During the past decade, a populist revolt against long-established political arrangements has erupted throughout the West. This surge reflects deep-seated trends in contemporary market economies—in particular, the shift from mass manufacturing and resource extraction to information and services, which worked to the advantage of large metropolitan areas at the expense of smaller towns and rural regions. It reflects, as well, deep-seated cultural anxieties triggered by mass migration and the growing breach between progressivist and traditional attitudes on a range of social issues.
The populist uprising has triggered concerns about the future of liberal democracy, whose triumph seemed assured just a quarter of a century ago. But we need to distinguish clearly between the aspects of populism that threaten liberal democracy and those that do not—between policy disputes within liberal democracy and attacks on liberal democracy. The Brexit vote did not weaken democracy in the United Kingdom; Viktor Orbán’s consolidation of control over Hungary’s press, judiciary, civil society, and electoral law certainly does.
Defenders of liberal democracy must focus their efforts on three fronts. First, they must defend the key guarantors of liberal democracy, the institutions that Orbán and his imitators have attacked, and they must champion political reforms that restore the ability of liberal democratic governments to act effectively and regain public trust. Second, they must make their peace with national sovereignty, which continues to command the loyalty of peoples and still underlies the international system, despite the network of treaties and international institutions that have come into being since the end of World War II. Third, they must strike a politically sustainable balance between concerns for the well-being of migrants and the determination of national communities to protect their borders.
While the rise of populism merits concern and demands action, it should not trigger panic. Although complacency could prove disastrous, the ability of democratic regimes to respond to public discontent is the key to their resilience and the source of their superiority to authoritarian forms of governance.