The University of Michigan Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies hosted Anna Grzymala-Busse, a political science professor at Stanford University, Friday afternoon for a lecture about the modern challenges to democracy. More than 50 students and faculty attended the event, titled “Populism and the Erosion of Democracy,” and were able to engage in an active discussion concerning the implications of a recent surge in populist support.

Busse, who is currently researching the surge in support for populism in former Communist countries, aimed to define the populist ideology and explain why it is on the rise in Eastern Europe. She also detailed how populism has contributed to the deterioration of democratic institutions worldwide.

“All populist parties and movements basically make two claims,” she said. “The first claim is that the elites are a corrupt and self-serving cartel. So business elites, political elites, whether politicians or businessmen or journalists, they’re all in it for themselves.”

According to Busse, this political stance has resulted in increasing distrust of liberal democratic institutions and a push to minimize their power.

“The first target are the courts,” Busse stated. “What they do, basically, is to politicize the courts and reduce judicial autonomy, as that could be a major constraint on these parties.”

Busse also cited recent populist policies of court packing, judicial age limits, changes to legal framework and, in some cases, large-scale revisions of national constitutions. In Hungary, she stated, one party member was put in charge of all national judicial appointments, all but eliminating the presence of checks on party power.

In her explanation of this threat to democracy, Busse mainly cited the examples from Poland and Hungary, nations where the populist PiS and Fidesz parties gained supermajorities in their national congresses, giving them unchecked legislative power.

“In both of these cases, they are going to be governing unconstrained by any coalition partner, or frankly any forms of checks and balances,” she said.

As Busse’s research proved, recent surges in populist support have been largely linked to economic downturn and the failure of mainstream parties to respond appropriately to public concerns.

“These mainstream parties have increasingly failed to absorb and to respond to popular fears,” Busse explained. “Fears about the economy, about immigration, about what’s going on in the world and how rapidly it’s changing. Instead, what they followed was basically a mainstream policy consensus.”

LSA sophomore Yuting Chen is studying political science and expressed curiosity at the end of the lecture with the points brought up both by Busse and members of the audience.

“I’m interested in authoritarian revival in Eastern Europe, and political and economic transition,” he said. “It’s interesting to me that populism can be very attractive when liberal democracy fails.”

Dan Slater, the director of the Weiser Center, expressed a hope that those in attendance would leave better informed about the implications of populism.

“Hopefully people will realize that populism is happening worldwide, and hopefully they’ll have a clearer understanding of what it means and what it doesn’t mean,” he stated. “It’s certainly threatening in some ways, while maybe not in others.”

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