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ASU prof on how an engaged civil society can prevent the erosion of democracy

August 16, 2019

In recent years, political scientists across the globe have taken note of an alarming rise in the number of populist candidates in democratic elections. This summer in the Czech Republic, more than a quarter-million people assembled in Prague’s Letna Park to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a move that Arizona State University School of Politics and Global Studies Associate Professor Lenka Bustikova and colleagues wrote in a Washington Post Monkey Cage article sought to defend liberal democracy against a populist political approach that threatens to undermine it.

Bustikova co-wrote the article “Czech protesters are trying to defend democracy, 30 years after the Velvet Revolution. Can they succeed?” along with Petra Guasti, interim professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and a 2018-2019 Democracy Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation; and Michael Bernhard, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.

In particular, the article explores technocratic populism and how social movements like the demonstration in Letna Park have the power to protect liberal democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

“Technocratic populism is an understudied form of populism that is a sophisticated threat to liberal democracy in many places around the world,” said Bustikova, whose research focuses on party politics, voting behavior, clientelism and state capacity, with special reference to Eastern Europe.

“Civil society and demonstration do not and cannot replace political parties and elections,” she added, but “what they can do … is increase pressure on elected representatives to act responsively.”

ASU Now asked Bustikova and Guasti to share more of their insights on populism, how it threatens democracy and what can be done about it.

(Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

headshot of ASU professor

Lenka Bustikova

Question: The general definition of populism (a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups) doesn't sound that bad. So when does it become a problem, and how can populism undermine democracy?

Answer: Populism can undermine democracy in multiple ways:

1) Populist leaders create a direct relationship between themselves and the “people” — the electorate. This direct relationship bypasses traditional institutions of representative democracy, such as political parties and intermediary institutions of representations. These institutions constrain political leaders and create a system of checks and balances. Populism dissolves them.

2) Populism embraces majoritarianism — the majority will of the “people.” As such, it suppresses plurality and minority voices in politics. Populism is compatible with majoritarian democracy, but it is not compatible with liberal democracy. Liberal democracy protects minority voices in politics and policymaking.

3) Populism can have many forms. Some populism(s) polarize the electorate. Polarization diminishes the ability of political representatives to seek compromise. Populism that uses nativism and xenophobia is especially polarizing. It hollows out the moderate center.

4) Populism’s three primary forms are nativism, economic populism and technocratic populism. Each form of populism represents a different problem for democracy. Nativism is exclusionary — hostile to migrants and minorities. Economic populism expresses intense hostility to economic differences. Technocratic populism glorifies simple life and offers the ideology of economic efficiency and technocratic solutions. Technocratic populism is not a rule by efficient technocrats, but a strategy to delegitimize traditional political parties and civil society. Me and my co-authors describe this form in the Washington Post Monkey Cage article, and Petra Guasti and I explore it further in our paper “The State as a Firm: Understanding the Autocratic Roots of Technocratic Populism.” Technocratic populism is an understudied form of populism that is a sophisticated threat to liberal democracy in many places around the world, and therefore merits further attention and comparative analysis.

Q: Why are populist candidates appealing to some voters?

A: In the era of globalization, all advanced industrial democracies are subject to uncertainty, which transforms fear into resentment against the “other,” often drawing on negative emotions linked to historical stereotypes. Populism offers hope: “that where established parties and elites have failed, ordinary folks, common sense, and the politicians who give them a voice can find solutions” (Spruyt, Keppens and Van Droogenbroeck, 2016). Therefore, traditionally egalitarian countries in northern and central Europe are just as prone to populist appeals as societies that experience economic divisions.

Q: What parallels are there between the current state of politics in the Czech Republic, the U.S. and other countries? Is democracy in danger?

A: Democracy, defined as liberal pluralism, is under stress worldwide. Liberal democracy is built on democratic institutions and engaged citizens with shared democratic values. Pluralistic democratic institutions, free press, civil society and the rule of law are under attack. The culprits, however, are not anti-democratic forces that want a regime change (which often involves military coups and crude electoral fraud). Instead, as Nancy BermeoNancy Bermeo is an American political scientist and professor and Nuffield Chair of Comparative Politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. argues, the changes are incremental — elected leaders who seek to aggrandize executive powers undercut democratic institutions (judicial autonomy, media freedom, transparency in elections). By attacking the press and civil society, they seek to limit accountability to pursue their agenda. Populists in power seek to limit the ability of citizens to demand that elected representatives act responsibly and responsively. Therefore, democracies are not endangered by reversals, but by hollowing out — erosion and decay — while preserving the facade of electoral democracies.

Q: What accounts for the apparent rise in populism globally?

A: It is tempting to associate the rise of populism with the global economic crisis. Economic anxiety can lead to the destabilization of political systems and prompt voters to punish parties by opting for anti-establishment, populist challengers (Hawkins, Read and Pauwels, 2017). However, with the data in hand, we can say that while economic crises certainly fueled the rise of populism, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for it. Populism is associated with: 1) growing uncertainty connected but not limited to changes in labor and globalization (ie; the gig economy, automation, etc.), and 2) changes in societal relations (i.e., emancipation of women and minorities) that generate grievances among large segments of society — in particular white males and the working class — who face increased uncertainty about maintaining and reproducing their social status.

Q: What evidence do we have that demonstrations can prevent the erosion of democracy? Why/how do they work?

A: What prevents democratic erosion are not demonstrations per se. Large-scale demonstrations that are called to protect liberal democracy, the rule of law and human rights are an expression of a robust civil society. Protests signal that civil society is able to mobilize significant segments of the population. This increases pressure from below on elected officials and expands horizontal accountability. Civil society and demonstration do not and cannot replace political parties and elections. What they can do, however, is increase pressure on elected representatives to act responsively.

Q: How can we ensure an active and engaged civil society?

A: Civil society is an autonomous sphere outside the state, business and private life. As Robert Putnam, in his seminal piece “Making Democracy Work,” puts it: Civil society is crucial for the fabric of democracy, as it is a place where shared values, trust and social capital are built. For Jurgen HabermasJurgen Habermas is a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism, best known for his theories on communicative rationality and the public sphere., civil society is a precondition for political society — space where rational will-formation takes place.

In a democracy, civil society is a watchdog of the political sphere, ready to challenge the authority of elected officeholders and public servants if they do not act responsively and ethically. The survival of any political system depends on legitimacy — on the acceptance of the rulers by the ruled. An active civil society depends on active, engaged citizens committed to liberal democracy. Citizens who care about norms and values need to be willing to organize, stand up to power and use their voice to express discontent and hold elected representatives to high moral standards.

Top photo: Protest in Prague's Letna Park against Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis on June 23. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Cronkite student will gather no moss while at ASU

August 16, 2019

Journalism major wants to write for Rolling Stone magazine

Arizona State University freshman Gabriella Herran is enamored with music and the people who create it.

The 18-year-old has a particular affinity for boy bands, pop music, R&B and a touch of hip-hop. She’s also attended hundreds of concerts and her ultimate goal is to someday write for Rolling Stone, a top-tier national publication.

Herran believes the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication will help her achieve her goal.

“Some of the best journalism comes from music publications like Rolling Stone or The Fader because it’s not just about music but so many other things,” said Herran, who graduated with honors from Tucson’s Salpointe Catholic High School in May. “I’ve seen great pieces on race, culture, politics because at some point, it all blends together.”

Herran said she believes she’ll have no problem blending in at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus because she’s familiar with the city’s core. In 2018, she attended the Cronkite School’s Summer Journalism Institute, which brings top-performing high school students to ASU for two weeks of intensive, hands-on experiences in broadcast and digital journalism. That experience led to her decision to attend ASU.

ASU Now spoke to Herran on the eve of her college career to ask more about her hopes and dreams.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I chose Arizona State University because it had the same goals as me; ASU not only wants its students to thrive but the school enables students to go farther with the resources it gives us. I realized that the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU was the perfect fit for me after attending a summer journalism program there. I not only fell in love with the helpfulness of all the staff and the amount of dedication they put into making sure you have access to the materials/resources you need, but I saw how many opportunities the school had to offer aspiring journalists like myself which made it that much more appealing. 

Q: What drew you to your major?

A: At a young age, I loved to ask people questions about topics I deemed important and write down their take on it. I always thought it was interesting to listen to different opinions and sides and gain insight from it. Now that I am older, I decided to major in journalism because of my love of writing and asking questions. 

Q: What are you most excited to experience your first semester?

A: I am most excited to experience the life of downtown Phoenix! I love attending concerts, going to Diamondbacks games and hanging out with my friends. Downtown Phoenix is the best place to be for all of those things.

Q: What do you like to brag about to friends about ASU?

A: I like to brag about how easy it is to make friends at Taylor Place. I was there for two weeks for a summer program in 2018 and not only did I meet my (now) roommate but I made long-term friends who I still communicate with daily.

Q: What talents and skills are you bringing to the ASU community? 

A: I’m a very fast typist and learner so hopefully that will help with writing journalistic-style articles and stories.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish during your college years?

A: I hope to gain more experience on how to write journalistic articles and interview artists about music and entertainment as those are both branches of journalism I’d like to go into. My utmost goal is to get an internship or job with The Fader, Wonderland or Rolling Stone magazine.

Q: What’s one interesting fact about yourself that only your friends know? 

A: One interesting fact about myself that only my friends know is that I like to go to concerts a lot. I find it cool that although I might not know anyone in the arena/room, we all have one thing in common that is connecting us all at that moment — and that’s our love for the artist we came to see. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem in our world, what would you choose?

A: If someone gave me $40 million I’d use it to hire enough boats to clean up all the plastic/trash out of the ocean to weaken and hopefully put an end to climate change. Then if we still have an Earth to live on, I’d use the rest, if there is any, to tackle other problems in the world such as racism, gun violence and homophobia. 

Q: Predictions on the final score for this year’s Territorial Cup game?

A: I don’t watch football, but I’m sure ASU will do their thing and fork 'em! 

Top photo: ASU student Gabriella Herran poses inside of a barn outside of a cotton field in north Tucson, where she attended high school. Herran is a freshman and will study journalism at the Walter School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Photo courtesy of Veronica Arenas

Reporter , ASU Now