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.
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“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).
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Hey Lukas, interesting post! Populism has definitely grown in popularity in the past couple of years, both in politics and in society. I am still trying to figure out whether I think that is a good thing or a bad thing – it varies so greatly from case to case and country to country. It sounds like in the case of Ireland’s Sinn Féin, it wasn’t seen as such a good thing and the organization of Irish politics was able to tame the threat of its extremity. Both the ranked-choice voting system that gives voters more choice, discourages extremism, and strengthens the political center and the multipolarity of the political system work against the rise of populism. I agree with your argument that more comprehensive representation prevents populism and authoritarianism by dismantling binary systems that made that kind of rule possible. In the case of the U.S., it is becoming more evident how frustrating the two-party system can be and how it can promote a rise in extreme parties, as we are discovering now with the Republican party post-election. While Trump’s populist stint appears to be capped by his failure to be reelected, it will be interesting to follow the populist rhetoric within the Republic party. I also wonder if we will see the Democratic party trending towards left-wing populism in the future, though I doubt that will stem directly from Biden himself.
What you mention above, that populism varies so greatly from case-to-case, country-to-country is definitely a great point and I’d argue it’s why I tend to view populism as a means to maintain power rather than necessarily pass policy and thus more dangerous. Whether one might be more sympathetic to a particular populist movement might stem from whom their looking to divide; make no mistake in many cases they do have genuine gripes with corrupt or stagnant (which has at times been the case in Ireland) governments, the issue often lies in their solutions.
I agree with you, Trump’s defeat may have slowed down the global wave of populism but given the fact that his repudiation was more on Trump the individual than the party or even ideas that brought him there is very troubling to me. Currently I don’t believe Biden’s style will be able to reverse that, concurrently I don’t believe the US has much of a (in terms of elected officials) left-wing populist movement, or even anything resembling an organized far-left movement at all.
(I am convinced that “The Troubles” is the most British name for a war imaginable)
As I was reading through your piece, I realized that I was not extremely versed in Irish politics until today, so thank you for writing it.
I noticed that you specifically identified populism in Ireland as left-wing, and in your analysis and application of “How Democracies Fall Apart”, you mention Trump. Do you think, based on your research, that both left-wing and right-wing populism is bad for democracies and they both contribute equally to democratic erosion?
Great additional question; from what I found from my research yes, although its less to do with their ideology and more with the methods of populism involved. In the same article I cited where 23% of populist leaders (of a total of 46) caused severe democratic erosion, 5 of them were right-wing populists and 5 of them were left-wing. Populism in my opinion is more of a method to ascertaining power and thus often pretty flexible with its ideology. Case-in-point Sinn Fein is oftentimes a “fair-weather” socialist organization, unified in its (at times righteous) criticisms of the established parties but far more flexible in its agenda beyond the reunification of Ireland. Therefore I do believe populism itself to be unsustainable and bad for democracy, although specific to the US and many European nations I definitely agree that far-right populism is a greater threat than left-wing.
Thank you so much for replying, this is incredible interesting!
I found your analysis of Ireland’s populism to be insightful and intriguing! It has been interesting to study politics during the evident rise of populism, as you pointed out, and I think that you make a great argument about Ireland’s leadership specifically. I too am concerned about the hyperpolarization that allows for populist regimes to thrive, specifically in your example of the 2020 election in the United States. It is incredibly concerning to see such a great portion of the population in the GOP deem the election to be fraudulent, but it also serves as a great example of the effects of populist leaders in this modern world. I would further question, what follows the regime of a populist, because as we have seen with the American republican party, the support for the populist leader does not necessarily cease when their term ends. What, beyond the removal of the hyperpolarized binary, is necessary to prevent populist leaders from gaining traction in the wake of a previous populist regime, when support is still high? I also enjoyed your analysis of ranked choice voting, as it seems to be the system that best combats extremism, as you pointed out. I would be curious to see a system similar to ranked choice in a duopoly, and the consequential changes in success of leaders, such as populists.