2016 was the year of the populist; The Guardian noted that the words “populist” or “populism” were in almost 2,000 articles written by them in 2016, compared to only 1,000 the year before. In 2016: more than a quarter of Europeans voted populist in their last elections for which 11 populist parties occupied government in Europe, Brexit won the referendum by a close 52-48%, and Donald Trump won the US Presidency in a shocking upset. Four years later while Trump has lost the election, the style and policies that brought him to the White House persist with a Republican Party that largely refuses to condemn him. Meanwhile, across the pond Boris Johnson still commands a resounding majority even while his promise to “Make Brexit Happen” is still under-works. A case study of 46 populist leaders found that 23% of them caused severe democratic backsliding, and perhaps more urgently that only 17% of them had stepped down after they had lost in a fair and free election. With the process of a peaceful transfer of power being questioned in the US the question remains; how can a democracy resist populism? Some answers may lie within the green hills of Ireland, who has been able to more successfully resist its populist movement.
In contrast to the movements seen in the US and UK, Ireland’s populism has been predominantly left-wing by a group known as the Sinn Féin. Historically, Sinn Féin served as the political arm to the IRA during the infamous British-Irish Troubles, which among its promise to reunify Ireland and Northern Ireland in 5 years plus some radical taxing policies has cast the party in an unfavorable light and is a cause for concern in the current administration. Sinn Féin’s ability to successfully act as a crux amongst the two-party dominance of centre-right Fine Gael and center Fianna Fáil has paid off electorally. Just this past year they made extraordinary gains in Parliament with a yield of 37 seats, equalling Fianna Fáil and displacing Fine Gael. Sinn Féin’s win as a radical populist group was in part aided by a steady decrease in voter turnout, , dropping from 70.1% in 2011 to 62.9% in 2020, reflecting a lack of faith in the existing duopoly.
Unlike the US election or The Yes Vote on Brexit which gave Trump and Johnson’s populist movements a more definitive mandate, Sinn Féin’s wins were tempered by the amount of candidates it chose to run and Ireland’s ranked choice voting system. Ranked choice voting is an instant run-off majority system that allows voters to rank candidates, wherein all first choice votes are counted. Candidates with the lowest amount are eliminated wherein those who chose them as their first choice get their 2nd place votes counted, this process repeats itself until a candidate gets 51% of the vote, Electoral system design expert Benjamin Reilly noted of ranked choice voting that in addition to giving voters more choice it “has proved to be a sort of prophylactic against extremism, helping to strengthen the political center,” something that did aid in tempering the vote against Sinn Féin. Ranked choice voting also allows multi-party systems to thrive, which helps combat the stagnancy of duopoly seen strictly in the US two party system and practically with UK’s Conservative and Labour Parties dominating.
This idea of multipolarity too has proven greatly successful in fending off Sinn Féin in that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have managed to value long-term national strength over short-term party gains. Levitsky and Ziblatt in How Democracies Die write that “Whenever extremists emerge as serious electoral contenders, mainstream parties must forge a united front to defeat them”, furthermore warning of parties cooperating with radicals to appease them for short-term gains. Fianna Fáil (who ended up with the most seats) opted to form a three-party coalition government with Fine Gael and The Green Party rather than any coalition with Sinn Féin. The coalition government’s refusal to legitimize them within a more multipolar system has forced Sinn Féin to lose some of their more populist edges, as the party frequently attempts to adapt itself and even compromise when necessary. Colin Coulter and John Reynolds of the National University of Ireland have described Sinn Féin as “a rainbow coalition of progressive causes” with an inclination to “dispense with their socialist principles when opportune”. Beyond its own ambitions internally, Sinn Féin has been checked externally, with the upper house of Parliament recently voting in favour of forcing the party to return 3.5 million euros back to a millionaire registered in Northern Ireland which occurred due to a political donation loophole (which Fine Gael has promised to correct) that allowed the party to skirt campaign finance laws.
Ireland’s united front to contain Sinn Féin leads to important findings in the fight against populism both in Europe and the United States. In How Democracies Fall Apart the authors noted that populist-fueled authoritarianization has been on the rise, accounting for 40% of all democratic failures between 2000 and 2010 and will likely become the most predominant method toward autocracy. Hyperpolarization has played a key role in the enabling of populists to power and maintaining their erosive effects on democracy. Trump lost the 2020 election by about 6 million votes, a result that 70% of Republicans deemed unfair despite any credible evidence suggestion otherwise, according to a poll from Politico. Within a two-party system, the general populist method of dividing voters by calling out corruption in the existing “establishment” is more effective than in systems with multiple parties that hold a fighting chance. Greater diversity of candidates not only removes forced binaries that benefit populists, but can also allow for a more robust coalition of resistance for members of a nation’s government to oppose those same radicals. Removal of the hyperpolarized binary and allowing the means for more comprehensive representation might just make the difference in preventing the populist and future authoritarian regimes of tomorrow by dismantling the systems and attitudes that made their rule possible.
Coulter, Colin, and John Reynolds. 2020. “Good Times For A Change? Ireland Since The General Election.” Soundings 75(75): 66-81.
Duffy, Rónán. 2020. “Turnout For Saturday Election Was Fourth-Lowest Ever In History Of The State.” TheJournal.ie. https://www.thejournal.ie/turnout-5000449-Feb2020/ (23 November 2020).
Galligan, Yvonne. 2011. “2011 Irish General Election.” Electoral-reform.org.uk. https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/2011-Irish-General-Election.pdf (23 November 2020).
“Ireland To Form New Government After Green Party Votes For Coalition.” 2020. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/26/irish-government-to-be-formed-after-greens-vote-yes-to-coalition (23 November 2020).
Kambhampaty, Anna. 2019. “New York City Voters Just Adopted Ranked-Choice Voting In Elections.” Time. https://time.com/5718941/ranked-choice-voting/ (23 November 2020).
Kelpie, Colm. 2020. “Irish General Election: Profile Of Irish Political Parties.” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51386410 (23 November 2020).
Kendall-Taylor, Andrea, and Erica Frantz. 2016. “How Democracies Fall Apart.” Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-12-05/how-democracies-fall-apart (23 November 2020).
Kim, Catherine. 2020. “Poll: 70 Percent Of Republicans Don’T Think The Election Was Free And Fair.” POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/09/republicans-free-fair-elections-435488 (23 November 2020).
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. 6th ed. Crown.
Rooduijn, Matthijs. 2020. “Why Is Populism Suddenly All The Rage?.” the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/political-science/2018/nov/20/why-is-populism-suddenly-so-sexy-the-reasons-are-many (23 November 2020).
Mounk, Yascha, and Jordan Kyle. 2018. “What Populists Do To Democracies.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/12/hard-data-populism-bolsonaro-trump/578878/ (23 November 2020).
Ryan, Phillip. 2020. “Sinn Fein Under Pressure To Return Huge Donation After Irish Seanad Vote.” BelfastTelegraph. https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/politics/sinn-fein-under-pressure-to-return-huge-donation-after-irish-seanad-vote-39736588.html (23 November 2020).