Prof. William Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton, is specialized on public policy. In his book Anti-Pluralism, he argues from a center-left position that the rise of populism cannot be explained only with reference to economic factors; a real understanding must account for the illiberal, anti-pluralist, nature of populism.

Galston’s theory of the nature of populism is mainstream. Populists think of ”the people” as a homogenous mass (p. 5) and populist leaders claim to have an ”intuitive bond” with ”the people” that ”cuts deeper than more formal systems of public authorization” such as democratic votes (p. 23). The central political conflict, for populists, is between ”the people” and a well-educated, urban, liberal elite.

To populists, liberal democracy is merely an obstacle. For instance, when Marine Le Pen was accused of using ¢300 000 in European Parliament funds to pay for National Front party expenditures, her response was that she ”will not submit to the persecution, a unilateral decision taken by political opponents” (p. 60).

Galston concludes elegantly: ”The enforcement of liberal democratic standards against populists is thus transmuted into evidence that the political system is against the interests of the people” (ibid).

But what explains the rise of 21th century populism? The classic Marxist theory that economic structures and relations determine the political and cultural life in society is inadequate; an explanation ”that places economics at the base and treats other issues as derivative distorts a more complex reality” (p. 3). Galston writes (p. 95):

The issue of national identity is on the table, not only in scholarly debates, but also in the political arena. Those who believe that liberal democracy draws strength from diversity have been thrown on the defensive. Large population flows, finally, have triggered concerns about the loss of national sovereignty.

People are more susceptible to nationalism if they are more strongly anchored in local contexts. For instance, voters in the Brexit referendum ”who had socialized with people from another country, another part of Britain, or even another town” were more likely to vote Remain, whereas ”those whose social relations were confined to their own communities were more likely to vote Leave” (p. 66).

In the populist worldview, the elite’s ”preference for open societies is running up against public demands for economic, cultural, and political closure” (p. 10). Many, especially in the rural populations, conceive of the open, pluralist, society as a threat to their way of life. ”Populists, in other words, provide a collective political voice for feelings of vulnerability” (p. 43).

Populists are winning ”the battle of ideas” by changing the political conversation, focusing in their campaigns on nation, patriotism, immigration, and insecurity (p. 59). That is, authoritarian anti-pluralism.

Of course, Galston does not believe that economic factors lack explanatory power altogether. They are central to his analysis of populism in the United States; ”the conditions for less educated workers and their families have worsened, while middle-class families have been treading water at best” (p. 85), which explains why many Americans turn to leaders who put the blame on ”the Other” (p. 77). Galston writes (p. 99):

Average Americans have noticed what recent scholarship has documented: returns on capital are outstripping gains from labor. Global labor markests and the decline of unions have weakened the bargaining position of workers, trends for which there are no easy fixes. A more promising approach is to democratize capital through measures, such as worker ownership of firms, that share the gains more broadly.

Perhaps worker ownership of firms is a feasible economic policy in the US, but in Sweden it is not—the electorate’s memory of socialist experiments in the 1970’s and 1980’s is, luckily, still strong.

Speaking of Sweden, Galston discusses the Swedish social scientist Bo Rothstein and his research (p. 103; Rothstein as cited by Galston):

The more than 150-year-old alliance between the industrial working class and what one might call the intellectual-cultural Left is over. […] These two now have almost completely different views on key social and political issues. […] The traditional working class favours protectionism, the re-establishment of a type of work that the development of technology inexorably has rendered outdated and production over environmental concerns; it is also a significant part of the basis for the recent surge in anti-immigrant and even xenophobic views. Support from the traditional working class for strengthening ethnic or sexual minorities’ rights is also pretty low.

The book’s main thesis is that populism challenges liberal democracy, which must re-invent itself to adjust for a new social and economic world order. ”The antidote to populism,” Galston suggests, ”must include a decent, responsible nationalism, shorn of populism’s nativism and its anti-pluralist fantasies of a homogeneous people” (p. 63). Supposedly, this means that liberal democracy must be re-invented.

I do not understand why the system must change, rather than the players in it. It seems to me that Galston, like most of us (admit it), simply lack real political ideas that could thwart the continued success of right-wing populism. His suggestion, namely ”a decent, responsible nationalism,” might be the only realistic way forward. That would entail policy-changes in many liberal democracies, but not a new system.

Finally, I am not sure what Galston has in mind for the next generation of liberal democracy. His book ends conveniently with an empty appeal: ”[Re-invention of liberal democracy] is a moral duty—and a practical necessity. As Lincoln reminded his fellow citizens, ‘We cannot escape history.'” (p. 136). But Galston can, apparently.


Galston, W. A. (2018). Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy. Yale University Press.