake-up call for mainstream politicians who have grown complacent and ineffective.
Transposing the Greek populist experience to America or Britain yields some clear insights. Trump and the Brexiteers succeeded politically by identifying and capitalizing on some real social concerns. However: They have no solutions to offer. They scammed their way to power, but now that they have attained it, they face some unforgivable realities. They will try to avoid them, of course, by dividing and polarizing, and by blaming foreigners and “unpatriotic” political rivals. They are likely to double down when confronted with failure, at considerable economic cost. Yet, their obvious failures will not, in and of themselves, guarantee their demise. This will require mainstream parties to up their game and offer real alternatives. Only then, with the support of resilient democratic institutions, can the havoc wrought by populists be undone.