Populism and technocracy see themselves as antipolitics and, more specifically, antiparty. Whether in their actor (movements and parties), discourse and ideology, or regime and institutional versions, both forms of representation claim to be external to party politics. In fact, the more precise claim of these forms of representation is that they are above party politics, which is seen in negative terms for various reasons. Parties are carriers of particular interests rather than the interests of society as a whole and even pursue the interests of the “part”—as it were—to the detriment, when necessary, of the general interest. Parties, rather than being perceived as capable of formulating visions and projects for the common good of the society (albeit alternative ones), are seen merely in terms of individualistic and self-interested (ultimately irresponsible) factions that articulate particularistic interests.
First, in both populism and technocracy there is the idea of a unitary, general, common interest of a given society (a country). In these views, there are things that are either good or bad for the whole of society and political action can be either good or bad for a society in its entirety. There is a homogenous and organic vision of the people and the nation. It is furthermore possible to “discover” this common or general interest. While populism and technocracy—as is discussed below—have fundamentally different views on how to identify the unitary interest, they are confident that it exists and can be found out.
Second, both populism and technocracy have a nonpluralistic view of society and politics. Politics is doing what is good for all, not articulating, allocating and deciding between diverse interests, or aggregating them. To be more precise, an aggregation does indeed take place. However, rather than having competing proposals of aggregation (as this is the case in parties’ ideologies) given to people to choose from, the true solution is manifest and indisputable. In this sense, both pretend to be, and present themselves as, antiideological. There are no party platforms needed (for a prospective decision) and, when and where these are available, they should not be binding. To be sure, mass political parties, too, present a unified vision of the public interest. This is precisely their function of “aggregation” of various interests from diverse constituencies. However, differently from populism and technocracy, several visions are present in the system, they compete with one another and compromise is sought—either through majority-opposition alternation over time or consensual institutions.
While party government is mainly based on a prospective “mandate” view (input counts and parties are bound to what they promise), populism and technocracy are based on a retrospective “independent” view (output counts) as they operate through vagueness rather than through a precise program or mandate. Both populism and technocracy thus follow a trustee model. In technocracy, people cannot give a mandate because they do not possess the faculty of identifying society’s interest. In populism, it could be argued that the leadership determines people’s interests through a strong identification with them (embodiment)—by being “one of them.” This can be seen as a form of mandate. Yet there is a complete transfer of decision making to the leadership that is unquestioned. Questioning the leadership is automatically questioning the will of the people. In the party government conception of democracy, on the other hand, voters are assumed to have some degree of expertise.
Third, both populism and technocracy—in their vision of a unitary society and refusal of plurality—see the relationship between people and elite as “unmediated.” All that comes in-between is a source of distortion of the general interest. As a consequence, populism and technocracy rely on an independent elite to which the people entrust the task of identifying the common interest and the appropriate solution. In spite of presenting themselves as antielite and antiestablishment, the populist model is as elitist—if not more—than party government with leaders being uncontested and unquestioned over protracted periods and enjoying vast spaces to manoeuvre and freedom to interpret people’s interest. It is no accident that populist parties—be it in the past or recently in Austria’s FPÖ, France’s National Front, Italy’s Northern League, or Britain’s UKIP among others—have lasting leaderships that are largely uncontested and based on acclamatory and plebiscitarian mobilization. In fact, both types of ideologies have often found their application in nondemocratic regimes, most notably in Latin America, be it the populist-plebiscitarian regimes or the technocratic-military regimes.
In different ways, populism and technocracy are both antipolitical forms of representation. While politics is competition, aggregation of plurality and allocation of values, populism and technocracy see society as monolithic with a unitary interest. While populism and technocracy aim at discovering the common good, parties compete to define it. Both populism and technocracy do not conceive of a legitimate opposition insofar as that would involve conceiving of “parts” being opposed to the interest of the whole. In the case of populism, plurality is reduced to the opposition between people and elite. In the case of technocracy, plurality is reduced to the opposition between right and wrong. In the former, opposition is corrupt; in the latter it is irrational.
For the sake of the theoretical argument, the article has presented the populist and technocratic alternatives to party government through ideal types rather than empirical cases. For sure, the technicization of political decision making is undermining democratic sovereignty and the popularization of politics and the public sphere is undermining the informed and respectful participation of citizens in favor of mob-type attitudes. However, in recent times this challenge has so far remained within the frame of the liberal democratic state. In contrast, between World War I and II many West European countries experienced a breakdown of democracy and many countries in Southern/Eastern Europe and Latin America had protracted periods during which regimes based on either or both populist and technocratic principles ruled. Today, populists mobilize as political parties themselves and participate to the electoral competition as well as national executives. Experts are co-opted by parties (often from think tanks linked to them) that rely on their expertise and delegate the task of taking unpopular decisions especially at the transnational level. There have been cases, as in Italy after the Monti cabinet of 2011−12, of experts creating political parties. By participating in elections, they offer precisely the kind of “agonistics” that legitimize the system and, when they enter government, movements and experts morph, vindicating party democracy. Populism and technocracy therefore operate as “correctives” of—not only alternatives to—party government.