“When and why do men obey?” Max Weber poses this question in his 1918 lecture ‘Politics as a Vocation’. ” Upon what inner justifications and upon what external means does this domination rest?”
The answer that Weber happens upon is the concept of legitimacy; the inner justifications that people make as to why they ought to obey the laws created by their states. He goes on to enumerate three categories of political legitimization: legitimacy through tradition (as in a monarchy), legitimacy through the charisma of an individual leader, and legitimacy through legality, or the belief that the state is legitimate because the laws that it creates are the best possible way to uphold a social order.
Democracy is often framed through the eyes of the third mode of legitimacy– that a democracy’s laws are valid because democracy is the best method of creating laws. Populism, fueling doubt in these democratic institutions, might be seen as a way of undermining political legitimacy. However, the slide from democracy to autocracy seems to be a slide from one mode of ensuring legitimacy to another; moving from legality to individually cultivated legitimacy.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erika Frantz write in their article ‘How Democracies Fall Apart’, “Today’s populist parties extol the virtues of strong and decisive leadership, share a disdain for established institutions, and express deep distrust of perceived experts and elites.” This has a double effect on the legitimacy of a government: it instills doubt in the established institutions, and it reinforces the populist leader as the only figure who is trustworthy. Because of this, populist leaders are able to fulfill their namesake and remain popular. “Because populist leaders enjoy substantial popular support, they tend to have broad approval for many of their proposed changes,” Kendall-Taylor and Frantz write, which creates what the authors term a “personalist dictatorship” where an individual wields the majority of government power.
In a sense, a populist leader is doing as all leaders do, and negotiating with the citizens of their state the terms of their power and the obedience of the people. In order to do this, however, it is necessary to dismantle popular belief in democracy in favor of autocracy. Populism is a “pathway to autocracy” as Kendall-Taylor and Frantz put it, not as a side-effect or an unforeseen consequence, but as an intentional aim of how a populist legitimizes themselves and establishes their authority.
Photo by Andrea Skermann (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.