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A plague on both your populisms

Populist movements can bear a strong, but misleading, resemblance to more respectable cousins: movements for democratic accountability. It has now become fashionable even to argue that ‘some populism is good’ - because populism is seen as ‘speaking truth to power’. It’s important therefore for democrats to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys. If populists can play this game, don’t the rest of us need our own enemy images?

Against the backdrop of the European crisis, the spectacle of the US Republican primaries, the English Defence League (EDL) organised march in Arhus and the distant echo of the Occupy movement, George Galloway’s victory and the last few weeks of the French Presidential election campaign provide a perfect opportunity to hurl accusations of populism across partisan and media lines. 

The financial and economic crises gripping much of the western world, and their political and social consequences, account in part for our infatuation with all things populist: populism is fundamentally an anti-elitist form of politics and elite failure (and corruption) on such a spectacular scale can only fan its flames.  

Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are regularly pitted against one another as the faces of right and left-wing populism, and in conferences and dinner parties from Brussels to Bratislava the topic of populism dominates conversations.  How dangerous are these ‘populists’? Are they left or right? Left and right? Is Respect’s George Galloway a populist? Could they be a ‘good thing?  In the context of, often numerically insignificant but, always media-grabbing events (the EDL March in Denmark attracted a whopping 150 people). These questions are at the heart of current political analysis.  And they deserve better answers than they are getting.

Because of the magnitude of the crisis, it’s been too easy to reach for the ‘P’ word as a blanket description for movements – some of which may have a populist streak – that differ significantly from one another.  As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to pinpoint the real dangers that populism presents.  Even more problematically, it has now become fashionable to argue that ‘some populism is good’, either through an argument that cherishes populism’s capacity ( or so some claim) to ‘speak truth to power’, or simply because some populism looks unmistakeably as though it’s coming from the left of the political spectrum. This, after decades of right-wing populism, is a relief for some.  But both arguments strike me as revealing the extent of confusion surrounding the term.

Not a democrat in sight

Part of that confusion lies in populism’s deep but complex relationship to democracy.  Arguably, there is no populism without democracy: populism is a by-product of democracy (or as the scholar Margaret Canovan once argued a ‘shadow cast by democracy’).  It arises from a perception of betrayal of the democratic promise. And the greater the foundational promise of equality, the greater the chances of populist politics emerging, once the promise is seen as broken (whether because an alternative elite has emerged – press, bureaucracy, civil servants – or because leaders are seen as corrupt, or because they are seen as having developed separate interests from those of the people they claim to work for).   That relationship to the founding moment of democracy and its subsequent development is key because it explains why popular revolts against authoritarian regimes obey a different logic and don’t fall into any sort of populist category.

The professionalisation of politics, a forensic media, and, more recently, a very sharp turn toward technocratic (i.e. expert-driven) politics account in part for a predictable rise of populist movements that bear a strong, but un-easy, relationship to a more palatable cousin: democratic accountability.

But it would be a mistake to confuse populism’s discursive insistence on elite failure with democratic accountability.  Holding political and economic elites accountable is intrinsic to the democratic process.  But anti-elitism of the kind that populists wield is a form of inchoate vengeance, an easy rallying cry that isn’t about improvement but about resentment.  Of course resentment has a place in democratic politics but, once resentment becomes the driving force behind a movement or party, no good – no democratic, shared, public good – can come of it.

Left populism

The second reason why populism is attracting the favours of otherwise reasonable people is that, for the past year or so, it seems to be undergoing a renaissance on the left of the political spectrum (and many have also been tempted to lump the Arab revolts of 2011 in there as well for good measure).  Two types of reactions then occur. The first is a knee-jerk, ‘I like these people and therefore they can’t be populists’ reaction. The second is a more nuanced, ‘but this is a left-wing populism… and therefore it can’t be bad’. This last reaction is based on a much more interesting premise, namely that populism on the left is not xenophobic and therefore is perfectly OK.  Take away the xenophobia, some argue, and you’ve got yourself a democratic movement.

Two searching questions need to be asked here. The first is whether xenophobia is a defining trait of populist politics.  In other words, can there be a populism that does not contain an element of xenophobia?  The second, is whether left wing populism is any less xenophobic than its right wing variant.

That these two questions are deeply inter-related is illustrated both by Occupy and by the current campaign by Mélenchon in France. Both movements bear many of the hallmarks of populism. But once the xenophobic sting is removed, they don’t look like the familiar populists anymore. Over the past few decades, we may have become so accustomed to the Le Pens and the Wilders of this world that we are suffering from a kind of definitional drift that prevents us from recognising populism when it is ‘disinfected’ of xenophobia? Or could it be the case that, no matter how well-hidden, there is always something in populist movements that smacks of xenophobia, buried deep within the appeals they use: we simply have to look harder to find it in these parties and movements?

Or is it that they simply aren’t populists? Mélenchon and Occupy give us real food for thought.  The former is constantly contrasted with Le Pen as ‘the other populism’; The latter, Occupy (especially its US version), through their choice of words and their reference to the ‘99%’ of ordinary people, seem to fall squarely in a tradition of American early populism of the left – of the Union Labour party or the American Federation of Labour.  Yet a closer look, and a further contrast with the impulses represented by the Tea Party, or by George Galloway of Respect, force us to confront our definitions of populism with reality. 

Three core components

If we draw up an etch-a-sketch version of populism, its constitutive parts can be summed up as:

a) the perception of a fundamental, unbridgeable fracture between the real people and the elite; in other words a militant anti-elitism, since elites are fundamentally perceived as the root of all national problems;

b) a conviction that ordinary people in their common sense and emotionally direct relationship to politics have all the answers; they are therefore the one true, reliable political compass;

c) as a result, the populist discourse of ‘democracy’ is one which will privilege, as a matter of principle, an unreflective diagnosis of problems and quick-fix solutions. This is crucial because contrary to the principles of deliberation and debate intrinsic to - at least our model of - the democratic process, the populist process will purposefully avoid sustained inquiry or debate because the latter is seen as anathema to common sense.  

What inevitably arises from these three precepts is a question of political dynamics.  If the ‘real people’ and their common sense hold the keys to a saner, realer, more democratic process, then it becomes imperative to determine who within the available population, is the ‘true people’.  This is of paramount importance in the practice if not the theory of populist politics, and it is where xenophobia plays a fundamental role – whether or not it is formally factored in or referred to explicitly. This is how trouble arises, with the need to start cutting - however clumsily - into the body politic in order to cookie-cut who is ‘with us’ and who is ‘against us’ (and isolate the latter as traitors). This becomes the driving force in the dynamics of populist movements.  The aim is not to build consensus, but to isolate those elements who need to be fingered as ‘against’ the interests of ‘true people’.  In diverse societies this can become quite tricky.

For right-wing populism, a variant of racism (more or less sophisticated in its language and its footwork) will do the trick - just as it did with old fashioned, left wing populist parties and movements (however endearing they might have been, the early American populists weren’t exactly kind to minorities).  But given the contemporary left’s complicated relationship to diversity (that pesky conundrum resulting from the dual demands of equality and representation), clear cut racism is no longer an option and neither is a classic xenophobia necessarily related to race, ethnicity or even religion. 

For left-wing populism in the era of identity politics, the contortions are more and more demanding.  But xenophobia is a pliable concept. It can simply motor, as its Greek root suggests, on the fear of the other - any other.  The fact that xenophobia can accommodate huge variations of nature and intensity is a useful resource for populist movements.  This means that ‘the other’ can be expanded to mean just about anything: the elite of course, liberals and intellectuals who favour the complexity of diversity, the ‘traitors amongst us’, but also foreign powers (Europe, the US, China). 

In this respect, xenophobia is an intrinsic part of populism, because the latter’s political dynamics create ‘others’ as a matter if course in a constant quest to determine who’s who. Even in its most benign version, populism asks people to choose: with us or against us? For the people or against the people? 

This is not a democratic choice.   Democratic discourse and practice recognise the diversity inherent in the concept of the people: hence the protection of minorities and minority opinion in majoritarian democracies.  Populism, on the other hand, denies this complexity: the creation of the other as an enemy is a precondition to its existence in practice, since its functioning is premised on identifying the true people. 

Three types of susceptibility

So where does all this get us?  I would argue, given current developments, that it’s quite important for democrats to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys. If populists can play this game, then we should get a little better at it, especially when populists refine their offers as the policy and political landscapes are set to get more complex, as populations diversify, and as responses to the crises begin to bite. 

One way to understand the nature of the movements and parties is to apply a three-way categorisation.  All parties and movements in our democracies have some kind of a relationship to populism. But, broadly speaking, these fall into three distinct camps: the Strictly Populists, the Demagogues and the Democratic Activists.  The first group is toxic and dangerous, the second is regrettable, the third is a necessary by-product of mass, democratic politics with which we can all live. It is a fundamentally different political animal.

The Strictly Populists

The Strictly Populists include the movements and parties who fit all three initial criteria and whose xenophobia – however couched – is well in evidence.  The Marine Le Pens, the Geert Wilders, the Tea Party activists, but also the Dutch Socialist party (on the left – but very populist).  All of them have refined their xenophobia by moving it away from outright racism. But their appeal is to those people who not only feel they have been cheated by a system that privileges elites of all sorts whilst abandoning them to a mediocre existence, but for whom solutions are to be found in an increasingly closed model of society that can privilege them, protect them, as the ordinary, true people - the keepers of the national flame.  A closed model of society and politics is foundational to this strand of populism. It is defining of the vision they outline, firmly setting their sights away from Europe, away from diversity (both within and without), away from global forces that complicate matters so much.  Here the True Finns, however ephemeral and symptomatic, may also fit the bill.

The Demagogues

The demagogues are a kind of ‘populism lite’.  Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a prime example.  Anti-elitist but erudite, frank but astute, his rhetoric is nevertheless neither simplistic nor does it come across as common sense.  Indeed listening to Mélenchon is a lot like listening to Chomsky or the ghost of Durkheim.  References to Bretton Woods, Huntington and Fukuyama abound, and the role of the United States is consistently highlighted as the engine of the current crisis.  The anti-globalisation rhetoric sails very close to the wind of xenophobia, but manages not to fall into the trap.  His insistence on referring to the Toulouse murders as the work of a ‘psychopath’ consciously excluded references to religion. And his own background – a professional politician with an elite education –defies ordinariness. Perhaps the temptation to slide him into the same camp as Marine Le Pen comes from two things - his attacks on the current elite and the fact that he, like her and so many of the Strict Populists, is a demagogue. 

But demagoguery does not a populist make.  Demagoguery, a form of leadership that appeals primarily to emotions rather than rational calculation or expert opinion, does have deep links to populism’s ‘common sense’ politics since ‘ordinary people’ (whoever they are), goes the populist line, don’t need expertise, (their emotional reactions can guide them to the correct solutions -outrage, disgust, pride, anger - all of these are heralded as the true currency of real politics for real people by real people.)  And they are pitted against an expert, disconnected, hyper-professionalised political class.  Margaret Thatcher and George Galloway both fit this bill, despite the fact that they hail from different parts of the spectrum.

Leadership as exercised by Mélenchon, despite the erudite references, is couched in this language of emotions - an appeal to instinctive fairness and near-constant outrage are the poles around which his rhetoric is organised.  But, overall, despite the anti-elitism and the emotional appeal, Mélenchon’s is a kind of populism lite, that owes more to a clever manipulation of the current crisis, Hollande’s inanity, and his status in French politics as a former Socialist giving Le Pen, and possibly Hollande, a run for their money.

The Democratic Activists

So what of our last camp? Here we find Occupy and the Indignados, but also the rhetoric of any talented politician or political activist in an era of mass democracy and media driven politics.  Those whose explicit use of the concept of accountability (rhetorically and in practice) de facto creates an ‘air de famille’ with populism, but who don’t rely on exclusion or any form of xenophobia to drive the project: those whose vision might encompass enemies, but whose aspirations belong to an open society, mindful of diversity.  The Occupy movement is diverse, and some within it are clearly more attracted by simplistic solutions than others. But overall, and especially in the US,  the demands, while often couched in a rhetoric and a style that privileged direct politics and transparency, were often targeted, precise, almost technical - limiting campaign funds; the restoring of the Glass-Steagall  Act that would once again separate investments banks from commercial banks; or the closing of the loophole on Delaware-based Corporations.  The language of anti-corruption and democratic accountability differs substantially, in that it targets specific laws and specific members of the elite. It is not anti-elitist per se.   And in all these points it differs markedly from a populist movement.

Politics and political discourses are fluid by nature, so hermetically sealed categories are often vulnerable to its fluid discourses  and to the realities of the political game.  Some in the Occupy movement use more demagoguery than others; some were more vulnerable to it than others. Galloway’s appeal is in part to do with his embodiment of a political brashness that is otherwise currently absent from UK politics.  Circumstances, myths, the nature and needs of leadership complicate matters in maddening and wonderful ways. So it is quite right that it might have taken us a while to separate out the populists from the demagogues, and each of these from democratic activists.  And the results may not yet be comprehensive, but attempting to tell the democratic forces from the others - who we should be for and whom we should remain firmly against - is important.

About the author

Catherine Fieschi is the director of Counterpoint a research and advisory group that works to provide governments, businesses and NGOs with analysis on how cultural and social dynamics affect politics and markets.  Catherine holds a PhD in Politics from McGill University in Canada. She is the author of In the Shadow of Democracy (MUP) and of numerous pamphlets and articles on extremism, populism, citizenship and identity politics.


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