Can Europe Make It?

Creating the people: an interview with Aurelien Mondon on populism

Populism is a political style whereby the populist creates her/his ‘people’ according to her/his ideological goals. ‘The people’ therefore can take many shapes and forms and be used in both inclusive and exclusive ways.

Antonis Galanopoulos Aurelien Mondon
26 September 2014

Aurelien Mondon is a lecturer in French politics at the University of Bath specialising in populism, the extreme right, abstention and the crisis of democracy. This interview was conduced by Antonis Galanopoulos, a post-graduate student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.


Let’s start with the most important question. In recent years, there have been too many debates in the media and in academia about populism. And we ourselves will now have a discussion focusing on populism. But, what is populism? Which is, in your opinion, the best way to define the term?

That is a crucial point indeed, and too often commentators talk about populism without clearly defining it. Because the concept of ‘the people’ is central to the word populism and because of its highly polemical political content, a definition is necessary before anything else can be discussed. Populism is usually understood either as an ideology (be it a thin one) or as a style or discourse.

My own research, based loosely on the so-called Essex School, sits firmly within the latter understanding, wherein populism is a political style or discourse whereby the populist creates her/his ‘people’ according to her/his ideological goals. ‘The people’ therefore can take many shapes and forms and be used in both inclusive and exclusive ways (e.g. against global injustice, against minorities, for democracy, for discriminatory purposes etc.). Essentially, populism is not intrinsically positive or negative, it is a tool to create a political commonality.  

Populism is largely interpreted as a threat for democracy. But can it function as a corrective for democracy?

On its own populism is neither corrective, nor threatening; the ideologies it is attached to are. The term ‘populism’ connotes various ideas and meanings, both positive and negative. Because of its strategic and opportunistic essence, it is crucial not to consider populism as an ideological feature as it would provide the populist with a semblance of democratic legitimacy by reinforcing her/his image as the ‘voice of the people’.

Many theorists have argued that the demonization and condemnation of populism affects also the people and the very idea of popular sovereignty. What are the consequences of this -let us say- devaluation of the people for democracy itself?

This is particularly striking with regards to the mainstream/elite coverage of right-wing populism (and to some extent that of the left). When ‘the people’ choose not to choose the acceptable options in the pseudo-democratic electoral game and turn instead to more radical options on the left or right, their choice is derided as a vote for the populist alternative(s), that is a vote for demagogues taking advantage of the masses’ passions and irrational behaviour.

In fact, this brings us back to the democratic debates which were rife in the 19th century, when the bourgeois elite feared the power of the masses. This fear was not always reactionary, as it was in Gustave Le Bon’s understanding. Some thinkers appeared genuinely worried that the masses could be swayed to act against their will and own benefit. However, such a position showed and continues to show today a deeply anti-democratic sentiment amongst the elite: a strong distrust of the people. In the current context, ‘the people’ (those who resist the status quo) are portrayed as a danger to themselves, forcing a self-titled pro-human rightist elite to take technocratic decisions for the people’s own good and for humanity’s progress.

To quote Jacques Rancière (2005), populism ‘hides and reveals at the same time the great wish of oligarchy: to govern without people, which is to say without a divided people; to govern without politics’.

In the European debate we often meet the equation of populism with the extreme right-wing parties. Is this identification correct? Why do you think that this is happening and what it serves?

Part of the extreme right can certainly be defined as populist. However, it becomes an issue when the term populism becomes the central descriptive/definitional element of parties like the Front National and Golden Dawn. These parties have made the use of populist rhetoric central to their strategy: they can create and recreate peoples depending on their audience and aims. However, their ideological core is not to be found there. Therefore, they are not simply populist parties. It is their central ideological core that should be the primary factor when naming them (nativist, racist, fascist, nationalist etc.) and/or their broader political family (extreme right, far right, radical right etc.).

A party like the FN could then be described as a populist nativist party – that is a nativist party that makes use of populist rhetoric. Calling the FN simply a populist party is not only misleading, but it is also deeply damaging on a political level. As early as the 1990s, the FN and Jean-Marie Le Pen were happy to be called ‘populist’. Not only did this term remove the stigma attached to other more precise and traditional definitional terms (nativist, racist, extreme right), but it gave the party the semblance of democratic legitimacy it had lacked throughout its early history.

Under the populist umbrella, the FN is no longer represented as the heir of the anti-democratic extreme right; it becomes the ultra-democratic alternative, the so-called ‘voice of the people’. This is extremely beneficial at a time of post-democracy where the electorate feels increasingly betrayed by and distrustful of their political elite (80% of Europeans do not trust their political parties!).

In Western countries is widespread the debate about the so-called democratic deficit. You have written previously that “western democracies have reached a final stage in their development”. How this democratic deficit is connected with populism? And how we can move nowadays to a democratization of democracy?

That ‘western democracies have reached a final stage in their development’ is the common hegemonic understanding, based on Fukuyama’s still prevalent yet widely discarded ‘end of history’ thesis. While I disagree with that claim, its hold on the current state of politics, or lack thereof, is undeniable. However, populism is only one way in which the democratic deficit expresses itself. Its right-wing kind has been particularly useful to hide the deeper crisis liberal democracies are facing at the moment.

By focusing on and exaggerating the rise of the ‘populist right’, the elite (media, politicians, academics in defense of the status quo) has made other forms of protest either unheard or discredited. Left-wing alternatives, while serious challengers both within the liberal democratic game (SYRIZA, PODEMOS) and without (OCCUPY) have been widely downplayed or portrayed as yet another passionate, irrational, utopian attempt undeserving of serious attention.

The other key element of the democratic crisis is abstention. While it is commonly, although briefly, mentioned at each election, it is always portrayed negatively in the hegemonic discourse. The story goes something like this: (s)he who abstains is guilty of a crime against democracy, fleeing their responsibility and turning their back on the struggles of our forefathers who died for our right to elect our leaders. Of course, this is extremely simplistic, and it is unlikely that our forefathers had in mind the post-democratic spectacle offered to us in recent years. The point here is not to assign a political meaning to abstention, or to claim that it is ‘the largest party’ and therefore deserves power. The issue is not to count abstention so much as to acknowledge it.

In fact, counting it would merely make it part of what has been central to the democratic deficit, that is the power of a majority over growing minorities (sometimes even majorities!). Therefore, a first step towards ‘a democratisation of democracies’ would be to acknowledge how undemocratic our current system has become (or has always been). While this does not necessarily make that system positive or negative in itself, it would allow us to escape the current illusion we are living in, in which a system is perpetuated under the false premise that it is supported by the sovereign people – whatever this people may be.

This would require a damning rethinking of our current understanding of democracy and allow for the contemplation of more emancipatory forms of politics where democracy represents an uncountable people, as opposed to a mere mercantile form of vote bargaining.  Whether this process of rethinking our current system and revamped forms of democracies and governance would create positive or negative outcomes and alternatives is unclear, but it must be a starting point if we are to address the democratic crisis.

In your latest article about populism in Policy Network you refer in the disproportionate media focus on right-wing populist parties that also causes and a false interpretation of this phenomenon. What’s going wrong with the media’s coverage of right-wing populism and how it influences the electorate?

The main problem with the current coverage of ‘right-wing populist parties’ such as UKIP or the FN is that it is totally disproportionate. Of course, these parties must be scrutinised and their ideas must be combatted in the media as well as in other spheres.  However, we must also stress that they do not represent the danger that the current media suggests. In fact, by exaggerating their performance, we legitimise and normalise them.

At best, these parties have gathered 10% of the registered vote in countries where on average (at the EU level) 80% do not trust their parties. That shows clearly that the extreme right is not the alternative portrayed by the media in an attempt to divert from the very crisis of the liberal democratic system. Indeed, in this distrust of parties shared by most, parties like the FN are very much included and not seen as a proper, convincing alternative.

Yet, in the end, it is easier and safer for the media to focus on these parties rather than on a much more uncertain and charged debate.

As you are a Lecturer of French Politics, I have two last questions about France. Front National win the European elections and many polls suggest that the party can win the next presidential election. What are the specific factors favoring the rise of the Front National in France?

As I have developed elsewhere, there are many factors which ‘should’ favour the rise of the FN. However, what we have witnessed is in fact a rather moderate rise of the party in the past thirty years. While it is important not to underestimate the results obtained by the ‘new’ FN, its rise in the circumstances does not warrant the extremely unbalanced coverage it is benefitting from at the moment. What is much more important to note with regards to the FN’s impact on French politics is the legitimisation of its ideas.

It is now common to hear in the mainstream political discourse things that would have been totally unacceptable 20 years ago, or at the very least would have been widely denounced. The stigmatisation of various groups in society is today not only normal but expected. After all, François Hollande himself felt compelled to promise that he would not repeal the burqa law during his 2012 campaign.

This move rightward, while the result of various factors, has been facilitated by the ideological struggle the FN has waged for over 30 years. It is crucial to remember that the process of normalisation is not new and has not begun under Marine Le Pen’s impulse, but under a sophisticated strategic theory devised by the Nouvelle droite in the 1980s and 1990s, relying in part on a right-wing appropriation of Antonio Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony and common sense.

Front National seems to poll best among young people and the working class. Why do right-wing populist parties owe much of their success to these groups; specifically the working class, who are a traditional source of votes for left wing parties?

The problem with the extreme right’s electorate is that it is too often read in a superficial manner. It is impossible to understand the appeal of such parties without a precise understanding of the political, historical and social context; and yet we have recently seen a resurgence in simplistic analyses based solely on polls warning us of a red-brown unholy alliance. While the FN and the extreme right in general have made some headway in these categories, more traditional right-wing categories remain core to their vote (the lower middle class, for example). Recent research has also shown that the FN is progressing most in the petite bourgeoisie.

Further, the poorest tend not to vote for the FN, and instead turn en masse to abstention. Those more likely to vote FN usually have something to lose: they have a status in society, albeit a fragile one; they are not the most exploited or downtrodden as Marine Le Pen would like us to believe. When talking about the working class vote for the extreme right, it is thus extremely important to define what we are talking about.

What is taking place is much more complicated than a simple shift from left to right, as is too often argued in the media. The working class that tends to support the extreme right is one that grew up politically in the post-democratic era, when social democratic parties had clearly given up on their defence of the worker to focus on the middle class. It is part of this disenfranchised, depoliticised and insecure category which has found the response to their discontentment in the extreme right.

Therefore, the rise of the populist right should not be seen as a corrective phenomenon whereby the left is forced to move rightwards to assuage the so-called authoritarianism and reactionary quality of a mythic traditional electorate. Let’s not forget that in countries like France and the UK, at their strongest, the left only ever managed to appeal to just over 2/3 of the working class electorate. There has always been a consequent part of the working class which has turned to conservative or truly reactionary alternatives. Of course, the situation is different today because of the destruction of class solidarity following deindustrialisation.

Still, it has been a terrible mistake from centre-left parties to focus on this part of the electorate that had very little chance to join them. This makes even less political sense when one looks at the high levels of abstention, which demonstrate if anything that many of those discontented have not found in the extreme right the alternative they are looking for. While abstention is far from monolithic and does not carry a single unified political message, for progressive radical politics, it seems a much more promising reservoir of political potential to tap into. 

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