How Can Populism Erode Democracy? Ask Venezuela

In Venezuela On
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Venezuela nearly 20 years ago, the leftist populism he championed was supposed to save democracy. Instead, it has led to democracy’s implosion in the country, marked this past week by an attack on the independence of its Legislature.

Venezuela’s fate stands as a warning: Populism is a path that, at its outset, can look and feel democratic. But, followed to its logical conclusion, it can lead to democratic backsliding or even outright authoritarianism.

Populism does not always end in authoritarianism. Venezuela’s collapse has been aided by other factors, including plummeting oil prices, and democratic institutions can check populism’s darker tendencies.

. . . .

“Just as democracies can be governed by authoritarians, so too can true-believing democrats lay the groundwork for authoritarianism,” Professor Pepinsky wrote on his blog in February. Decisions that feel like shortcuts to democracy — tossing out judges or vilifying a hostile news media — can, in the long term, have the opposite effect.

Along the way, this process can be difficult to spot, as it plays out mainly in the functioning of bureaucratic institutions that most voters pay little mind to. Elections are often still held, as they have been in Venezuela, the news media retains nominal freedom and most citizens can go about their lives as normal.

Venezuela exhibits the worst-case outcome of populist governance, in which institutions have been so crippled that crime is rampant, corruption is nearly universal and the quality of life has collapsed. But those consequences are obvious only after they have done their damage.

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