"CLEON: Dear People, come out here! [...] Come, dearest Peopley, and I'll tell you how I'm insulted." Aristopanes, the Knights
“Thus liberty, getting out of all order and reason, passes into the harshest and bitterest form of slavery” Plato
Populism has no precise definition. It is not an ideology per se, but has been viewed more often as a “folkloric style of politics”, a “ruse” employed by both the political Left and Right in order to manipulate the public will and gain political advantage. It typically rests on the conflict (real or exaggerated) between a monolithic group of individuals, “the pure people”, versus “the corrupt elite”. In this context, a charismatic leader, claiming to embody la volonté générale, comes to the fore to stand with ‘the people’ and, paradoxically, mobilise them against political pluralism.
Political scientist Cas Mudde called the recent rise of populism worldwide an “illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.”
There is no doubt that representative democracy has gone astray and that serious measures are needed to correct its present deviations and inabilities. In this context, political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller wrote, “populism is seen as a threat, but also as a potential corrective for a politics that has somehow become too distant from “the people”. Populism, practised either whole-heartedly or in solemn mockery, can, therefore, be also seen as a means of “re-introducing conflict into politics and fostering mobilisation of excluded sectors of society with the aim of changing the status quo”.
Yet, playing the populist card in order to reform the way the system operates can be also a hazardous project as there is no certainty about what it would, eventually, usher in, once irrationality has been introduced into politics. The big question that arises is therefore: how populism might end or what it might mutate into.
In the UK, for instance, populists (having united, Peron-style, both the hard right and the socialist left of politics) have successfully shot down, not our rigged politics and the causes of widespread institutional corruption, but the credibility of the liberal principles of representative democracy, thus setting their mini-revolution on a perilous course.
What is happening nowadays may be, however, a turning point: will popular discontent be used to repair the way we do politics and re-build a truly liberal democracy from the ashes of a decadent State, or will it be used to replace it with an openly authoritarian regime? What comes next after the current wave of right-wing populism?
Political risk consultant, Sam Wilkins, in one of his speeches, suggested an answer when he said that a populist regime could end with the arrival of a new populist from the opposite side, or, preferably in his view (in consideration of the reasons that turned people against representative democracy and made them turn to populists), with the introduction of more direct democracy, with people getting more motivated and engaged in politics.
Does a switch to left-wing populism or the alternative of more direct democracy, however, amount to moving forward in any way?
Socialists, just like the hard-right authoritarians, don’t believe in liberating the individual through beneficial changes to his/her environment, but in fashioning and shaping a new type of human – a creation of the mighty State. Both these political factions fear – though for entirely different reasons - a social order based on meritocracy, individual freedom and autonomy.
Unlike the Left’s and the Right’s codes of belief, liberalism - when not turned on its head - worked because it understood and respected the nature of man. Authoritarianism, practiced either in the name of the masses or for the benefit of an elite group, on the other hand, espouses an artificial conception of human nature and of how humans should lead their lives, and holds that what is good for us should be prescribed by the State.
Direct democracy (itself a species of populism) aims at bypassing representative democracy because its mediators have been deemed to be ineffectual or corrupt. Without properly addressing the question why representative democracy and democratic institutions are no longer under our control and no longer fulfil a beneficial role for us, a new, more direct style of democracy will be hampered by the same degrading forces, and perhaps even more so, since its feasibility would be even more dependent on a climate of free speech, free press and transparency that is, currently, vanishing. Hence, the participants in direct democracy would be more vulnerable to influences from well-resourced interest groups, State-funded/backed initiatives and mainstream media propaganda. What is worse, direct democracy based on communitarianism often conceals some very oppressive, levelling tendencies, no better than those advocated by far-right authoritarians.
(Direct democracy – community involvement and all that - is nothing like civil society-driven reform and advocacy - civil society understood as a network of people established on the basis of ethical and political ideals and aspirations*, rather than on the basis of micro-geographic criteria and agendas driven by local government-controlled community organisers.)
People’s grievances, directed at what is often misleadingly called the ‘liberal Establishment’, are real. The dogma of economic liberalism – as some of us understand it – is inextricably linked to the moral philosophy of tolerance, civil liberties and equality before the law. When you split one away from the other, what you get is no longer a liberal democratic society - it is something else, it is its opposite using the liberal label as a flag of convenience. In such circumstances, one cannot complain about the wholesale failure of liberalism.
Perhaps, it’s time to consider that, in this country at least, what has, in fact, failed is not so much the liberal political ideology, but the requisite for its existence – the Rule of Law. The failure to maintain checks on institutional and corporate dominance and misbehaviour and to keep their powers within bounds by defending the citizens’ essential rights and liberties, the fairness and justice owed to them, is the failure of the Law. Without freedom from authoritarian, oligarchic rule, as well as freedom from the intolerant, self-undermining tendencies of unmediated democracy, which the Law in a truly liberal society was meant to defend, we are rendered unable to investigate, think for ourselves, see how things really are and thus gain knowledge of how best to improve our lives through peaceful collaboration or politics. Only a free society has the ability to react to the excesses and abusive impositions of free market capitalism and find the optimal balance between forces. The Law, alas, has failed in its duty to guarantee that society remained free to express its opinions and respond to the varied challenges of the present.
Whether today’s populism will lead to a more representative and more liberal system or to a more authoritarian and unfairer regime depends, first of all, on how much freedom we manage to reclaim in the meantime.
 Cas Mudde
 As it sometimes seems to be the case in the UK
 Cas Mudde, Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser
 President Trump assured his voters that “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it”
 When we think about e-democracy the problems are expanded by how easily Internet information and communications can be manipulated nowadays. Direct democracy also presents problems associated with the people’s enthusiasm for participation flagging over time, the risk of their missing the points of larger-scale issues and of being used as cover by governments who want to evade accountability.
 “The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself, That in essence is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.” Franklin D Roosevelt
 “The law perverted! The law – and, in its wake, all the collective forces of the nation – the law, say, not only diverted from its proper direction, but made to pursue one entirely contrary! The law become the tool of every kind of avarice, instead of being its check! The law guilty of that very iniquity which it was its mission to punish!” The Law, Frederic Bastiat
 That is in its formulation, interpretation as well as application
 “The end of law is not to abolish, but to preserve and enlarge freedom” John Locke