Populism and the enchanted world of ‘moderate politics’

Why do some political scientists seem oblivious to the fact that the ‘moderates’ who let down their electorates are mainly responsible for their own demise? A reply to Catherine Fieschi’s Who’s afraid of the populist wolf?

I welcome Catherine Fieschi’s reply to my contribution on populism published earlier by openDemocracy, and I thank her for discussing my article. I wish this could be the beginning of a wider debate on the merits of a notion which has aroused intense academic interest over the past years, but whose usages remain problematic.

The problem, in my view, is not that populism does not exist - I readily accept that it does - nor that it has not been defined; there is indeed a great deal of erudite literature on the subject. The problem is of a different nature. I essentially question the epistemological flaws surrounding the uses of the notion: when is it safe to call a politician, a political party or movement ‘populist’?

This is an important question to address because nobody does it in the media and few do it in academia. The stakes are high because to label someone as ‘populist’ is to imply that s/he is somehow a potential or real enemy of representative democracy. My critic refers to the ‘pernicious effects’ of populism which underlines the notion’s very negative connotation. Let me here reply to Catherine Fieschi’s major criticisms.

More of a rhetorical style than an ideology

The notion of populism may have ‘a consistent logic’ as Fieschi suggests, but it does not propose a coherent worldview. In that respect, and contrary to what the author claims, it cannot be considered an ideology. Cas Mudde, one of the major specialists on the subject, concedes that populism is a ‘thin-centred ideology’. He postulates that particular expressions of populism are almost always combined with very different ideologies such as Liberalism, Conservatism or Socialism. In other words, populism should not be regarded as a comprehensive ideology. According to Michael Freeden’s ‘morphological analysis’, an ideology has its own ‘ineliminable’ core of values exercising control, with logically and culturally adjacent concepts that are further connected to peripheral concepts.

What is populism’s core ‘value’? Fieschi argues that it is the ‘pitting of the elite against the people’. I am quite happy to go along with that definition. Still, if the loathing of the elite is populism’s Weltanschauung, then it compares poorly to freedom and to equality, the two core values of Liberalism and Socialism. To point out that populism does not have the depth and sophistication of a political ideology is in no way an attempt to suggest that this is a ‘wishy-washy’ notion, even less to ‘to discourage analysts’, let alone ‘to bamboozle democrats’ as Catherine Fieschi alleges. No, it simply means testing the epistemological merits of the notion in order to reveal its heuristic limits. To put it bluntly, populism does not embrace any particular set of core values, so it is not an ideology. Populism would be best described as a rhetorical style; a demagogic attempt to connect with the ‘people’ and a form of empathy (genuine or fake) with the masses.

Having said that, I acknowledge that there are ‘typologies, or at least taxonomies’ of populism. Therefore it is ‘not a random assortment of attributes’ and populism, of course, truly exists. The danger with ‘essentialising’ populism is that one tends to over-estimate its capacity to mobilise. In the 1930s, millions marched behind the banners of Fascism and Communism. Today, no one would die for a populist cause. Populism is no ideology simply because it offers no positive worldview. It is just a means to an end, a device to appeal to the masses.

This point is no exercise in academic pedantry. By making the claim that populism is indeed an ideology, researchers convey the idea that ‘radical’ political forces - whatever their origin or position on the political spectrum - share a common set of values and that they are the two sides of the same coin. Conversely, by stating that populism has no such normative dimension but is essentially a rhetorical style, one implies that virtually all parties and politicians (that includes the ‘moderates’),will be using at some point in time populist devices to appeal to the people. Occurrences of that kind abound. Fieschi gives a discursive example of populist rhetoric with former President Sarkozy referring to the ‘scum’ that had rioted in Parisian suburbs. Cheap and offensive populism can also be found on the centre-left as well. In 2009, while visiting the Evry marketplace, Manuel Valls, currently socialist Interior minister, asked his cameraman to stop filming a scene because they were ‘too many Blacks’ in situ. Valls was caught on camera saying: ‘I want you to film more “Whites”, I want more “blancos”.’

Why should ‘radicals’ always be wrong?

It is more contentious when an academic study on populism sets the stage for a battle between ‘radicals’ and ‘moderates’. Fieschi rather candidly concedes that the problem is ‘how to win the reluctant radicals back to moderate politics’. This raises a double issue. Firstly, why should political scientists be concerned to return the ‘reluctant radicals’ to ‘moderate politics’? Secondly, why should ‘radicalism’ – as an unspecified category – always be deemed bad and wrong?

We are potentially heading down a slippery slope here as such a type of research may no longer be driven by scientific motives, but by partisan values and prejudices. Catherine Fieschi argues that ‘at the heart of [populism’s] claims is the purported belief that the left/right distinction is not just useless, but an invention of elites created to throw ordinary people off the track of the real political game and hoodwink them into thrusting representative institutions’. This thick description may just work for Beppe Grillo’s Cinque Stelle Movement in Italy, but it would not suit the French situation. Both Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Left Front) and Marine Le Pen (National Front) are frequently described as ‘populist’ by the media and also by some academics. However the former proudly claims that he is on the ‘left’ or ‘radical left’ whereas the latter is adamant that she embodies the ‘national right’. Both accuse the PS and the UMP of having blurred the ideological boundaries and of promoting more or less the same policies. The similarities between Mélenchon and Le Pen end there as they are indeed politically and ideologically poles apart. Yet both are labelled ‘populist’. How can this help understand each of the parties’ political objectives?

In truth, today’s ‘moderates’ stand accused of depoliticising the political debate by occupying the centre ground and by implementing fairly similar policies in power. Conversely, the ‘radicals’ are those trying to inject conflict and differences into politics. (Shouldn’t a healthy democracy be about the civilised expression of conflict and dissent about political issues?) Think for a moment: aren’t those amorphous policies of ‘mainstream’ parties responsible for their rising unpopularity and their decreasing credibility?

Why should political scientists uncritically use the media clichés about ‘reasonable moderates’ opposing ‘undemocratic radicals/populists’? The political scientist’s role is not to indulge in sketchy ideological considerations but to methodically assess the nature of the type of radicalism that s/he is studying: does this brand of radicalism challenge the economic status quo or not? Is it value-based or not? Does it promote more liberal democracy or more social order? Only after a close examination of each radical force can conclusions be drawn about their level of ‘dangerousness’ for democracy. This cannot be decided a priori on the grounds that some parties broadly challenge the field of ‘moderate politics’.

It is a fact that populists thrive on ‘wounded’ democracies. But ‘wounded’ democracies are imperfectly run polities, where economic inequalities are dire, and where the elites have often broken their promises. Thus let’s not forget who provoked the ‘democratic fracture’ in the first place. Why do some political scientists seem oblivious to the fact that the ‘moderates’ who let down their electorates are mainly responsible for their own demise? How to explain François Hollande’s abysmal unpopularity one year into his presidency? Is it due to the demagogic campaign of some ‘populists’ or is it because, in record time, he has reneged on his promise to break with Sarkozy’s economics? If he did not intend to keep this promise, why did he make it in the first place? Wouldn’t Hollande be one of those populists then?

It is regrettable that Catherine Fieschi should caricature my point about the ‘demophobes’. I did not argue that anyone taking on populism as a negative political force should ipso facto be labelled a ‘demophobe’ (i.e. someone who does not trust, nor rate ordinary people’s judgement or aspirations). Earlier on, I wrote that populism needed to be qualified and that no political scientist should a priori equate political radicalism with populism. It depends on the aims, the motives and the programme of each party. This last point pertains to the underlying question of democracy. Again, Fieschi and I seem to disagree here. The author argues in substance that ‘moderates’ may sometimes be flawed but it is the moral responsibility of our elites (political, intellectual or economic) ‘to point out ill-informed opinion, or misguided reasoning’. Of course, they must do that! Except that, for the most part, our elites do not exactly do that. On a number of policy areas, our governments tend to flatter people’s most prejudiced instincts (immigration, law and order, taxation). Conversely, our elites refuse to further engage ordinary voters when their half-baked arguments fail to convince them. Think of the current disastrous austerity policies imposed on European peoples, despite most economic experts advising against implementing them.

From Athens to Lisbon and from Rio de Janeiro to Istanbul, the world is erupting against its political elites for the same reasons: their governments make economic and political decisions which benefit, not the many, but the happy few. In what way would imposing those flawed policies be a mark of ‘respect’ for the people? Where is the much-vaunted ‘democratic deliberation’ here? Where is the elites’ accountability?

Again, the task of the political scientist should not be to condone or condemn this state of affairs, but to try to understand why people feel so disenfranchised. Consequently, the researcher should tackle and discuss the policies which make those populations suffer. Unfortunately, this is not something which most political scientists seem in the least concerned about. ‘Not to laugh, not to lament, not to detest, but to understand’ said Spinoza. Before looking down on the disoriented and angry voters who fall for the demagogues or dismissing all ‘radicals’ as undisputed ‘populists’, it would indeed be worth pausing for a moment to understand how those agents feel and to ask what they want. Political scientists should also wonder why more and more ‘moderate’ voters no longer believe in the enchanted world of ‘moderate politics’.

About the author

Philippe Marlière is a Professor in French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Philippe blogs here and here, and tweets @PhMarliere.

He is a regular contributor to Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique and The Guardian.

His major publications include:

La Social-démocratie domestiquée. La voie blairiste (Aden, 2008)

La Mémoire socialiste. Sociologie du souvenir politique en milieu partisan (L’Harmattan, 2007)

La Troisième voie dans l’impasse. Essais sur le New Labour et Tony Blair (Syllepse, 2003)

Social democratic parties in the European Union. History, organisation, policies (Macmillan, 1999) 

Jean Jaurès et son discours à la jeunesse (La Nacelle, 1995).