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Our panel of 90 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

Populism, however understood, may not have been the only thing behind "Trump's triumph".

And Brexit was not just an exercise in populism. There were genuine issues of national sovereignty with Brexit, in a narrow legal sense, unlike with Trump, about which there were genuine differences of political opinion. The parliamentary monopoly on law-making in the UK is guaranteed by the Coronation Oath, but denied by EEC and then EU legislation from 1972 on. In addition, there were plans ("Dokument UE-2", co-authored by the Foreign Ministers of Germany and France), in the event of a "Remain" vote, for a common European Army and police force, though the plans were concealed before the referendum. It is hard to imagine too many of the United States wanting a common army with Mexico and Canada, say, or a common legal system. The EU executive, though appointed by elected legislators, is not itself elected. Yet it has the power to issue "directives" having the force of law in the member states with no oversight or control by the elected bodies such as the Parliament in the UK. From the UK point of view there are very profound difficulties with these and the other proposals in "Dokument UE-2".

"Educating the people" might have produced an even bigger margin for Brexit!

The answer will depend on who you ask, and also how you are defining "populism" here. Plato suggested in the "Republic" that oligarchy would eventually so disenfranchise and hence enrage the masses of ordinary people that the latter would at last rise up and impose a democratic system on the wealthy class that had been dominating them; along the way to this popular revolt, however, the people would inevitably pick up a "populist" demagogic leader. The latter, once in power, would eventually betray the peoples' interests and impose an outright tyranny upon the whole state. In a way, the rise of right-wing authoritarian populist movements in Europe and the US would seem to be bearing Plato out. Nationalist extremism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments, racism, and misogyny are in some sense a reaction against a liberal order that is more and more perceived as corrupt and ideologically bankrupt.

One must keep in mind that "populism" can take a variety of quite different forms: it can take shape as Trump or Bernie Sanders, fascism or socialism, radical democracy or authoritarianism. Certainly, though, it is not "democracy" as such that is leading somehow to populist movements. If anything, it is the lack of democracy, i.e. the sense among ordinary people that their leaders and institutions don't care about them. Of course, whether we actually live in a democracy or an oligarchy today is itself an open question! What is undeniable is that we are living with historically unprecedented levels of economic inequality today, and many critics believe that this inequality has played the predominant role (directly or indirectly) in undermining popular faith in the existing order, hence in nominally liberal values and institutions. So from a leftist perspective (which is my perspective), the recent rise of both left- and right-wing populist movements is a symptom of the underlying contradictions and crisis-tendencies of the world capitalist system, which is becoming unglued. This is an extremely dangerous moment, because the last time we saw anything similar was in the 1920s-30s period in middle Europe--and we all know how that ended.