‘Fragmentation is One of the Greatest Challenges of Today’s Politics’

DEMOS leader discusses how populism threatens liberal democracy

February 09, 2021 9:13 AM
"The future of liberal democracies: The rise of populism" / Credit: Hungarian Europe Society

Fuelled also by social inequalities, populism is further contributing to the polarisation of the polity. “This is one of the greatest challenges of today’s politics because liberal democracy can only work with some level of unity, integration, and cooperation in politics,” wrote Zsolt Boda, director-general of the Centre for Social Sciences in Budapest and DEMOS project leader, in an essay on populism and the future of liberal democracy for the Hungarian Europe Society, a Budapest-based NGO.

To discuss Boda’s essay, the NGO held a webinar on February, 4 as part of a series of talks on the future of transatlantic relations from the perspective of NGOs and Think Tanks in Central Europe and Hungary. The US Embassy in Budapest supported the event.

In the webinar, Boda explained that populism antagonises with liberal democracy. Populism focuses on the people as a singular group, and talks to them directly. Populist actors also claim to embody the will of the people. In doing so, they reject pluralism and disregard minority and civil society actors’ interests. In power, populist actors circumvent institutional arrangements, compromising the rule of law.

That is the opposite of what liberal democracy is aimed at—plurality, compromises, protection of rights, and complex institutional arrangements established to oversee and balance the powers of government. 

“Populism is leaning towards illiberal politics. If it stays with us, let alone rise further, we have reasons to worry for the future of liberal democracy,” Boda said.


The division of society along ideological lines is the most pressing consequence of populism. In his essay, Boda discussed that polarisation is not always negative — democracy encourages competing views — but for democracy to work society needs to share common identity, cooperation, and norm abidance. Citizens should also trust each other. 

Populism subverts that logic. It divides society between “us”, the pure people, versus the distrustful “them”. These targets can be old political elites, individuals, the financial system, or the European Union.

As a result, extreme polarisation has made citizens stop sharing a common understanding of the political reality. According to the project leader, the four years of Donald Trump in office, the 2020 US elections, and the bitter fight over the election results offer a shocking illustration of that.

Boda discussed that polarisation is hard to heal because it exploits deep psychological mechanisms and creates social identities that are difficult to change. “For me, this is one of the most alarming consequences of populism,” Boda said.


The project leader also explained that other issues, from fake news circulation on social media to socio-economic issues such as marginalisation, joblessness, and inequality, strengthens populism by fuelling populist sentiments.

An illustration is the “Yellow Vests” movement, the French grassroots which protested against an environmental fee introduced by President Macron in 2018 and turned into a general populist revolt, bearing deep resentment about socio-economic problems against the political establishment.

“Unless mainstream politics can address the problems of growing inequalities and social precarity, populism will continue to have a solid basis to build on,” Boda said.


Zsolt’s essay on the future of liberal democracy is available for download here.

Watch the full webinar below, recorded by the Hungarian Europe Society and streamed in Hungarian language:

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