Populism as Reformation

Though it is popular to contrast “populism” with “democracy,” the two are more alike than different. Like the Reformation 500 years ago, populist movements aim to wrest power from the elites and give it back to the people. The democratic populist system is likely to multiply.

A statue of Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany
The Reformation, set off by Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” in 1517, aimed to give power back to the people. Today’s movement toward populism has similar goals. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Populism is a democratic phenomenon
  • Like the Reformation once did, it aims to bring power back to the people
  • Different types of “populist” democracies will multiply
  • The democratic model may undergo a “radical renewal”

Pitting populism against democracy has become commonplace. The exercise implies that there is a single positive type of “democracy” and that “populism” is a dark force that distorts and mortally endangers it. This either-or fallacy does not withstand closer scrutiny, however: both “demos” and “populus” derive from words for “the people.” The distinction is scarcely more meaningful than, say, contrasting “tyranny” and “dictatorship.” Some theoretical details are different, but their practical incarnations are very close. Few are fussy about distinguishing between a dentist and stomatologist.

Considering this subject takes us back to the origins of modern democracy as a political order. It started with “the people” taking the place of “God” – if not in the whole universe, then at least in society and politics. This is not a figure of speech; it is a fact well known to historians and philosophers, but almost always forgotten by politicians.

Initially, monarchs took the place of God. As French philosopher Jacques Maritain pointed out:

When [16th-century French philosopher] Jean Bodin says that the sovereign prince is the image of God, this phrase must be understood in its full force, and means that the sovereign – submitted to God, but accountable only to him – transcends the political whole just as God transcends the cosmos.

That experiment, though, finally came to an end. The absolutist Leviathan was not merely a “mortal god,” to quote English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, but was too mortal – as amply confirmed by the misfortunes of Charles II of England, Louis XVI of France and many other sovereigns. After the demise of these monarchs, the people were elevated as sovereign. In effect, they became God.

Source of legitimacy

This “people” make up an “imagined community” as Irish historian Benedict Anderson put it. They are unavailable for direct observation or contact, present both everywhere and nowhere – in a word, transcendental. They are the source of legitimacy of all other authorities, which can only operate in their name. As the “demos” and as the “nation,” omnipotent in both forms, their will cannot be contradicted because, as French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “the voice of the people is the voice of God.”

If something is perceived as God, described as God and functions as God, then it is God.

They are at the core of civil rituals, people swear oaths and impose sentences in their name. They are served and sacrificed to. It was not by chance that “theological discourse has provided models for the idealization of the nation and the sacralization of the state, which make it possible for a bond of sacrifice to be created between individuals,” according to French philosopher Etienne Balibar.

As a practical matter, if something – the people, for example – is perceived as God, described as God and functions as God, then it is God. French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville was interested in American democracy because he saw in it an image of the West’s future and, probably, that of humanity as a whole. This is the path we are following now. “The people reign in the American political world as the Deity does in the universe. They are the cause and the aim of all things; everything comes from them, and everything is absorbed in them,” he wrote. These days, we see this with particular clarity – not just in the United States, and not just in the West.

Reformation’s reflection

If we recognize democracy not merely as a rational project (rational projects do not arouse passions; people do not fight or die for them), but as a sui generis belief, then the most accurate analogy to its present-day crisis dates from 500 years ago. The issues of faith and politics were also intimately combined by an epic event of that time: the Reformation.

Such historical parallels help distance us from the passions of current events, bring into view their counterintuitive features and, possibly, intimations of the future. Among other things, the Reformation was based on opposition to the cliques that had usurped the role of mediators between the human soul and God, monopolizing access to “salvation goods” and distributing them arbitrarily.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting in Istanbul
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) have harnessed the populist zeitgeist to change their country’s democratic systems. © dpa

In some ways, those cliques bear a disturbing resemblance to the conceited elites of modern democratic states (not to mention transnational bureaucracies, especially in Europe) who live sheltered lives, conclude cartel agreements and exclude political outsiders.

It meant little that strict separation of clergy and laity could not be a tenet of the Catholic faith, just as the impenetrable border between elites and the masses cannot be a democratic principle. This separation was a fact of life, and it needed to be changed. The Reformation also proclaimed the right of every person and community to receive the divine truth in their own language as a direct and personal message, rejecting the Holy Tradition expressed through intermediaries in a poorly understood universal language. If anything, it was Roman Catholicism that served as a prototype of globalization in those times.

Doesn’t this resemble the multiple appeals to build popular democracy – from American, British, French, Hungarian, Polish, Russian and Turkish politicians, among others – and rejecting the annoying requirements of the democratic “canon” and a multilateral world order? The Reformation did not have a clear, generally accepted program or a single coordinating center, either. It was a multidimensional wave that exalted various charismatic leaders “who had read their Bibles.” (As American anthropologist Clifford Geertz pointed out, charisma “is a sign, not of popular appeal or inventive craziness, but of being near the heart of things.”)

The word ‘protestant’ is appropriate: ‘the people’ protest, because they want their sacred status returned to them.

Just as during the Reformation, the charisma of today’s populist leaders unites them across the old ideological barriers of left and right. Researchers have looked to the Reformation to discover the sources of both individualistic capitalism and collectivist totalitarian socialism. Even the inarticulateness, absurdity and internal contradictions of modern populist demands correspond to this analogy: some Protestant communities practice “speaking in tongues,” incoherent babbling in a mixture of languages, and consider it a gift of prophesy, “groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). The very word “protestant” is quite appropriate: “the people” protest, because they want their sacred status returned to them.

Untangled riddle

This makes somewhat more understandable the riddle of “populist autocrats” – such as Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and possibly Donald Trump, Nikol Pashinyan and others. They are like Henry VIII, the monarch who saw the writing on the wall before everyone else and decided to head the Reformation himself. His idea was to direct the process to minimize any real change while capitalizing on the events to reinforce his personal and dynastic power.

Henry VIII and his heirs were not successful in every detail; the English Reformation did produce some bloody convulsions. However, the Anglican model of church-state relations survived. The “Populist autocrats” had managed to establish a connection with “the people” over the heads of the church and lay aristocracy (an elite to which they belonged).

The legitimacy of their present-day counterparts is purely electoral. It can be called democratic or populist, but this does not change the essence. Elites tend to condemn both the autocrats and “the people” who blindly trust them (a Russian “democratic” politician, learning of the disappointing results of the 1993 parliamentary elections, shouted during a live broadcast: “Russia, you’ve gone mad!”). But these imprecations are useless, because direct appeals to the people can overwhelm all other methods of traditional politics. A good example is the Turkish military coup of July 2016, whose sophisticated and well-oiled machinery collapsed after President Erdogan called his supporters into the streets.

A portrait of King Henry VIII of England
King Henry VIII of England harnessed the Reformation and capitalized on it, directing it so as to minimize any real change and reinforce his own power. © dpa

Autocrats do not hold power forever, however. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who first sensed the zeitgeist and became a model for the rest, is probably approaching the end of his reign. Even populists have to deal with financial constraints when they gain power (this is quite familiar to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who began pinching pennies with amazing alacrity). When the money runs out, they are forced to act more rationally.

The problem is less with the autocrats than with the people. Once aroused, they do not care about rationality when faith and salvation are at stake. That is exactly what politics is about these days. In many cases, the behavior of entrenched autocrats starts to collide with the hopes they had fostered and the values they had symbolized. In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, the emperor had no clothes – but in this case, he is dressed too richly.

Replacing a populist autocrat is far from impossible (just ask Mikheil Saakashvili and Robert Mugabe). But how then does one defuse the irrational rebellion that topples conservative elites and the false prophets who replace them alike?

A Counter-Reformation

One could hope for something like a democratic Counter-Reformation. After all, Catholicism tottered when attacked by the Protestants but did not fall. Not only did it survive, but it also remained the largest confession in the world. Even so, the Counter-Reformation changed the practices of the church itself. It was not simply reactionary, but revolutionary in its own right. Only a radical renewal could restore the Catholic Church as a provider of salvation goods, its raison d’etre.

Expect the proliferation of regimes that call themselves democratic but do not fit the classical democratic model.

In our time, we can expect a further proliferation of regimes that call themselves democratic but do not fit the classical democratic model – just as the number of Protestant denominations multiplied to the tens of thousands, including some with tenuous links to traditional Christianity. It makes no sense to label these regimes as “hybrids” – they are genuine, legitimate descendants; natural results of a free, uncontrolled evolution of democracy.

What is to be done? Most importantly, we must recall another of de Tocqueville’s behests:

A new science of politics is indispensable to a new world. This, however, is what we think of least; launched in the middle of a rapid stream, we obstinately fix our eyes on the ruins which may still be described upon the shore we have left, while the current sweeps us along, and drives us backwards towards the gulf.

There is no reason to hope for a return of the good old days that would dispel popular delusions and restore democracy to its pristine state (mostly ascribed to it ex post facto). When an ancien regime falls, it falls for good.

The central value of democracy – even when it takes on a new, unaccustomed and even frightening guise – is freedom. This is something that no one has yet been able to revoke. The yearning for freedom gives us hope in the same things that the Christians clung to in the darkest of times: that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Now the soundness of this belief will undergo a major test.

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