A successful representative democracy is dependent on the expression of the citizens’ interests and views in society through “popular sovereignty”. This idea is the foundation of any working democracy where representatives are tasked with both representing and acting in the best interest of their constituents as well as the governing the country as a whole. It is essential that the will of the citizens is successfully expressed and acted on by representatives in a democracy. To be put directly, democracy can be described as balancing the interests (which are sometimes contradictory) of particular individuals and groups to arrive at decisions and governmental actions that are good for society and the country as a whole.
Needless to say, populists often enjoy immense popular support. Regardless of how populists win elections later, they are often first elected in a free, democratic election with at least some mandate of popular support. Populism, for the purposes of this article, can be taken to mean as defined by Jan-Werner Müller in What is Populism? as “a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified people against the elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior”. Populists claim to represent the “whole people”, however, they do not include every citizen in their conceptual and rhetorical description of the “people”. It is common for populists to claim to represent the interests of the common man against the “corrupt elite” which are not included in the populist’s conceptual idea of “the people”. It is well-known that many populists enjoy immense popularity including former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (79%) and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte (up to 88%) to give two examples. However, even among the most popular “populist” leaders, one could argue they govern for “their people” rather than the country as a whole. Populists frame their leadership of the “whole country” in such a way that certain people are represented and other groups can be extremely excluded, which contradicts the democratic idea that the minority has rights and protections so that that majority can’t completely dominate the government. Chavez, for example, claimed to represent the poor of Venezuela and waged a repression campaign against the media and his political opponents. Duterte, like Chavez, claimed to represent the poor in the Philippines and is currently leading a mass-killing of drug dealers and users often urging “citizens with guns to shoot and kill drug dealers who resist arrest and fight back”. In this way, populists use their political influence and positions to arm their supporters against other groups in society, using divisive tactics to enforce and maintain their power, without actually trying to bring everyone together and govern the varied interests of the country’s citizenry.
It goes without saying that this form of populism can pose not only a threat to democratic institutions but also to many citizens living in a country with a populist in power. Some argue it is essential for institutional systems to exist to help check “populists” and other extremist leaders that pose a threat to democracy once elected. In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that political parties serve a vital role as “gatekeepers” who help prevent extremist candidates (including populists) from gaining a platform that would allow them to become elected through the party apparatus. They further state that “Americans have long had an authoritarian streak” and cite examples such as George Wallace and Joseph McCarthy who enjoyed popular support. However, historically, the establishments of political parties kept extremist candidates from being able to really capitalize on their support into a higher office or long-term political government influence.
This points to an inherent contradiction in a representative democracy where populist candidates can be legitimately elected, but then pose a threat to democracy itself by either rewriting democratic rules or repressing the other groups (including their political rivals) outside their idea of the “people”. Here, a system of “checks and balances” comes into conflict with “popular sovereignty”. In this way, keeping these candidates from being elected through institutional norms seems to prevent the expression of the people’s will, but allowing expression of the people’s will could lead to prevention of their will being expressed through democratic institutions if an anti-democracy inclined populist comes to power.
Going back to Müller’s argument, excluding populists often doesn’t work for this very reason. In the 2016 election, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders experienced varying degrees of success by pushing back against the establishment nature of the parties’ primaries they were running. If the “protections” a democracy provides comes through maintaining an institutional establishment that the public feels are not responsive to its concerns, then this can lead to resentment and further support for populist politicians, leading to a compounding problem.
The public needs to have representatives they believe are responsive to their will and act with their interests in mind. Certainly, as Levitsky and Ziblatt identify, there must be some system of checks to keep prevent populists and other extremists from running roughshod over democratic institutions and norms, but these protections should not come at the expense of the people being able to express their will through democratic elections. Resentment towards an establishment that hinders free expression of ideas and represses certain candidates might only lead to further support for populist crusades against a “corrupt elite” and disdain for certain democratic institutions. Therefore, populists must be engaged with and not merely repressed as Müller argues. As is shown in Venezuela and the Philippines, populist leaders can enjoy substantial support. For a representative democracy to succeed, the people must not feel excluded from the system and a more open political system might encourage faith in the system, and thereby, make it less likely that the most populist and anti-democratic leaders receive support, to begin with.
 Müller, Jan-Werner, 2016. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press. Chapter 1
 Levitsky, Steven and Ziblatt, Daniel, 2018. How Democracies Die. Broadway Books. Chapter 2 (Gatekeepers in America).
Photo by Wikimedia Commons, “Venezuelan protests”, Creative Commons Zero license.