Book review: populist backlash could be good for democracy

The New Authoritarianism

Trump, Populism and the Tyranny of Experts
Salvatore Babones
Polity Press (£9.99)
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The past few years have seen a populist backlash against the role of experts in the political process. Some view this as a return to the dark ages. Professor Salvatore Babones, of the University of Sydney, argues it isn’t so bad. The backlash may even be healthy for democracy.

Large swathes of public life have been taken out of the hands of elected governments and given over to unelected technocrats. These technocrats accuse their populist opponents of being closet authoritarians, yet, as Babones argues, their own support for democracy is conditional on the public endorsing their preferred outcomes. When the public doesn’t respond appropriately, by voting for the “wrong” policy or candidate, they either refuse to accept the outcome or use every means possible to undermine it. European governments pressed on with European integration, for example, despite the results of referendums in France, the Netherlands and Ireland.

This is not to endorse individual populist politicians, nor to dismiss liberalism. It’s just that liberalism’s dominance has been bad for it, because it has moved it from its traditional role of exerting a moderating influence on the excesses of both right and left. Babones’s criticisms of the status quo may strike some as overwrought, but his monograph is an original and provocative contribution to the debate.