The Fall of Elites and the Ascension of Populism

The Fall of Elites and the Ascension of Populism
The Fall of Elites and the Ascension of Populism

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Contribution selected by Filodiritto among those published in the Proceedings “4th ACADEMOS Conference 2017”

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Fântânescu Miruna1

National School of Political and Administrative Studies (ROMANIA) Email: Miruna.fantanescu@gmail.com





The nowadays’ representative democracies are in crisis. The turmoil within the European Union, among its member states, especially after the economic crisis, has generated the rise of extremist movements and populist parties which seem to take over the political system. The discontent among citizens, the frustrations due to financial problems, the increasing cases of corruption among politicians and their inability in delivering solutions to social, economic and political problems their voters claim, determined the degradation of the governing elites, mistrust in states’ institutions and current establishment.

Europe created the bureaucratic structure, immobile, apathetic to peoples’ needs, ready to technically tackle all the problematic situations which might rise, in a mechanical manner, leaving behind and forgetting the old continents’ revolutionary spirit, nationalistic attitudes, vanities and tensions which have reshaped its borders for countless times over the centuries.

The moral degradation of political governing elites, the lack of virtuous men in power positions, the parties’ incapacity to produce and raise charismatic leaders, even the weak selection basis for future politicians, turned politics not into a profession, as Weber may name it, but into a profitable part-time job for some seeking to promote and attain certain private interests, an impersonal way of living for bureaucrats and no longer a field for gifted and extraordinary, noble men and men of letters, a vocation in the idealistic way of conceiving the political arena.

The decline of democracy, manifested through the crisis of representativeness and accountability of governors towards the citizens, was practically confiscated by populist movements that took advantage of the general dissatisfaction, emotionally exploiting the lack of trust of the citizens in the ruling elites, speculating the crisis of legitimacy the old and traditional parties are confronting.

Using the trick of obtaining legitimacy by exploiting the general dissatisfaction, populist movements and parties experienced a boom especially after 2008, in a period characterized by social turmoil, economic crisis, migrants’ crisis, basically a Europe caught in the midst of a media and communicational war, a smoldering conflict between the superpowers USA and Russia, along with the active and ongoing one in the Middle East.

In spite of all this, Bruxelles’ claims for rallying to the European standards, in a relatively short time and on a tumultuous background, of the new entrants of the Union, and the discontent shown by the veteran member states like UK, Germany and France to economically sustain the financial ravines in which the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) were sinking, led to a series of discontents in the EU. The inability to implement a differentiated and progressive development plan tailored upon the specificity of each state, as well as the obvious failure to implement the social and economic cohesion policy, further destabilized the EU from within.

This article aims to answer some pressing questions affecting the European political space and the transformations happening in these societies, to highlight some tendencies that can have destabilizing and unfavorable effects on the construction of the Union, systemically manifested at societal lever through the erosion of political elites “lions” type, as Vilfredo Pareto would denominate, the masses’ need to be governed by certain beliefs and ideologies which are currently in an existential crisis, unable to regenerate and gain new followers. To all these are added the crisis of the classical and traditional parties, caught in a deadlock, unable to redefine themselves to meet the new demands of the citizens. The ascension of populist movements threatens to occupy the political space and divide Europe.


Defining populism

Populism is an ideology and a movement which is intrinsically linked to representative democracy (Cas Mudde), existing since the beginning of democratic systems, present in ancient Roma, where the populares supported the needs and interests of plebeiansPopulism is characterized by its discourse against corrupt governing elite that is exploiting its citizens. Populism is born as a reaction within democracies, but “before being an ideology, populism is a perverse inversion of democracy’s ideals and procedures”[1].

Its leaders, especially charismatic, claim they can offer solutions to the people’s problems. The populists say they represent the people and their interest against the corrupt politicians “seeking to conjure up a mythical unity of nation, class, profession, and so forth, yet they also wish to pit the non- elite against the elite”[2]. The populists’ main target group is the people against the establishment: “populism in modern democratic societies is best seem as an appeal to the people against both the established structure of power and the dominant ideas and values of the society”[3].

The populist movement is formed at the base of society and is often confiscated by experienced political leaders (see Viktor Orban in Hungary – a member of the Parliament since 1990). The new ideology is transversal to the right-left axis, manifesting catch-all tendency among voters. We cannot say that populist parties are right or left, as they have always sought to exploit the inherent problems of a society, from poverty to individual freedom issues.

After 2008, especially in Europe, populism has gained an extremist nationalist tone, but this is due to migrants’ crisis and to Europe’s open gates to an abused and misunderstood policy for embracing multiculturalism. Although populism seems to be guided by the slogan “Power to the people”, when exerting power, rather turns into authoritarianism, as Cas Mudde states: “populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism”[4].

It is interesting to notice that populism is viable, alive and has a strong capacity of moving and influencing the masses more as a movement (Bozoki), but after being established and consolidated in power positions, governmentally, after winning the elections, populist parties ossify, not offering its electors the same revolutionary incentives, but acting like any other elite, trying to maintain the status- quo by any means. Therefore, it is rather difficult to define populist a party or leader that has earned and won its legitimacy through democratic mechanisms (are Putin, Erdogan and Trump still populists or are just showing signs of autocracy?). Populism performs better and capitalizes more in opposition.

Moreover, populism is performing better as a movement, as they manage to appeal to larger group of sympathizers, becoming popular in the plastic sense of the word. On the other hand, “as they become institutionalized into politics, they inevitably lose a major part of their popular appeal”[5, pp. 275].

Populist leaders are highly charismatic and the movements and parties basically gravitate around their personality. They transfer their vision, energy, values and ideas to their organization or movement, and these, in return, internalize and assimilate their leaders’ concept. Populist parties and movements are highly personalized. This characteristic has also a weakness: as soon as the crisis is solved or the leader loses the popular support, the populist form loses its reason to be. This is why populism is an explosive occurrence on the political scene [5, pp. 276].


Factors that favor the rise of populism

Firstly, the rapid changes in the social and economic fields, and also considering the fast- technological advance in the last fifty years, the effects of the Maastrich treaty (1992) have generated new cleavages, new social classes which don’t’ have a clear identity, nor clear aims or claims. Along with this tendency, the lack of strong and visionary political leaders (such as Reagan, Bush, Mitterrand, Thatcher, Kohl[6] and the list may continue) also generated a shift in the voting behaviour. Basically, the emergence of new social classes has not matched in interests, ideas and values the classical political parties, determining a volatility of the electorate, which changes its mind on the last minute, causing confusion among politicians[6]. This psychological and sociological argument stands as a cause for the emergence in the last 20 years of populists parties, of trained political leaders, skilled in anticipating, exploiting the needs of the new classes and electorate and presenting them new social platforms, preaching saving solutions for all the new problems people confront, to which the old and corrupt parties have no solution.

Linking the argument with the decrepit elites, we can observe that the selection basis for the political parties, especially the populist ones, is highly anchored among the members of new social classes. Narrower or broader, populist parties have managed to literary catch all the new demands arisen in contemporary societies. Of course, we may talk about the rise of the civil society against the governments, against all the traditional political parties, which generated throughout the history movements, revolutions and rebellions, leading to changes in governance, fall of old regimes and their replacement with new ones[6], but these we consider cyclical, natural in the evolution and transformation of societies. Along with a new idea comes a change in the collective mentality, generating a change in the society and therefore in the political arena. The emergence of new populist parties is not an uncommon situation considering the above, but the key lies in the legitimacy of the new governing power to be responsible and accountable towards its electorate.

The rise of populism may also be linked to representativeness’s crisis and to the erosion of traditional parties and their role within societies [1, pp. 278].


Populism spreading across Europe

The European countries prove a long tradition in developing populist movements, but we shall analyse the latest twenty years and identify these among the EU’s member states. The detail which needs to be highlighted is that the emergence of populist movements and parties appears to be time coordinated inside the borders of the European Union, arising due to similar causes, as reactions to the fail the EU’s policies. Moreover, these parties have the same public discourse, raising the same type of problems and solutions. Quickly spreading in European countries and passing over its borders, reaching and infusing in the US, stating clearly with Trump’s election as president, and further on to Russia and Turkey, where Putin and Erdogan have led populist movements for taking over political power.

Among the EU’s member states, the general perception regarding the direction in which the European Union is heading towards, in October 2016 – 54% of the interviewed consider that this direction is wrong, with an increase of 13% from September 2015.

The United Kingdom has a strong tradition in populism, but euro skepticism and the people’s discontent with EU’s inability to implement its policies and dealing with migrants crisis, led to the emergence of small populist parties in the 2000’s, joining together in the Populist Alliance, which became in 2014 the Populist Party. Also, in 2004 the third party in UK was United Kingdom’s Independence Party UKIP, declaratively not a populist party, but euro-skeptic and right wing, became mainstream after the euro parliamentary elections in 2014, and led the Brexit movement.

Its charismatic leader, Nigel Farage, around which the party gravitated, resigned after the Brexit referendum, determining other members to step out the party as independents.

Italy had the same experience with Beppe Grilo’s party Movimiento 5 Stelle – Five Stars Movement, founded in 2009 and by 2013 was the party which obtained the most votes and also Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, sending 13 representatives in the European Parliament in 2014, reaching its full potential so that by 2015 to factions split off due to internal rivalries.

Another major example for the rise of populism is Marine le Pen in France. Leading a strong movement and criticizing traditional parties, elites, with a strong nationalistic vision and autocratic tendencies, le Pen’s party National Front won in 2014 25% for the European Parliament’s elections, becoming the first voted party, and strikes in municipal elections 2015. Marine le Pen candidates for presidency in 2012, but did not enter the second round of election, as the third competitor, against Hollande and Sarkozy. In 2017, enters against Macron.

Spain experienced populism through movements like Podemos and Indignados; Greece has Syriza as the main populist party which won the elections, led by the charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, scoring 26,5% of the votes for the European Parliament, as the leading party in elections, and then in parliamentary elections obtained a similar success with 36,3% of the votes, 149 of 300 seats[7].

Hungary institutionalized populism with Viktor Orban’s electoral legitimacy. The other European countries, one by one, acknowledge the presence of populism: Germany – Alternative fur Deutschland, Poland – PiS and its President Jarosław Kaczynski, Romania – the entrance of a new comer – Union Save Romania.


The fall of elites and the crisis of representative democracy

Another cause which determined populism to gain power resides in the decline of elites. Vilfredo Pareto, one of the most influential theorists of elites, explains history as the result of the role and evolution, rise and fall of elites, placing ideologies and cultural movements on a secondary role in the life of a society. Pareto has practically created a guideline for governance and understanding of social realities by explaining the mechanisms through which the elites, small groups of individuals, accede to power, conquering it and ossifying the system in their intent to maintain the gained status-quo.

Under certain social and economic conditions, of social discontent among the citizens, the governing elite may be threatened by other groups that leave their latent status and activate in civil disobedience, popular rebellions or protests, determining favourable sources for the destabilization of the system. The new group will accuse the governing power, pointing out its weakness and flaws, adjudicating humanitarian values and defend the oppressed people: “the new elite which seeks to supersede the old one, or merely to share its power and honors, does not admit to such intention frankly and openly. Instead it assumes the leadership of all the oppressed, declares that it will pursue not its own good, but the good of the many (…) of course, once victory is won, it subjugates the erstwhile allies, or, at best, offers them some formal concessions”[8], determining the fall of the existing elite and its replacement with another elitist group that will have the same behaviour in power positions, but also the same fate as the old government.

Following Pareto’s argumentation line, we observe the cyclicality of elites in power positions. The new governors will take over the habits and customs of the former elite, usurping and deepening the discrepancies and cleavages between the governors and the governed. It is worth highlighting that the new elites are extracted precisely from among the previously disadvantaged and oppressed groups.

In this line, we can argue that this mechanism of acceding to power applies also to populist movements and parties. The social and economic conditions in the latest twenty years have created the favourable moments for the up rise of the civil society, discontent with the ruling political class in general, adding mistrust in the states’ institutions. This civic movement has been captured and exploited by populist charismatic leaders and later institutionalized in political parties, aiming to overturn the leading class and to conquer governance for itself.

Adopting the same thinking line regarding the circulation of elites, Mosca highlights in his major work “The Rulling Class” that the masses, which are not organized, need to be governed by a group of a few high skilled men, endowed with extraordinary abilities[9]. Distancing from Pareto, considers that anyone can become elite within democracies, regardless of social class.

The fathers of classical elite theory, from Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels[10], Gaetano Mosca, to C. Wright Mills[11], agree that governance and the process of decision making are attributes of elites and that the masses are in need of being governed and led.

One of the causes for the elite’s decline is due to the crisis of representativeness. The crisis of representative democracy lies in the fact that citizens no longer feel represented by their leaders. The governing elites lose too fast, between electoral cycles, the democratic legitimacy with which they were invested at the voting moment. Social and economic dissatisfaction, if we relate to the last decade, have created a fertile field for the development of populist movements and parties. What is interesting to observe is that “the European integration project was one not based on representative politics but on elite agreements premised on the “permissive consensus” at a mass level”[5]. The lack of transparency in the decision-making process at European level has eroded citizens’ trust in the European project, surveys showing that more and more citizens adopt a skeptical attitude towards their states’ membership in EU. Considering this background, the citizens felt left behind, considering that their interests are not really promoted and supported at European level, and that the influence of their representatives in the decision-making process is lax. For this reason, all populist doctrines in the European countries promote a skeptical and exiting attitude, developing and amplifying nationalist and extremist tones in public discourse.

The temporal harmonization of the populist phenomenon within the EU member states is not a coincidence. Unlike the Latin American space where populism appeared rather isolated, with very specific traits – like the Argentinean peronism, or the Russian narodniks, spaces in which populism, according to its definition, as a reaction of the oppressed against the corrupt elite, in the European space appears as a reaction towards the European project and the legitimacy crisis of its policies, imposed in national states. There is a long debate regarding the democratic deficit directly linked to European Union’s legitimacy and representative politics, as a consensus couldn’t be reached – on one hand there is a high proposal for increasing the representativeness at euro parliamentary level, on the other, the euro skeptics ask for a higher authority of national-state institutions [5, pp. 277].


Populism emerges in different situations of crisis within democratic societies as Paul Taggart clearly states: “Populism is not the politics of the stable, ordered polity, but comes as an accompaniment to change, crisis and challenge. This crisis may well stem from a sense of moral decay but it always spills over into a critique of politics and into the sense that politics as usual cannot deal with the unusual conditions of crisis”[5]. Times of crisis experienced within the European Union in the last decade, from a material one – financial –to a humanitarian, moral one – the migrants’ crisis. The first one determined social frustration, as national political leaders did not have the ability or mechanisms to solve the situation in a fair way, not the intuition to sense the damages the economic crisis will produce. In addition, the decisions taken and imposed by the European Union upon national states – see Greece – of drastic salary cuts and mass layoffs, has laid the first cornerstone of the erosion of citizens’ trust in the governing political elite, national institutions and European project.

Secondly, the masses activated, gathered and transformed into a national movement protesting against the unpopular measures. Then, the premises for the emergence of populism and their leaders were all favourable.

The second crisis, of moral or humanitarian nature, best pictured by the migrants’ crisis, has deepened the gaps between the governors and the governed. Between the elites and the oppressed masses, suddenly, democracy became questionable: on one hand, some national states did not want to receive the refugees coming in waves from conflicted areas in search for a better life, on the other hand, the imposed decision for each country to receive a quota of migrants artificially created another problem, instead of solving the main one. Another gap between which are the European values and which the national ones, opposing national states will to the one of the European Union’s leadership. This led to a breach in trust of the citizens and the elites and the political parties that govern them.

The fall of elites naturally determined the crisis of representative democracy. The citizens consider that the current political class do not represent them, do not share the same values and ideas, and do not promote and defend their interests, neither at national level, nor European.

The social, economic and political conditions favoured the emergence of protest movements, captured by populist leaders and unified under the same umbrella in terms of demands and needs.

Further on, a movement to its institutionalization into a political party is just one step away. Populism, from an idea to its implementation seems to be the perfect recipe on destabilizing a system and an European project, on turning one against its fellow, reversing values and beliefs and finally on overtaking political power.


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