Populism thrives when politics become about symbols rather than substance

Ivan Krastev writes: What is the best way to fight a government you loathe but that has killed nobody, arrested few (if any) and come to power fairly — yet threatens to transform liberal democracies as we understand them?

Where do you draw the line between living in a democracy in which the party you despise has won free elections and living in a dictatorship where the opposition may never be allowed to win again? Is “normalization” of populists the biggest threat facing Europe, or should we also fear the hysteria of populists’ opponents? And can the forms of resistance that worked against Communist and fascist dictatorships work against the democratically elected illiberal governments of today?

History, alas, does not provide many clarifying answers. The memoirs of those who survived the 1930s — Sebastian Haffner’s “Defying Hitler” is a great example — warn against normalizing dictatorships, particularly when new dictators are popularly elected. That makes sense. But there’s a useful counterexample to consider, too: In the 1970s, young leftist radicals were so obsessed with the idea that there were no major differences between Nazi Germany and the postwar German Federal Republic that they made profound errors in judgment and, at times, ended up as terrorists and enemies of democracy.

What is the lesson? Drawing the line between democracy and dictatorship requires passion and a readiness to defend one’s values. It also requires a sense of proportion. [Continue reading…]

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