Reclaiming democratic demands from the populists

As citizens lose confidence in democratic institutions, xenophobic populist parties thrive and join their voices to the critique of the state of national and European democracies. Their arguments often coincide with those of liberal or leftist critics, but their goals are radically different

In Europe, the relationship between citizens and those who govern them is reaching a dangerously low point. Democracy faces challenges from very different corners. Under interrogation are fundamental and longstanding national settlements over the welfare state, effective checks and balances between powers, equality before the law or, more recently, the ability of democratically elected governments to effectively rule over markets. Technocratic governments, elections without policy alternatives, foreign interference and unaccountable decision-making at supra-national level all add to the unease expressed by citizens, activists and analysts alike.

The call for more accountable democratic governance at national and European levels is being raised by political actors of disparate kinds. Some new social movements have grown directly out of that concern, including Spain’s 15-M movement (known by the international press as ‘indignados’) or ‘Occupy’. As the traditional political groups that have dominated European politics for decades (conservatives, social democrats and liberals) become identified with the problems of the system, other groups have reaped electoral results: a reinvigorated and reorganized traditional left (Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany, Front de Gauche in France), the parties around the green family (Die Grüne in Germany, the Left Greens in Denmark and Iceland, Politics Can Be Different in Hungary) or new parties, able to rally around a single-issue, non-ideological protest vote (Pirates in Sweden and Germany). 

One very different group of parties thriving in this environment gradually joins its many voices to the critique of the state of national and European democracies: the xenophobic populist parties. Some of these parties are not new (the French Front National has been a major player since the 1980s), but they have recently won a spate of local, regional and national footholds, until the presence of xenophobic nationalist populism in our parliaments has become the rule rather than the exception amongst European nations. Their objectives and methods, as well as their ideology, differ substantially from the other groups that are critical of the way democracy works in contemporary Europe.

However, many of their arguments coincide with those of liberal or leftist critics. Indeed, Occupy, Syriza, Melenchon’s Left Front or the Pirates have all also been accused of populism, on the Left rather than the Right. Catherine Fieschi argues in openDemocracy that we should draw a clear distinction between three different political attitudes: xenophobic and exclusive populism; demagoguery on the Right and Left from those ready to undermine and even obscure the quality of public debate, if that’s what it takes to assail the predominant views held by the political elite; and genuine democratic activism seeking to enrich political practice, rather than to simplify and impoverish it.

In what follows I will mostly use the term ‘populist’ to refer to those that have xenophobia at the centre of their political programme, although I am fully aware that populism is not restricted to them. The main goal of that particular brand of populist is the ‘protection’ of an idealised, monocultural, borrowing Rosemary Bechler’s expression, ‘National Us’ (in truth, a limited segment of Society) from an imagined enemy (foreigners or national, sexual or religious minorities) which is to be at least partly excluded in order to preserve (or recover) a pre-eminent role (in practice, a privileged status) for those who belong, who are ‘one of us’. 

Agreeing with the populists?

To a considerable extent, denunciation of the capture of democratic structures and policies by private and corporate interests, and of the impotence of the state in front of large-scale international capitalism - both fundamental arguments of the Left and of democratic activists - has become a central part of the discourse of successful European populist movements. Structural criticism of the system accompanies xenophobic and euro-sceptic arguments in their shared repertoire. This, added to their rejection of neoliberal economic orthodoxy, challenges the accuracy of ‘extreme right’ as a label for these groups. There are striking examples: Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, styled herself in the last presidential election in France as ‘the anti-system’ candidate, using a term which had been claimed heretofore by extreme left and anarchist movements. 

Ivan Krastev, the well known Bulgarian public intellectual, makes a useful comparison. In the 1990s, he says, we all hoped that Bulgaria, thanks to the pre-accession process followed by aspiring EU members, would at some point become like Greece, a reasonably functional place which, with the help of EU funds and norms, would offer stability and growing prosperity to a large majority of its citizens. Instead of that, we now fear Greece is becoming more like Bulgaria, a place where citizens can vote to change the people and parties that rule them (which indeed they do quite frequently), knowing that it will make no difference to the policy that the government will implement. This experience of south-eastern Europe – changing people in government, but not policies – may now become generalised to the rest of southern Europe, at an obvious price for quality of democracy and, perhaps, for stability. The perceived lack of real policy alternatives offers an opening for populists and, indeed, south-eastern European countries now have two decades’ experience of successful populist parties, born in a context of formal democracy, with a lack of substantial political choices. In western Europe too, xenophobic populists thrive where policy alternatives seem excessively constrained by mainstream parties.

What then is the difference between democratic activism that criticises governance in contemporary Europe for its insufficient regard for fundamental democratic pillars and populist opportunism that deploys elements of that criticism for its own political ambitions? For Catherine Fieschi, populism is ‘fundamentally an anti-elitist form of politics’, and democratic activists are set apart from this dangerous dead-end by their ability to target ‘specific laws and specific members of the elite’ while not being ‘anti-elitist per se’. This may be a useful litmus test, but it is becoming less so over time. Meanwhile, as European elites continue to be incapacitated and divided from their publics by their blinkered attachment to ‘business as usual’, a far more significant distinction is emerging: the commitment to real, systemic change. 

Amongst critics of contemporary democracy in Europe it is a central premise that the triangle between society, the state and the corporate world is suffering from chronic imbalance: as state and corporate world become indistinguishable, society feels increasingly estranged and distanced from the two. Democratic activists call for a fundamental effort to be undertaken on all three sides of the triangle to bring the citizenry back to the core of democratic politics, beginning with a debate in which their social and economic options are genuinely contested – one which would have the additional benefit of throwing identity issues into relief in a broader context, weakening the appeal of parties who make identity the centre of their political action. 

On the state/corporate side of the triangle, there is an urgent need to reclaim the whole arena of responsible politics. In a context of actual and potential economic disasters, the term is abused by mainstream politicians to place themselves on a higher moral ground, a blank cheque for ideological choices presented as inevitable. Following many of their central and eastern European counterparts in the last decade, Europeans as a whole are nowadays offered a choice not between Right and Left but, borrowing Slawomir Sierakowski’s expression, between right and wrong, as if responsible politics were confined to one end of the political spectrum only and necessarily tied to neoliberal economics. That kind of ideological hegemony, which removes central questions of economic governance from the political debate, opens the way to the emergence of nationalist populists, as the only questions left for controversy are those related to identity. Neoliberal approaches to the economy are embraced without questioning even by mainstream centre-left parties, despite serious reservations about them in wide sections of the populace. This provides an opening for xenophobic populists to add to their manifestos the defence of a larger, protective role of the state confronted by hostile international challenges. Accordingly, populist parties are slowly shaking off the ‘extreme right’ label and reaching across the left/ right divide in search of votes. 

Reopening the debate about the relationship between the state and the corporate world is fundamental, and is indeed happening. Criticism of excessive interpenetration between ruling political and business elites and the subjugation of political power to economic interest is at the very core of the new protest movements such as the Spanish 15-M and ‘Occupy’, and also of revitalised traditional left parties’ manifestos. ‘We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers’ was one of the first slogans of the 15-M demonstrations in Spain. But they are not alone in spreading this message. Another group is ready to go beyond what the mainstream parties defend as realistic options - precisely the xenophobic populists. The economic programme of the Front National in France, for instance, combines proposals that could have been conceived by an old-school social-democrat (such as expansionary monetary policy in times of crisis or limits to financial speculation) with measures that have little to do with the economy and are pure projections of the xenophobic agenda (such as instituting national preference in access to public services).

In this populist version of the narrative, corrupt elites control the system and conspire to deprive embattled rightful members of the nation of their rights, for their own profit and for that of predatory aliens and minorities. The xenophobic populist agenda is defined by exclusion, not inclusion – quite the contrary aim to that of the reinvention of a democracy based on an open system, where more and more citizens are encouraged to find their way into the decision-making process. At least partial disenfranchisement of sections of the population is an objective of the xenophobic populists that runs directly against the will of democratic activists to empower each and every segment of the population. Finally, the populist agenda promotes a distorted egalitarian society where some (the National Us) should be, as Orwell put it in Animal Farm, more equal than the others. Their anti-elitist push is part of this broader discourse of confrontation and exclusion, where elites become in fact a representation of the Other and the threat it presents to Us. For their part, mainstream politicians do themselves no favours when they dismiss all proposals for real change, not as undesirable and to be contested – but as unworkable and radical – banishing bank nationalisations, exit from the euro or taxing financial transactions, to the same outer darkness as migrant expulsion or unequal access to public services. They too, like the populists, seemingly have no interest in clarifying which of these measures could bring about more secure, prosperous and inclusive societies. This clarification, it seems, must be left to the democratic activists. 

On the citizen/state side of the triangle, opinion surveys across Europe show diminishing confidence in political leaders, a symptom of the failure of institutional mechanisms that should link governments and citizens, and in particular mainstream political parties. Increasingly, those parties invest in knowing about voter’s existing preferences in order to adjust their discourse; their traditional role as opinion shapers (through council hall meetings, base organisations, party schools and the like) is waning. Populist parties, by contrast, are intensively engaged in forming opinion. One innovative way is through social networks. A recent study by Demos compares the ways in which populist parties interact with their supporters through Facebook, showing how their Facebook pages serve to convey the party’s ideas to its supporters, but also create the illusion of political deliberation. The immediateness of posting and ‘liking’ comments can be interpreted by users as if someone is ‘out there listening’; this illusion runs directly counter to their perception that traditional politicians are unwilling or unable to take into account their views and concerns.

The real difference between these two positions, therefore, lies in the final goal of the critique of the state of democratic governance. Democratic activists identify the failures and directly confront the system in order to transform it; and not just in the interest of one group, but for what they perceive to be the common good. Indeed, those engaging in it often do not even claim to be (or appeal mostly to) the losers or the worst hit by the gradual erosion and corruption of the system. They want to build an open system where their views have a place, but other views get their chance too; they seek to transform, but also to repair, restore and defend some existing parts of democratic governance. 

For xenophobic populists the critique of the current state of democracy is just an instrument, mostly borrowed and often distorted, in order to advance their own, discriminatory agenda and build a power base in the existing status quo. They are not interested in opening the field up to any ideas other than their own, or of encouraging their supporters to enter into an empowering, democratic encounter, capable of changing anyone’s or even everyone’s minds. 

Reclaiming the ground

How can progressive criticism of the way in which democracy is currently functioning (excessive corporate power, perceived lack of an alternative, ideological solutions sold as technocratic ones) serve to confront the rise of xenophobic populism rather than contribute to its rhetorical arsenal? How can the critique of the current state of European democracy be rescued from far-right populists? Engaging in fair and direct debate to expose their contradictions, even if it were sufficient, is not always an option.

The alternative must be to empower citizens to reclaim the democratic system as theirs, transform it and thus close the window of opportunity for the populists. This is the agenda of the reinvention, or recovery, of European democracy. With their progressive convergence in discourse and policy, with their resistance to reform, and rebuttal of any criticism of the fundamentals of the existing system (even in the face of massive failure such as the one we are experiencing in the current crisis), mainstream political parties have provided an opportunity for xenophobic populists, always quick to capitalise on anger and frustration. By holding the system to account from a genuine position of democratic renewal and reinvigoration, that ground can be reclaimed back from them. 

Rather than trying to exclude xenophobic populists from the public sphere, this sphere should be enlarged to become more inclusive. European societies are enduring changes that require more, not less, politicisation, more arenas and opportunities to debate, engage and decide. Referendums are an example of instruments that should not simply be discarded to avoid the risk of being captured by xenophobes. Yes, they have served to energise European citizens against mosque building in Switzerland or to stir up Europhobic feelings. But they have also been a point of revitalisation of democratic participation in Italy, for example. Enlarging the political arena is crucial both at national and at European level. The European Citizen’s Initiative opens a new avenue for pan-European political action, but other ways of enlarging direct participation across national borders (from coordinated protest to pan-European media, from genuine citizen online consultation to the possibility of holding EU-wide referendums) should be given urgent consideration.

The xenophobic populist parties that have mushroomed in most European nations are not a mortal threat to European democracy, but they certainly add to its considerable ailments in this period of crisis. The crude comparison with the interwar period probably makes it harder to understand and counter the current phenomenon. Strategies to roll back their growth must be based on the evidence about these parties, and on the failures of previous approaches, not on 80-year old stories. The isolation and policies of ‘cordon sanitaire’ around populist parties have not, in the long run, proven effective. Trying to delegitimize these parties as anti-democratic has not worked either. It is not even accurate: none of the repeatedly successful far-right parties advocates an alternative system to democracy and, indeed, they increasingly style themselves as fighters trying to reclaim democracy from corrupt and distant political elites. Co-opting populists into governmental coalitions (or, at least, into external support for a government) in order to expose their contradictions and make them either moderate their tone or implode has also had mixed results: it seems to have worked with Lega Nord in Italy because of corruption, and it did help to split the FPÖ in Austria, but it has not worked in Denmark, the Netherlands or Switzerland. 

Far-right nationalist parties will not suddenly disappear from Europe through clever tactical political manoeuvering, because they are expressions of deep weaknesses in our democracies and not just transient aberrations. Only the recovery of European democracy can progressively reduce the political field open to these parties and, in particular, their impressive ability to shape public opinion and policies well beyond their actual support in each society. As issues that are fundamental in the current context – basic economic policy choices, the democratic and accountability deficits in transnational decision-making – are squeezed out of public debate by mainstream parties and media, the recovery of democracy must be based on inclusive, broad, open-ended pluralist debate on precisely these issues. The risk of mirror populism on the left should not be underestimated: solutions which tend towards exclusion (even exclusion of xenophobic populists), which close the political system, which avoid genuine deliberation or which are based on mere resentment, are completely self-defeating.

This is a particularly important consideration when it comes to the third side of the triangle: the need to re-establish a balanced relationship between society and the corporate world. The idea that corporations are not an adversary, but an organic part of society, is a profoundly liberal one, hard to apprehend within classic Marxist analysis. Newer movements and parties, such as 15-M in Spain or the Green parties, tend to be more creative than the traditional left and look for solutions beyond the state and its reform, directly in relation to the private sector.  Many in the 15-M movement, for instance, make a clear distinction between entrepreneurial capitalist activity, which is not only approved of by many but also claimed as part of the movement (‘we are all entrepreneurs’ is often seen in tweets with 15-M related hashtags), and large corporations that abuse their commercial positions or wield an excessive influence over political power. Many 15-M-related actions across Spain directly target corporations, and not just the state, politicians or the public space: bank-led home evictions, the offices of rating agencies or bank headquarters. Other groups have started building the foundations of a social economy, such as ethical banks, which offer alternatives to the corporate practices they reject. Green parties seek alliances with green business as an emerging counterweight to the power of large corporations. While many intellectuals are still trapped in purely state-centric thinking, activists and innovative politicians have opened another avenue to re-balancing the link between society, state and the corporate world, one which power-hungry xenophobic populist movements have not yet begun to contemplate. 

In conclusion 

Criticising the fundamentals of European democracy today may feel uncomfortably close to reinforcing some of the arguments of xenophobic populists. But silencing that criticism may well be much more helpful to them, as they can and do claim to ‘say what people think and politicians hide’. Reinvigorated and new progressive parties and leaders, as well a new generation of protesters rallied around the internet and the squares of Europe, have started to reclaim the ground of criticism left empty for the xenophobes to commandeer. But as long as mainstream parties and political leaders fail to expand the debate on our political options to include a much wider range of ideas and actors, there will be an opening for populists and demagogues. We should not forget that the primary objective of xenophobic populists is not to strengthen the participatory pillar of democracy, but to weaken another of its pillars, that of inclusion and solidarity. We should concentrate on the only effective reply to this, not multiculturalism so much as multipolitics – the defence of participation, inclusion, prosperity and security through a new activist politics of democratic change. 

Meanwhile, democracy activists and engaged reformist politicians are trying their best to block the path to populist power. Most of us are much better at pointing out the problems with the current system than at articulating alternatives. While we cannot propose simple solutions like the ones contained in the cynical rants of the xenophobic populists, we are more likely to bring new life and partial reform to democracies in Europe than a total revamp of the dominating paradigm. But that new life and gradual reform, after all, may be no minor contribution. It may just be the help that a still noticeably resilient European democracy needs to exit stronger, rather than weaker, from the on-going financial-corporate onslaught. 

About the author

Jordi Vaquer is Director of CIDOB, the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs