Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe.

Date01 August 2023
AuthorWilson, Dwight

Bartels, Larry M. Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023. 280 pages. Hardcover, $29.95.

Does a populist specter haunt Europe? Conventional wisdom has it that economic dislocation, uncontrolled immigration, and loss of sovereignty to a distant EU has created a combustible mix and provoked unprecedented anger among voters that threatens to send democracies backsliding toward illiberalism or outright authoritarianism. A wave of electoral gains--and some victories--by right-wing nationalists around the continent in recent years appears to confirm the consensus.

In this timely volume, the political scientist Larry Bartels takes a critical view of the "democracy-in-crisis" thesis that has gained urgency as populist authoritarians appear to take advantage of the Euro-crisis to threaten consolidated democracies. Through a deft combination of case studies and survey data, Bartels has provided an accessibly written and novel perspective on this important discussion that will interest those who follow political trends in Europe, as well as anyone concerned with the health of global democracy. His departure from the usual interpretation, though, is not all good news.

Bartels exhaustively surveys public opinion before and after the Euro-crisis on economic anxiety, immigration, ideological polarization, and institutional trust, and finds scant evidence for an eruption of anger toward an arrogant and indifferent elite. Indeed, the book reveals a remarkable consistency in attitudes with only modest movement, and sometimes movement away from right-wing nationalism.

What then, does explain the uptick in populism? Instead of an outpouring of populist sentiment among voters, these parties have had greater success where their leaders have maneuvered into the spaces occupied by traditional conservative parties and managed to appeal to conventional conservative voters. Rather than staking out extreme political positions, they have campaigned on familiar issues and later taken advantage of the political weaknesses of their rivals to reshape the system to maintain their own power.

Effective resistance to populism comes from political elites, as well. Mainstream parties stave off authoritarian challenges when they unite in their efforts to exclude extremists within their own ranks rather than try to harness their energy. So rather than a tidal wave of populism sweeping...

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