Duterte: The iron law of populism
Reflecting on the demise of democratic institutions, the German philosopher Hannah Arendt warned: “Every decrease of power is an open invitation to violence—if only because those who hold power and feel it slipping from their hands have always found it difficult to resist the temptation of substituting violence for it.”Toward the late 20th century, she noted that “cracks in the power structure of all but the small countries are opening and widening,” and how political parties that “were supposed to serve the political needs of modern mass societies” were falling apart at the seams. The “rise of nationalism around the globe,” she added, “usually understood as a worldwide swing to the right, has now reached the point where it may threaten the oldest and best-established nation states.”By the 1970s, Arendt was already perturbed by what can be termed as “democracy fatigue,” namely the loss of collective faith in representative democracy amid extreme ideological polarization and atavistic regression into tribal politics. A Jewish émigré who fled the grip of Nazism at home, she was intimately familiar with the threat of democratic decay and right-wing populism.
In her homeland of Germany, the liberal Weimar Republic was fatally hijacked by Hitler, who promised overnight salvation from national crises, the restoration of collective glory, and vengeance against the enemy of “the people.” Once in power, the far-right regime pursued an eliminationist strategy against minorities and any voice of dissent.
To her utmost horror, even Arendt’s former professor and lover, Martin Heidegger, ended up as an unrepentant ideologue of the brutal regime. Back home, she saw not only a “will to power” among Hitler’s ranks, but also a “will to submit” among the masses. She observed a “mass society” of countless disaffected individuals, “held together by a consciousness of common interest” and lacking “that specific class articulateness,” who were willing to invest their hopes and dreams in a single and utterly defective man.
Almost exactly a century after the rise of fascism in Europe, the world is confronting another direct threat to democracy: right-wing populism, led by macho, chest-thumping leaders whose chief charisma is an unabashed defiance of liberal conventions. Contemporary populists are upending democracies like never before.
President Duterte stands as arguably the most prominent populist of the Global South. His meteoric rise to power was built on an old formula—the promise of overnight salvation amid widespread cynicism toward democratic institutions.
Even compared to his populist colleagues, Mr. Duterte has glorified violence and embraced a language of intimidation with gusto. Four years into his presidency, it’s increasingly clear that the drug war was more about a violent response to an endemic crisis, rather than a smart strategy for long-term transformation. Mr. Duterte has repeatedly failed to provide any evidence-based explanation of how his brutal approach would lead to a permanent decline in crime and drugs in the country.
Over time, what began as penal populism, with the war on drugs the core advocacy of Dutertismo, has now degenerated into a full-fledged threat to democratic institutions. This should have come as no surprise, since at the heart of populism lies authoritarian temptation. As political scientist Jan-Werner Müller warns, the problem is that populists “claim that they and they alone speak in the name of what they tend to call the ‘real people’ or the ‘silent majority,’” thus they tend to “accuse all other political contenders of being illegitimate.”
Once in power, Müller notes, populist regimes will attempt to “hijack the state apparatus, [oversee] corruption and ‘mass clientelism’ (trading material benefits or bureaucratic favors for political support by citizens who become the populists’ ‘clients’), and [launch] efforts systematically to suppress civil society.” Sounds familiar?
Back in 1911, German sociologist Robert Michels observed the “iron law of oligarchy,” or the inevitable concentration of power among a few within any complex, modern organization. What we are witnessing today is the iron law of populism: the almost inevitable march of populists toward authoritarian control.
[This article is partly based on the author’s latest book chapter, “Penal Populism in Emerging Markets: Human Rights and Democracy in the Age of Strongmen” (Cambridge University Press). ]