'Anti-Pluralism' by William A. Galston

'Anti-Pluralism' by William A. Galston {
AP Photo/LM Otero

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, RealClear Book of the Week, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week M. Anthony Mills discusses “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy.” by William A. Galston.

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“Populism” may be the watchword of the decade. America’s political upheaval, which peaked in Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, was only one fault line in a larger populist earthquake rattling the entire West, or so William A. Galston argues in “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy.” From Make America Great Again, Brexit, and the rise of France’s national Front to Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Victor Orban’s self-described “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, populism appears to be sweeping the West, calling into question long-held liberal assumptions.

But what is populism? Does it imperil liberal democracy? Or is it instead a necessary corrective to the anti-democratic drift of post–Cold War liberal regimes?

Unlike many of today’s self-appointed defenders of liberal democracy, Galston does not dismiss populism as the simple result of xenophobia, nativism, or racism. On the contrary, he identifies, especially among working-class voters across the West, a legitimate frustration with governing elites and the ideological consensus driving policy for the last several decades. That consensus has ignored or downplayed anxieties arising from rapid technological and demographic changes and attendant economic and cultural dislocations.

Many commentators have pointed to economic factors to explain the populist surge. Until recently, Galston counted himself among them. And while it is true that economic factors — from automation and offshoring to the rise of the digital economy — are important, Galston insists that they alone cannot account for the rise of populism. Rather, it stems from “concerns about the loss of national sovereignty,” concerns that have been intensified by economic pressures.

While populists claim the mantle of democracy, a liberal democracy is not, Galston points out, just a democracy, in which the people exercise political power directly. Nor is it just a republic, in which the people are sovereign. A liberal democracy is a particular type of republic in which the people exercise power indirectly by delegating it to elected representatives. It depends upon mediating mechanisms, such as the separation of powers and the judiciary, which serve to protect the minority against the tyranny of the majority. Therein lies the danger: Populism threatens democracy by identifying the “people” with a particular “homogenous and unitary” subset of the people; and it threatens liberalism by promising to fulfill the will of this “people” even if that means casting liberal mechanisms aside.

Ultimately, Galston thinks, defeating populism will require revitalizing the economy as well as advancing public policies that ensure its fruits are broadly shared. But it will also require leaders capable of articulating an alternative vision — what Galston has elsewhere called a “reasonable patriotism” — grounded in universal liberal principles but recognizing that “the enjoyment of these principles requires institutions of enforcement, most often situated within particular political communities.”

Whether or not you agree with Galston’s assessment of populism, “Anti-Pluralism” offers nuance and good sense to a political debate in dire need of both.

M. Anthony Mills is the managing editor of RealClear Media Group.

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