How the Taming of the Class Conflict Produced Authoritarian Populism

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A specter is haunting the liberal political order—the specter of authoritarian populism. Antiliberal and antipluralist, authoritarian populist ideology questions individual and, especially, minority rights. It questions the rights of “others” to limit the “rights” of the majority culture. Part of this antiliberalism is founded on unconditional support for national sovereignty and the rejection of any political authority beyond national borders, in spite of externalities and interdependencies. Authoritarian populism is also “antipluralist” in the sense that it usually contains a deproceduralized and thus homogeneous notion of the majority. These sentiments are often linked to the “silent majority,” those who—according to Richard Nixon—do not express their opinions, but represent the will of the people. Authoritarian populism asserts that this collective will is known without public debate or other procedures to generate it. Authoritarian populists pit this supposed homogeneous will of the people against immoral, corrupt, and parasitic elites.

Why did this specter emerge? Is it haunting Europe as part of the democratic process, or does it endanger democracy? It is of the utmost importance to understand the political dynamics that have brought many people to believe that the will of the majority does not count in Western democracies. I aim to provide a complementary explanation of the social and institutional origins of so-called silent majorities by arguing that the class cleavage has given way to a new cleavage: one between cosmopolitans and communitarians.

The new cleavage and authoritarian populism

In ideational terms, cosmopolitanism stands for a political ideology that advocates open borders and a transfer of public authority to the global level and which prioritizes the protection of individual and minority rights. Communitarians, on the other hand, emphasize the constitutive role of communities and identities for the development of social attitudes. In their view, both distributional justice and democracy depend on social contexts that most often are territorially delimited. They emphasize democratic self-determination and are much less in favor of international institutions and regional integration processes than cosmopolitans. Finally, communitarians reject the notion of universal values and tend to subsume individual rights under the majority culture.

A new conflict line has formed, pitting cosmopolitan positions against communitarian ones. The main actors of the cosmopolitan coalition include mainstream political parties, state agents in the government, the judiciary, and the liberal media. The communitarian camp is dominated by authoritarian populists who advocate national protectionism on economic issues and anti-globalization.

How can we explain the rise of authoritarian populism?

According to cleavage theory, cleavages are triggered by social revolutions that create socio-structural divisions. In the case of the new cleavage, the underlying social revolution is globalization, and one can expect that the winners of globalization are pitted against the losers. Two more-or-less competing explanations are well known. The economic insecurity perspective emphasizes the distributive consequences of economic globalization and postindustrial transformation. According to this view, it is growing inequality and the rise of precarious working situations that lead to the rise of authoritarian populism. On the other hand, the cultural backlash perspective suggests that authoritarian populism is the result of a reaction against value changes indicated by terms like postmaterialism, feminism, and multiculturalism. Both of these explanations point to a relevant part of the current political dynamics. At the same time, they leave challenging questions unanswered.

“It is necessary to complement the existing explanations for authoritarian populism with a political explanation that points to the path-dependent effects of certain institutional decisions made after World War II.”

The socioeconomic explanation raises an important question: Why do the losers of globalization support authoritarian populists instead of leftist parties, which often promise social protection much more clearly? Similarly, the sociocultural explanation of silent majorities leads to the question: Why are international institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) the common target of all authoritarian populists, in spite of the fact that neither of them are the spearheads of postmaterial thinking, feminist theory, or multiculturalism? To answer these questions, I want to focus on the political and institutional dynamics that developed during the last decades. I submit that it is necessary to complement the existing explanations for authoritarian populism with a political explanation that points to the path-dependent effects of certain institutional decisions made after World War II.

The majoritarian–nonmajoritarian shift

The core argument of the political explanation is simple. The communitarian emphasis on silent majorities is directed against the cosmopolitan bias of nonmajoritarian institutions. With the rise in importance of nonmajoritarian institutions that govern the contested issues of the new cleavage, the silent majority feels excluded from the political process and consider themselves suppressed, or at least forgotten, by cosmopolitan experts controlling institutions like central banks, constitutional courts, and international organizations. These so-called nonmajoritarian institutions outweigh majoritarian institutions like parties and parliaments, which are the sources of influence for majorities, allowing authoritarian populists to pit the notion of a silent majority against nonmajoritarian institutions. Despite being instrumentalized for antiliberal and antipluralist purposes, this opposition is based on real institutional changes in Western democracies.

Since the nineteenth century, democratic political systems have been considered those in which parliaments—in connection with parties and the government—play the decisive role. Parliaments are prototypical majoritarian institutions; they decide via majority by elected representatives. The representatives are elected on the basis of a competition between parties. Parliaments and parties thus are majoritarian institutions that embody the idea of popular sovereignty. Nonmajoritarian institutions, like courts and central banks, have always played an important role in democratic political systems as well. Nonmajoritarian institutions can be defined as governance entities “that (a) possess and exercise some grant of specialized public authority, separate from that of other institutions, but (b) are neither directly elected by the people, nor directly managed by elected officials.” In democratic theory, one of their major tasks is to control and to limit the public’s powers so they do not violate individual and minority rights, and thus do not undermine the democratic process. In addition, they implement the norms set by the legislature. International institutions are also nonmajoritarian institutions since they intrude into majoritarian politics based on similar, mostly technocratic justifications. In this conception of democratic rule, parliaments are the norm setters, while nonmajoritarian institutions play a limiting role.

With this distinction in mind, I develop a political explanation of authoritarian populism by showing that recent decades saw a reversal in the relationship between majoritarian and nonmajoritarian institutions. Many nonmajoritarian institutions are now norm-setters. This reversal alienates silent majorities from liberal political systems and helps to explain authoritarian populism. This development can be captured as a result of a causal sequence that starts with the taming of the class conflict and ends with a cosmopolitan bias of nonmajoritarian institutions (NMIs).

Figure 1: The Big Deal and the Rise of Authoritarian Populism

The new cleavage’s effects on domestic politics

In the very beginning (of this causal sequence), there was the industrial revolution and the rise of the class cleavage between capital and labor. It produced the turmoil and the “twenty years’ crisis” that in turn led to World War II. As a response to the disaster, embedded liberalism was established in the postwar years. It institutionalized free trade and open borders, but embedded national political systems that can cushion the shocks and inequalities of the global market. This culminated in a historic compromise between capital and labor in which unions accepted open borders and ensuing economic insecurities, while the export-oriented business associations supported the building-up of the welfare state. This big deal changed the party landscape from the 1960s on: most parties weakened their class orientation and strengthened their leadership, and very close associations between ruling parties and the interest groups of capital and labor, called “corporatism,” developed.

Two towering political science figures captured the new political constellation early on. Otto Kirchheimer coined the term “catch-all party” as part of an investigation into political party transformation in Britain and Germany. A catch-all party aims to attract people with diverse political viewpoints, appealing to broad segments of the electorate. These catch-all parties (in German, ironically, “people’s parties”) got out of touch with the people. As a result, trust in core majoritarian institutions of democracies declined and nonmajoritarian institutions gained power. Nonmajoritarian institutions, however, display a cosmopolitan bias. Accordingly, the new cleavage triggered by globalization was translated in most Western democracies into one between cosmopolitans and nationalist communitarians. Social democratic catch-all parties (center-left) seem more substantially affected than the center-right catch-all parties, because their programs traditionally have both strongly cosmopolitan (internationalist) and communitarian (“people’s home”) roots.

“The rise of catch-all parties caused the decline in traditional political participation.”

While catch-all parties indicate the decline of class alignment and the need to win elections, they may confront problems of internal discipline, as more traditionally oriented party members and parliamentary representatives may rebel against some of the party leadership’s policy directions. Thus the centralization and strengthening of the party leadership took place. In this way, the rise of catch-all parties caused the decline in traditional political participation.

As a consequence, party leaders and parties as a whole are increasingly seen as mechanisms to gain and maintain power rather than social organizations promoting a given social purpose. With the rise of catch-all parties, the alienation between parties and representatives and many voters was set on track.

Table 1: Confidence in Parliaments

Comparative research on democracy has diagnosed a decline in political participation, evidenced in the average Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country by a steady fall in voter turnout and a marked decrease in party membership since the 1960s. Low confidence in party politicians and parliaments followed (table 1). In contrast, constitutional courts, central banks, and other nonmajoritarian institutions were, for a long time, considered as much more trustworthy. In Germany, for example, the constitutional court outscores consistently all other national political institutions. More generally, in all 22 countries covered by the 2008 European Social Survey, people had greater confidence in the legal system than in parliament and parties. International institutions are also grounded in a remarkable degree of positive recognition. In the consolidated democracies of the West, the United Nations enjoys greater political trust than national parties and parliaments (table 2).

Table 2: Confidence in Majoritarian and Nonmajoritarian Institutions

The rise of nonmajoritarian institutions

This development translated into a growing relevance of nonmajoritarian institutions in the political process. Increasingly, nonmajoritarian institutions do not only provide a check on and implement decisions of majoritarian institutions, but are key in policymaking and norm-setting. In the domestic realm, independent central banks are more important all over the world, becoming more autonomous and important at the same time (Table 3). Similarly, constitutional courts increased in importance in many countries. In general, according to a quantitative study, “autonomous regulatory agencies” now play a role in 73 percent of all policy areas in the countries under investigation.

Figure 2: Central Bank Independence


In addition to these domestic developments, a dense network of international arrangements and organizations that differ in both quality and quantity from traditional international institutions has developed. The new international arrangements exercise authority over their constituent members and, at the same time, intervene profoundly in the internal affairs of countries, undermining the consensus principle of international politics and national sovereignty. The European Union is only the best-known example in this respect; yet it is no longer an exception in the international institutional landscape, but part of a general trend.

The rise of international authority also transforms the role of government along the majoritarian–nonmajoritarian axis. Since governments are elected, they have traditionally been seen as majoritarian institutions. To the extent, however, that the more powerful Western governments are controlling international authorities, they can use international institutions to circumvent parliaments and party members. In fact, the rise of multilevel governance systems, including all the new space created for blame-shifting and credit-claiming, detaches the executive from the legislature and makes government a significant player in the world of nonmajoritarian institutions. The rise of international institutions empowers the executive and weakens parliaments.

Overall, some domestic institutions within democracies, as well as international institutions, became more powerful relative to parliaments and parties in the last three decades. These nonmajoritarian institutions not only implement and control policies—as foreseen by the notion of democratic constitutionalism—they became strongly involved in setting norms and rules.

The cosmopolitan bias of nonmajoritarian institutions is the final and decisive step in the causal sequence. Nonmajoritarian institutions are based on expertise and the capacity to make arguments referring to a complex and globalized world, thus excluding people with less education and transnational contacts and thus establishing the cosmopolitan bias of nonmajoritarian and international institutions. Cosmopolitan positions favor open borders, individual rights, and transferring authority to nonmajoritarian institutions. The higher the distance of political actors from majoritarian institutions, the more accentuated the tendency to claim cosmopolitan positions.

“The opportunity to abuse the notion of silent majorities by authoritarian populists has been endogenously produced by the big deal that domesticated the class cleavage.”

While these findings are mainly about the cosmopolitan bias of international institutions, there are good arguments to believe that nonmajoritarian institutions take individual and minority rights as well as international concerns more into account than majoritarian institutions. This development underlies the division between masses and elites on issues like borders, authority transfer, and individual rights. Against this backdrop, slogans like, “They on the top, we on the bottom” become appealing. This division makes the plight of the silent majority attractive, since those who identify with it feel excluded and deprived of their voice. At the same time, the claim that they represent the majority comes across as antipluralistic, since the masses are divided on many issues. The policies of the silent majority in power, moreover, become necessarily illiberal, targeting those nonmajoritarian institutions, such as higher courts, which defend liberal rights against the temper of the majoritarian will. While globalization has triggered the new cleavage, it is the specific political taming of the old class cleavage that led to the idea of silent majorities as a central component in the battle against cosmopolitan elites. In this sense, the opportunity to abuse the notion of silent majorities by authoritarian populists has been endogenously produced by the big deal that domesticated the class cleavage.

What is needed? Nonmajoritarian institutions need to open up and reintroduce majoritarian procedures. Central banks must be moved back to the tasks they performed in the 1980s. Supreme courts may add participatory procedures to legal reasoning. Most importantly, international institutions that exercise public authority need to be opened up for societal participation and introduce sites for public and open-ended debates about policy choices. This is most urgent for the European Union but applies to other international institutions as well.


This contribution was originally posted at Items, a digital forum run by the Social Sciences Research Council:

Michael Zürn, “How the Taming of the Class Conflict Produced Authoritarian Populism,” Democracy Papers, Items: Insights from the Social Sciences, April 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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One Reply to “How the Taming of the Class Conflict Produced Authoritarian Populism”

  1. This all seems spot-on. My only critique is connected to the pedigree of the term ‘silent majority’. When Nixon used it in his 1969 address he was reaching out – as he had in his ’68 campaign – to disaffected Democrat voters, not who felt alienated by nonmajoritarian institutions, but who felt alienated by no nonmajoritarian protest.

    Do we still think that this is part of where the term’s power comes from – leveraging anger against the greater social capital of liberal millenials? Or has the term evolved?

    (If you’re interested, I got in to this when researching an audio drama looking at Nixon’s new 1968/9 constituents – you can check it out at

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