By Devin O’Shaughnessy, WFD Director of Programmes
On 18-20 June, WFD supported a conference on populism in partnership with International IDEA, Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, OSCE/ODIHR and REPRESENT. The event, held in the Belgian Senate, saw leaders from politics, civil society and academia from across the world gather to shape a “Global Agenda for the Renewal of Representation”, a guide aimed at reinvigorating the relationship between people and democracy.
What stuck with me most was the diversity of views around the table on what populism actually is, whether or not it was a dangerous trend or a flash in the pan, and what impact populism in Europe and the U.S. was having in the developing world. I felt there was strong consensus that our democratic institutions needed to be better – more open, more representative, more accountable, and more participatory – or people would continue to lose faith in them. I was also inspired by the passion in the room for defending the principles of liberal democracy, of the importance of educating people, especially the younger generation, of what democracy protects, defends, and promotes: human rights, freedom, protection of the vulnerable.
Yet, despite these positives, I was also concerned that we weren’t addressing the elephant in the room, the main driving force at the core of populism. Despite the economic growth that democracy, globalisation, and free trade brings, Western democracies have failed to prevent these gains from going primarily to a narrow elite, the 1% and multinational corporations. “Whose GDP?” was the response of an average citizen when asked why she was upset with her government despite delivering decades of steady GDP growth.
Even worse, elites are increasingly manipulating the democratic system to lock in their gains, using their access to political leaders – often gained through large campaign contributions – to ensure that policies they oppose are never even discussed. For example, in the U.S., a recent study showed that only 4% of policies that the elite strongly oppose are ever adopted, while nearly 50% of the ones they support are enacted. The lack of repercussions for those who caused the 2007 financial crisis, and the increasing dilution of the already weak reforms put in place after the crash, is a direct result of a system where the wealthy and powerful shape the rules in their interest. Meanwhile, the average citizen suffers and is nearly powerless to fight back, which fuels the growing populism we see today.
Clearly a combination of economic and political reform is needed to even the playing field, to make sure all citizens’ views are represented and that there are opportunities for everyone to succeed. For this to happen, a sustained, global effort is needed. More research to better understand the drivers of populism and possible solutions. Joined up efforts by political leaders, civic activists, academics, media and NGOs to change the way politics works, to ensure that all voices are given equal hearing and not just those of the powerful and well connected. New policy ideas to manage the negative consequences of globalisation, automation, and climate change.
WFD must play its part in making these reforms happen. Through our programming and research, we must contribute to reforming political institutions to be more open and participatory. We must ensure that all people are empowered – particularly women, youth, people with disabilities, and the LGBT+ community, but also the economically marginalised, refugees, and other vulnerable groups. Political parties and parliaments, two of the main vehicles for representing and defending citizens’ interests, need to be refreshed and move back to the centre of political life. We can be a critical part of a wider, UK effort to reinvigorate liberal, representative democracy around the world. In doing so, we can beat back the worst instincts of populism, while retaining what is good: a yearning by all citizens to be heard and shape their own futures.