What exactly is populism?
In the past six months the political status quo has been questioned in both the UK and the US. Many in the US were shocked that Trump, a populist rightwinger, won the electoral college vote. In the UK, Remainers were incredulous over Leavers winning the Brexit vote, which illustrated how emotional messages can sway election results over ‘expert’ opinion. In light of what has happened, Maxine Molyneux (UCL) and Thomas Osborne’s (Bristol) paper on populism provides some new points of thought. Let’s take a critical look at what exactly is populism, why it happens, why it can be dangerous, and what it can do.
Populism has been around as long as democracy itself. According to Thomas Niehr, a linguist from the University of Aachen, populism has at least three dimensions: ideological, communicative, and organisational. The communicative dimension of populism focuses on the role between the media, (corrupted) elites and the ‘pure’ people, the ordinary ‘folk’. Niehr notes that there is a link to authoritarianism, but many populists create new usages for the word populism itself: ‘Don’t look for meaning – look for its use!’ Populists aim to represent the ordinary people, who are in a (metaphorical) struggle with the privileged elite.
In Germany today, for example, the far right view Merkel as personally responsible for the refugee situation. This far-right populism presents itself as ‘we the people’ vs ‘the system’; foreigners are a threat; an interest in self-preservation; and the promise of liberation. Indeed, many individuals justify voting for Trump on this basis as well.
In the 1960s and 1970s, populism was portrayed as an agrarian phenomenon struggling against urban integration and bankers. It was largely a left-wing phenomenon. Yet today, it is more prevalent on the far right. In Latin America, which has often been the focus of studies on populism, there is a history of strong nationalist movements pitting themselves against the ‘ruling class’, who were selling assets abroad. Yet, all populists are ‘hybrids’ because they arise due to a number of different factors. The larger question that we face today is what happens when a populist comes to power? We’ve seen the example of Boris Yeltsin, and now the world has witnessed Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office. Overall, history shows that populists have to accommodate to existing structures.
There is something quite normal, but emotional, about the relationship between populism and democracy: there is often resistance to liberal democratic policies and politics, and in a normal state of affairs there is often an extreme end. Populism and democracy often work together and against each other. Yet, they are not without obvious tensions – just as democracy and liberalism can be at odds. Both David Hume and Montesquieu argued for governmental moderation because people are emotional. There should be rule of law and moderate representation, yet, populists often resist this and want a type of direct democracy.
Populism today also captures the feeling of resentment in politics. This concerns the loss of white male power, and the view that liberals ‘chat to each other and don’t get anything done’. Indeed, populists valorise ‘doing’ over ‘saying’. We see this in the UK, with the nonsensical catchphrase of ‘Brexit means Brexit!’ (side note: if we replace Brexit with the word ‘blue’ – blue means blue – the fallacy becomes more obvious)
The silver lining, of course, of this promotion of ‘doing’ over ‘chatting’ is that it may bring more passion into liberal democracy. Often, democracy can be disappointing, which is why populism is inevitably a part of the system.
Populism can also be dangerous. It leaves less room for shades of grey than establishment politics: ‘you are either with us or against us!’ This is clearly illustrated by Trump’s catchphrases concerning building the wall, the US having 30 million illegal immigrants, and calling climate change ‘bullshit’ or a ‘Chinese hoax’. In the UK, we recently saw this in the tabloids’ denigration of the three judges who ruled that Brexit must first be debated in Parliament. All of these can generate and spread fear in the populace. The more we accept non-factual evidence, accept what we read and hear without criticism, and accept blatant lies from politicians and populists to get our votes, the more our democracy may be threatened.
Now, as we are watching Trump become the next POTUS, we should be keeping an eye out for potential authoritarian leaning policies, how he and his cabinet adapt to mainstream political rules (which he will have to do, despite his ‘draining the swamp’ slogans), and how he will engage with the established political sphere. This in turn may cause his brand of populism to lose some of the passion with which it began. Yet, will the US constitutional system prove strong enough?
Populism itself isn’t a problem, argues Molyneux and Osborne. It is a necessary voice in democracy, but the problem is what it resists. Its current ascendancy points to a crisis in liberal politics. There may well be a crisis in confidence of what democracy actually is and, perhaps, there is a need to re-negotiate with the elite/establishment by the elite and the populace. We may need to renew our social contract and re-work our democracy into something better for all.
This blog post was heavily based upon Maxine Molyneux (UCL) and Thomas Osborne (Bristol)’s plenary paper on Populism, Liberalism and History: a Deflationary View and Thomas Niehr (Aachen)’s presentation on The Language of Populism: A Multi-Dimensional Phenomenon, at the Populism in Historical Perspective, UCL conference on November 11, 2016.