Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft
International Politics and Society 3/2003


About this edition

Democracy is at the heart of the political concept of “the West”. It is the key institution in guaranteeing peace and freedom. However, democracy may be endangered by the perversion, through its own mechanisms, of the basic notion of “popular sovereignty”, or “government by the people for the people”. An important source of problems is the need for intermediary processes between the will of the people and political decision-making, which give political activists a central role.

Among the activists in the European political „marketplace“ an outsider group has recently met with some success and has unsettled not only the „market leaders“, i.e. the established political parties. The policies and rhetoric of these outsiders – right-wing populists – are considered a provocation to our democratic culture. The pejorative term „populist“ comprises two main worries: first, that the people (the voters) are allowing themselves to be taken for a ride, and second – and much worse – that a growing number of people approve of the offensive message of intolerance with which the right-wing populists achieve their success. What is the cause of the rise of right-wing populism throughout Europe? This edition of International Politics and Society presents a range of interpretations. The contributions by Mark Blyth and René Cuperus argue that the established parties have progressively lost sight of the concerns of large parts of society. Social democrats in particular, as a political grouping which at one time concerned itself with civilizing capitalism, have in practice withdrawn from the business of looking after the economically weak and the losers in the process of social change. Cuperus expressly calls upon them to return to a populist discourse. Blyth, on the other hand, analyzes the conditions that drove the social democrats to seek the political middle ground within the framework of a party-cartel and to no longer appeal specifically to the working-class. But, as Michael Braun describes in detail, the greatest right-wing populist success in Europe so far, the repeated election of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister of Italy, was the result less of a deficit of the political left than of the vacuum created by the demise of Christian Democracy on the center-right of Italian politics, a vacuum Berlusconi has filled with violent anti-left rhetoric.

The „Berlusconi phenomenon“ shows the dangers to democracy inherent in the advance of populism: the majority of voters are manipulated, a minority disfranchised. The majority are manipulated by the aggressive, but politically non-committal rhetoric of charismatic demagogues and, as the case may be, by a biased media. A minority are disfranchised because they are excluded from shaping government output once the votes have been counted. Frank Decker presents the plebiscitary reduction of democracy to mere majoritarianism as a reaction observable throughout the West – becoming manifest not only as right-wing populism – to the increasing technocratic professionalization of democratic politics. According to Decker, it is precisely the deliberative element of democracy which is swept aside, the inclusive search for good, consensus-based solutions to common problems, which is often said to mark the way to a revitalized democracy (see, for example, Charles Sable in the 1/2000 issue and Andreas Maurer in the 1/2003 issue of International Politics and Society).

Whom does plebiscitary populist politics benefit? In particular, what does right-wing populism mean for the „ordinary people“, whose interests the political left once fought for? Where right-wing populism has come to power, above all in Italy, it has favored policies which accommodate those who are also prospering in the market. It has not been particularly concerned with making market outcomes more compatible with criteria of social justice. As René Cuperus emphasizes, right-wing populism also harms the economically disadvantaged because it successfully „fishes for votes in the same pond“ as social democratic parties. But then, what does that matter if social democracy no longer really looks after the victims of the market? Mark Blyth points out that the populist right could try to fill the gap not only in rhetoric but also in reality. No good can be expected to come of that.

A second theme of this edition is the adaptation of governance mechanisms to the new problem situations which come under the heading of globalization. Bob Jessop looks at the functions of the state, the institution which has long dominated our thinking on the purposive shaping of society. Despite a certain amount of transfer of state functions to other agencies, according to Jessop there will be no end to the territory-bound control structure that is the „state“. In fact, the state will increasingly exert its influence over complex mediation processes. Is this another step in the direction of an opaque democracy alienated from the electorate? For James Rosenau, who perhaps more than anyone else has pondered governance problems in a globalized world, the complexity of supranational „governance“ exceeds anything which present-day human society, molded by hierarchical statehood, can manage. The consequence will be that problems which the nation state can no longer solve run the risk of remaining unsolved.

The new form of US hegemony remains an important theme for International Politics and Society, even after the Pax Americana focus in edition 1/2003. In the current issue the historian Kenneth B. Moss shows how American society has always regarded itself as a new kind of community – consciously created, not historically developing – which has nothing to do with the world of states that emanated from the Peace of Westphalia, rife with conflict and essentially pre-democratic. Such a self-understanding is much more likely to combine – when isolationism is no longer an option – with a sense of global mission than, for example, with submission to UN procedures of doubtful democratic legitimacy; particularly when US power is unmatched by other states. Naturally enough, this offends continental Europeans whose approach to international order is linked to the idea of a community of equal states civilized by binding legal norms. Christoph Zöpel’s contribution links this idea to Europe’s traumatic history, which urges a „civilizing“ of national sovereignty by multilateral means.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | net edition malte.michel | 6/2003