The Atlantic

What Populists Do to Democracies

According to our research, populist governments have deepened corruption, eroded individual rights, and inflicted serious damage on democratic institutions.
Source: Miguel Schincariol / AFP / Getty

When Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election in October to the consternation of the country’s traditional political elite, commentators were sharply divided about the implications. Some warned that Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who has openly expressed admiration for the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, presented a clear and present threat to democracy. Others argued that Brazil’s strong institutions, including its aggressive press and fiercely independent judiciary, would rein in his authoritarian tendencies.

The fight over Bolsonaro echoes the academic debate over so-called populist figures around the world. Some scholars have warned that populists tend to be phenomenally corrupt, perpetuate their hold on power by delegitimizing the opposition, and inflict lasting damage on their countries’ democratic institutions. Others, including the historian Niall Ferguson, have suggested that populist governments are usually so incompetent that they prove short-lived. Yet others, including the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, have emphasized the positive potential of populism, and insinuated that critics of these movements are simply defenders of the failed status quo.

Right now, the four most populous democracies in the world are ruled by populists: Narendra Modi

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