The Responses of Populism to Dahl's Democratic Dilemmas



From Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Sarah Palin in the US, populist leaders claim to offer more power to ‘the people’. However, most scholars argue that populism is in fact a democratic pathology, because it seeks to build a political system devoid of the rule of law. While it is true that populism maintains an ambivalent relationship with liberal democracy, little attention has been paid to the legitimacy of the questions raised by populist forces. Drawing on the work of Robert Dahl, I argue that current manifestations of populism are offering specific responses to two dilemmas that do not have a clear democratic solution: the boundary problem (how to define the people?) and the limits of self-government (how to control the controllers?). My article shows that populist forces are posing legitimate questions about the current state of democracy in Europe and the Americas, although their solutions tend to be more controversial than helpful.