Democracy in the Era of Populism

Chantal Mouffe and the Spanish Election

With the results of the snap elections held in Spain on Sunday still in the headlines, new questions have been raised about the so-called “populist moment” about which so much ink has been spilt of late.

Pedro Sánchez. Toledo, April 2019.

Vox, whose politics oscillate between far-right populism and fascism, received 10% of the vote, winning 23 seats in parliament. Podemos, flag-bearers of European ‘left populism’ lost a third of its vote, and 29 seats.

More surprising than either of those results, the incumbent governing party, Partido Socialista Obrero España (PSOE) increased their count from 85 to 123 seats by tacking left, into Podemos’ territory.

This is still well short of an outright majority and even combined with Podemos (their current coalition partners) Spain’s new government will need help from some subset of the smaller regional parties to acquire a governing majority.

Still, it is an unaccustomed success for a traditional European social democratic party, even one with relatively more credible socialist credentials than some of its austerity-scarred fellows (for instance, Germany’s Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, the SPD).

Clearly, the PSOE tapped into the zeitgeist and demonstrated that progressive politics are still viable in a context in which populism is said to be the coin of the realm, both in Europe and the United States. The question is why we would need a leftist variant.


The reason we ask such questions is that there are said to be socialist versions of populism, such as the aforementioned Podemos, Syriza, even France Insoumise, or at the furthest stretch, the UK Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn.

What sets them apart from their right-wing counterparts, is the way these parties see their constituents as a front against elites, struggling for all of the old leftwing causes: maximising social equality, ensuring civil rights and eliminating racial discrimination.

Otherwise referred to as ‘the people’ in Guardian commentator Cas Mudde’s increasingly commonplace take on populism, these are the masses of communist yore: the so-called proletariat, the working and middle classes, minorities, women, and, most recently, migrants.

The problem is that support for social democratic parties is supposed to have evaporated. Even though leftwing populism is referred to in the news media, it still isn’t considered a viable player in its predictions about the outcome of the European elections on 23 May.

The populism that is preordained victorious belongs to nationalist parties, which otherwise might also be called far-right, neo-fascist and fascist. That’s what’s so curious about what happened in Spain. It contradicts what we’re being told to expect, both on a national and European level.

The key is in understanding the failure of Vox to do better than it did. It ate into the centre-right Partido Popular’s vote rather than grow a larger far-right. Spain’s largest leftwing party grew instead, confounding predictions that Spain, as a whole, was moving rightwards because of Vox.

But if we’re going to continue to subscribe to the idea that populism is still driving European politics, we might as well look to the originators of the concept, Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe and her legendary Argentine partner, Ernesto Laclau, who died in 2014.

In her most recent book, For a Left Populism, (Verso, 2018), Mouffe redeploys many of the ideas that she and Laclau had developed in their work begun with Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso, 1985). Their argument insisted that progressives are too focused on class to fight neoliberalism and the identity politics now associated with nationalists like Vox.

The decades since Hegemony and Socialist Strategy have borne out their analysis. The parties of the social democratic left have receded in popularity.

One political element of neoliberalism has been a privileging of individual liberty over democracy. The consequence of this has been the rise of what’s called post-democracy as a political culture.

Democracies continue to exist and function, but in name only. Elites increasingly control the state through the market and behind the scenes, without legislative accountability.

Most importantly, the politics of the right, both in populist mode and in more traditional guises, from conventional conservative parties to neo-fascist ones, are increasingly mainstream and block progressive parties like the populist Podemos, and the more conventional PSOE.

That’s why, in For a Left Populism, Chantal Mouffe argues that left politics needs an adversary. One of the biggest flaws of progressivism, she explains, is that the enemy is often lost sight of in being too democratic, ironically, by spending too much time focused on building consensus.

Politics is about struggle, after all, something that is often forgotten in liberal democracies, which see their institutions as elements in an unchanging order. Progressive politics tends to buy into this, by believing that there is some sort of post-conflictual endpoint that society will arrive at.

The state is a vehicle to deepen democracy, writes Mouffe, not limit it. That’s its main challenge today, in an era in which democracy is now being rolled back, opening spaces for far-right populists to help rationalise its disappearance.

Mouffe’s book is a call for a big tent socialism and is part of the revival of the ideology in the US and Europe. Her view of politics gets at something important, especially given the propensity of technocratic neoliberalism to repress demands for more democracy with less.

Still, it is one thing to describe politics at this level of abstraction, and another to see how they fit into the actually existing societies of Europe. The developments in Spain help highlight this.

The rise of Podemos in 2014 showed that there was considerable potential for a reconfiguration of the left. The fallout from the financial crisis after 2008 and the democratic deficits of the European Union provided ample opportunities to challenge neoliberal policies like austerity.

But it likewise created spaces where groups like Vox have shown themselves adept at reviving ethnicity and nationalism. The party’s rapid growth in the 2019 election is a sign of that, even though it failed to be the new normal the press thought it would be, it caught on with the right.

For a country with a history of dictatorship, like Spain, that is, of course, significant, and in keeping with a return to nationalism in former fascist states. The challenge for Podemos and the PSOE is to enhance the country’s democracy in a way that wards off the Vox’s appeal.

Though they might not see things quite this way, Spanish voters have indicated that they’re prepared to let Podemos and the PSOE do something like that. If they manage to pull it off, the country’s left might just succeed in rebranding the politics of this era.

Photograph courtesy of Emiliano García-Page Sánchez. Published under a Creative Commons license.