The Athens Democracy Forum made me understand that populism has a positive side that acts as a warning bell for democracy from turning overly elitist. However, I also came to see that populism has contributed to the extreme polarization of society in several countries and has negatively impacted climate politics.
After the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama and many liberals thought a bit like Tony Montana in “Scarface” – they had the world in their hands and the Marxist historical dialectic was over. However, globalization, despite its far more tangible positive and multicultural sides, along with the crumbling effects of the 2008 financial crisis, isolated some members of society. Too often, liberal politicians saw markets as more important than sovereign majoritarian will and appealed to the latter only during election times. Additionally, leftists grew more and more aseptic to modern working-class needs, stuck with an anachronistic understanding of them. In this setting, an opening was provided for the right to gain a voice. The resulting protest vote placed Trump in power in the USA, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Salvini in Italy, and more.
Despite that, I believe it is too early to announce the death of democracy. In fact, whereas Trump and Salvini tried to weaken the system of checks and balances in their countries and other politicians seemed to be focused on appealing to them as fascists, the institutional structures have survived. On one side, the impeachment inquiry into Trump and the coalition-building that sidelined Salvini in Italy have shown that established government systems have been able to tackle a populist wave and keep its leaders in check.
However, what’s more positive is that participants in the Athens Democracy Forum, like many people in the societies mentioned above, seem to have learnt from past mistakes. In fact, due to populism, we have come to understand that the apparent overall and unquestioned agreement in society in regard to the positive impacts of market liberalism was all but a mask that hid the “other parts” that silently felt like their voices were not heard as they saw their jobs fly away from their national borders.
Despite the positivity, the ADF has also alarmed me regarding the issues of polarization and climate change denial. In fact, populism has deeply divided society, increased or excused hate crimes and has strengthened the censorship abilities of private institutions by turning platforms like Facebook from highways of thoughts into active regulators. These are surely not indications of healthy democracies.
Along with these, the populist intermission in the course of many of the world’s democracies was as extremely damaging in the field of climate policy. Moreover, the climate skepticism that characterized many populists in power in the democracies of the Global South and North slowed down the change that needed to be made to keep up with the goal to fulfill important missions like goals 2, 6, 7, 13, 14 and 15 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals that touch on issues of climate policy.
Considering that the change for the climate has to start from the countries that have the money and resources to afford such drastic policy changes, having skeptics in office like Trump, who scrapped the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, or Bolsonaro, who sees the Amazon as a Brazilian national property, surely does not help. Indeed, it is quite damaging.
Surely, to change and better the democratic system we have to hear the warning bells of protest votes and the silent voices behind them. We should also understand that, whereas this warning bell could turn out positively for democratic institutions and empathy, it has been costly on a societal basis and damaging for our climate. Overall, we have to move, learn and act fast to assure the well-being of democracy and the climate in the future.
Demetrio Iannone is a student at John Cabot University, Rome, Italy.