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Book Review: Orlando Scarcello on “Populism and Democracy” (Sascha Hardt, Aalt Willem Heringa and Hoai-Thu Nguyen, eds.)


[Editor’s Note: In this installment of I•CONnect’s Book Review Series, Orlando Scarcello reviews Sascha Hardt, Aalt Willem Heringa and Hoai-Thu Nguyen’s book on Populism and Democracy (Eleven Publishing, 2020).]


Orlando Scarcello, Postdoctoral Researcher in Public law, LUISS Guido Carli, Rome.


What is populism and what does it have to do with democracy? Questions of this kind are more and more common these days. Unprecedented political movements have risen in the West and beyond in the last decade, characterized by an ambiguous relation with democracy. While on the one hand they often recall a direct connection to “the people” as a source of political legitimacy, on the other distrust towards the constitutional liberal-democratic status quo has been repeatedly shown by the so-called “populist” movements. What are they then? The guardians of a new kind of democracy for the XXI century or an extremely dangerous threat, a corruption of democracy as experienced in post-WWII constitutionalism?

The collection of essays edited by Sascha Hardt, Aalt Willem Heringa and Hoai-Thu Nguyen gathers a number of scholars and adopts a multidisciplinary approach to answer these crucial questions. The mixture of political scientists and constitutional lawyers is telling of the “law-in-context” approach of the book: to address the conceptual and practical challenges of populism one must look both at the constitutional framework per se and at the broader political context.

The book is structured in two Parts. The first, on Populism and Democracy, is general and more theoretical. The Introduction by Sascha Hardt immediately attempts to address the main challenge and provide for a definition of populism. Rejecting the dismissal of populism as an empty notion, impossible to properly define, Hardt introduces a “workable approximation” to populism which is pivotal for the entire collection. Jan-Werner Müller’s definition as elaborated in his What is Populism? (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) is adopted and constitutes the backbone of the book: grounded in the association of anti-elitism and anti-pluralism in the political sphere, it is the idea that guides all essays in the collection. Thus, the book is far from simply juxtaposing a variety of views on populism; on the contrary, a common view is declined in multiple fields of application. Populism is presented as a political ideal that conceives society as split into two between failed elites to be replaced (anti-elitism) and an homogeneous people whose will is interpreted by “populist” movements in the only appropriate manner (anti-pluralism), if necessary by silencing counter-majoritarian institutions such as the judiciary and by invoking instruments of immediate democracy such as referenda. The rest of the first part elaborates on three separate phenomena particularly affected by the rise of populism, namely political parties, media (especially social media), and referenda. The main concern is the disentanglement of these institutions per se and their possible disfiguration for populist aims. 

The second part of the book is dedicated to the reports from various countries. As already anticipated, this does not mean that the two are disconnected: the common idea of populism as a combination of anti-elitism and anti-pluralism persists throughout the second part and the authors use it as a pivot to scrutinize possible or actual populist turns in the examined jurisdictions. A common pattern can be identified in the way the reports are drafted. In most cases we first find an exposition of the fundamental features of the considered constitution. This is extremely useful as it allows comfortable and profitable reading also to those who, lacking a specific background in comparative public law, may ignore crucial specificities of the examined constitutional frameworks. Second, two main aspects are examined in practically all cases: to what extent (and how) the constitutional order resisted to populism and, the other way around, to what extent it failed to do so. Particular attention is devoted to a series of institutions such as the system of political parties, the electoral system, the use of referenda, the possible packing of the judiciary, the enlargement of the powers of the executive. Taken together, these seem to work as a litmus test of constitutional resilience against populism. 

The second part is mainly focused on European countries, with the notable exception of two South-East Asian countries, Indonesia and the Philippines. There is no explicit program to single out a regional problem (“European” populism as opposed to non-European manifestations of this phenomenon), as the goal of the book is to address the impact of populism on democracy in general. However, de facto most of the reports focus on European countries. Each system is examined separately, although four Eastern European countries (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia) are accounted for in a collective report. The notable absences are those of the “other side” of Western constitutionalism, namely Northern and Latin America, and of the supranational dimension (the impact of populism on the EU and the ECHR). Moreover, as the book focuses on a previous period of time, one does not find any analysis of another crucial issue, the possible abuse of executive powers by populist governments in handling the pandemic. However, the result still is a quite comprehensive mapping of the impact of populism on democracy and constitutionalism.

Briefly, the collection is able to reach its main goal, mapping the impact of populism on the constitutional settings of a series of countries, especially in Europe, and on the consequent transformation of democracy. This result is reached through a mixed approach, conjugating political science and constitutional law (although the majority of the chapters take the latter perspective). Most importantly, there is a common idea, a substantive attempt to define populism as a fil rouge of the collection. One can disagree with the proposed definition or even think that no proper definition of populism is possible, but it is hardly deniable that, methodologically, the attempt to offer detailed reports on the impact of populism on various democratic orders while keeping a strong common view on such volatile phenomenon is commendable.

Suggested Citation: Orlando Scarcello, Review of “Populism and Democracy” (Sascha Hardt, Aalt Willem Heringa and Hoai-Thu Nguyen eds.), Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Dec. 17, 2020, at: book-review-orlando-scarcello-on-populism-and-democracy-sascha-hardt-aalt-willem-heringa-and-hoai-thu-nguyen-eds

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Published on December 17, 2020
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