There is a specter haunting many regions of the world, that of authoritarian populism. Whatever was its past, today’s populism — with its desire to embody popular sovereignty in a leader or (rarely) a group — speaking for a part of the population and demonizing other parts — is a threat not only to liberal but to all genuine democracy. Whether still only a movement or already a government, we (namely democrats of different persuasions) have not yet developed effective strategies to dissolve this specter. But fortunately, there are signs of such a developing strategy, however partial and unclear the outcomes will be.
In Budapest, and shortly before local elections, some of my friends now speak of the Istanbul Express. As readers know, in that enormous city, followers of the slightly left Republican People’s Party (CHP), of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and a small nationalist grouping, “the Good Party,” united to defeat (twice!) Erdogan’s AKP candidate. It seems that the Istanbul Express is indeed arriving in Budapest (and many provincial cities too), where, using primaries, most political parties did manage to unite around single candidacies to try to defeat Viktor Orbán’s FIDESZ.
The real stakes, however, are national elections, or the formation of national governments. Fortunately, there are significant signs of an emerging anti-authoritarian democratic alternative. The first came from Italy; an opportunity provided by the mistakes of the authoritarian strongman Matteo Salvini. By attempting to blow up the government for his electoral advantage, he provided an opportunity for the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and the left-populist Five Star Movement to unite, hitherto irreconcilable enemies. If they govern badly, of course, Salvini or someone like him will have another chance to mobilize and win. The answer is to govern well: to deal with the challenges of mass immigration on the European level, to be loyally European, and yet resist the austerity demands that still are part of the imposed constraints coming from Brussels and Frankfurt. The second sign came from the United Kingdom, where a parliamentary “coalition” of Labor, Liberals, Scotts, a Green, and dissident conservatives have so far stopped their demagogic populist PM in his tracks. This case, however, is even more difficult for democratic forces, because unlike in Italy, it is hard to avoid an election. PM Johnson can lose in parliament over and over and still use these defeats to win an election. In the British first past the post electoral system, he needs perhaps 35% of the overall vote to succeed, indeed much less than what Trump’s total was (and might be) in the electoral college. Given the political divisions among his opponents, Johnson may succeed (and so might Trump) if the victory of either a moderate or a progressive provokes too many defections or absentees.
The answer I strongly believe in is to get on the Istanbul, or even better, the Rome Express. In other words, it would mean relying on uneasy alliances of different types of political forces loyal to political democracy, however difficult that may seem under quite different political circumstances. In the U.S., this would first require an open endorsement of a Democratic ticket by dissident Republicans; something that would have to be organized after Trump’s primary challengers lose, predictably. Second, it would involve the construction of a mixed ticket and a platform that draws its elements from different current proposals. That would require addressing the democracy, welfare, and the status deficits empowering populists of all stripes. Beyond constructing a platform that would have to be taken seriously in governing, it matters greatly in the U.S. who the candidates are and whether they can appeal to diverse constituencies. Hence, a ticket with Biden at the top should include Elizabeth Warren as the vice-presidential nominee, while a ticket with Warren on top must include a more moderate figure such as Harris or Booker. Any of these politicians should see the strong rationale for such tactics. My fear of Bernie Sanders — the only left populist in the race — stems in part from the fact that in his rather absurd call for “political revolution” he would not, nor may not understand (unlike any of the others) the need for compromise in enacting progressive policies under the U.S. political design. No revolution is coming in the United States, thankfully, and even democratization will have to occur within the liberal democratic framework where no one will be able to rely on 99 or even 59 %. Demonizing enemies as Sanders tends to is not the best way to achieve compromise and especially near consensus.
The election in the UK will come sooner and will be more challenging from strategic and tactical points of view. However, assuming a common strategy for Democracy, the lessons of Istanbul, Budapest, and Rome, could be tactically applied in spite of the electoral system that would (as things now stand) punish the fragmentation of the parties that temporarily have united in Parliament. It would require creative leadership as well as self-limitation by all. But it could be done.
My idea, which should be applied to one (and only one) election has two parts. First, the parties should declare that their goal is to form a national unity government that will not only deal with Brexit but will also focus on the sources that have produced the populist challenge behind that disastrous idea, which, of course, also produced the Johnson phenomenon. Second, the parties should unite around each of the current MP’s, including the Tory dissidents — now endangered — and withdraw the candidates that would fragment the anti-populist democratic vote. For the current Johnson-supporting MP seats (Conservative, UKIP, or DUP), a single opposition candidate should be agreed upon using both the ability to win as a criterion as well as keeping (more or less) to the proportions of each party obtained in the last election of 2017 or the European elections this year. Arranging such a strategy would require an “oppositional round table” that would have to be constructed as soon as an electoral date (hopefully after October 31st) is set.
A similar doubt arises with Corbyn as with Sanders. Without Labour that will have to sacrifice the most; no electoral deal will be possible. But so far, and in the current constitutional crisis, Jeremy Corbyn has shown that he is capable of being a statesman. If he cannot, Labour must replace him. As for the 21 or so Tories last week, the issue should not be simply about the party or its ideology but about country, or in other words, about the viability of a British strategy for Democracy.
Andrew Arato is the Dorothy Hirshon Professor in Social and Political Theory at The New School, New York. He is the author of Post Sovereign Constitution Making(Oxford, 2016 ), and Adventures of the Constituent Power (Cambridge, 2017)