‘Populist’ can be a weasel word for ‘racist’, and that’s dangerous

Flawed use of the word ‘populist’ to describe politics beyond the mainstream right is legitimising racism. Academics and journalists are ignoring the evidence staring us in the face.

Katy Brown Aaron Winter Aurelien Mondon
16 October 2019, 12.01am
US President Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally, 2016
Gage Skidmore/Wikicommons, CC 2.0

It often seems as though populism defines our current political age. The term is splashed across the headlines, brandished in political speeches and commentaries, and applied extensively in numerous academic publications and conferences. In November 2018, The Guardian dedicated vast resources and space on its front page to understanding the phenomenon, bringing in the expertise of many specialists. An article launching the project asked: ‘Why is populism suddenly all the rage?’ and, in a rather ironic manner, the subheading read: ‘In 1998, about 300 Guardian articles mentioned populism. In 2016, 2,000 did’. With seemingly no reflection on the paper’s own role in generating this statistic, the suggestion was that the media simply followed and mirrored public opinion rather than having an impact on what was reported.

In recent years, the term has been applied to a multitude of disparate movements from the left to the right. However, in general, it tends to be used in a derogatory manner to describe a threat to the status quo, usually defined as liberal democracy. Sometimes, this is based on the racist and anti-immigration positions of so-called populists, but in a way that euphemises them and/or presumes that establishment liberal democratic parties and the status quo are not racist and xenophobic in terms of rhetoric, policies and institutions. At other times, it is used as a way for the establishment to sell racist and xenophobic policies as the will of ‘the people’ and fend off the threat of ‘populists’. We argue that not only has the careless use of the term created damaging false equivalences between movements with differing visions of politics and society (think of UKIP and Podemos), but that it has also led to a process of euphemisation, contributing to the legitimisation of harmful discourses and diverting our attention away from engaging with real alternatives to such threats.

Indeed, the hype around populism has seen it become one of the main descriptors for right-wing forms of politics, when there are many more accurate terms to describe politics beyond the mainstream right. This is reflected in The Guardian’s coverage, where the majority of articles were dedicated to the far right. The coverage culminated in no less than four articles on Steve Bannon, even though his European project was failing, and an opinion piece by Hillary Clinton advising that ‘Europe must curb immigration to stop right-wing populists’.

While much of the media has been happy to settle for the terms ‘populism’, ‘populist’ and ‘populist parties’, the picture is somewhat different for academics. In 2007, Cas Mudde, one of the foremost experts in the field of populism and political extremism, rightly warned that such parties should be called ‘populist radical right’ as opposed to ‘radical right populist’, as the latter would put the emphasis on populism (a secondary characteristic) away from radical right (which Mudde argued was the core of the ideology). However, this nuance appears to have been lost on many, feeding the growing hype about populism, and avoiding the careful work done by many others on typology and terminology, as well as rigorous analysis, over the years.

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It is in this context that the populist hype has led to a dual process of euphemisation and legitimisation, whereby far right parties are described in a less negative manner, allowing their ideas to spread more easily into mainstream discourse. The use of ‘populism’ instead of other more accurate but also negative descriptors has been core to this dual process. This choice has been at the expense of other well-studied terms such as far right, radical right or extreme right.

Perhaps most tellingly, we have witnessed in both the media and parts of academia, a reluctance to use the term ‘racism’, despite the detailed work that sociologists in particular have done on the topic. Its avoidance has concealed, under less clear, politicised and stigmatising qualifiers, the real politics behind the reactionary movements and ideologies gaining ground in our societies.

One does not have to look far to find deeply problematic uses of the word ‘populism’, lending a sense of democratic legitimacy to politicians and actors otherwise defending deeply exclusionary and elitist politics. While it is of course understandable for journalists and commentators to ensure that their claims are not defamatory, the use of the term ‘populism’ is clearly not neutral. It is not surprising that the term has been openly embraced by some, with Marine Le Pen accepting the label ‘with a smile’, stating that: ‘If it means a government of the people, by the people and for the people, well then, I am a populist.’ Similarly, the populist label facilitated claims by Nigel Farage that he was leading ‘the people’s army’ during the referendum campaign. Other examples of even more extreme euphemisation include the description of Tommy Robinson as an ‘anti-Islam activist’, Richard Spencer as a ‘dapper white nationalist’ and 'Proud Boys' founder Gavin McInnes as ‘a pariah’ due to ‘his disdain of PC culture’ rather than his white supremacism.

As a result, racism often seems to be sidelined: not as an overt political tactic, but because people think that the term is too polemical, difficult to define or requires more evidence, sometimes for fear of defamation. It is thus usually only used in the context of the liberal democratic order to describe the most extreme cases, what we have called elsewhere illiberal racism, or instances which link to historical forms such as slavery, biological racism and Nazism or fascism. The process of euphemisation takes place not when racism is in these historical and almost caricatured forms, but in its more subtle and structural manifestations. This facilitates the denial of racism, as we see in the construction of the ‘post-race’ narrative, according to which our societies are said to have overcome racism, bar in its most extreme and exceptional forms. This means that systemic discrimination and subtle forms of racist politics, for example claiming to target religion or culture instead of race, are ignored.

While concerns over defamation are understandable, this approach is nonetheless flawed as racism and the mainstreaming of racist ideas in public discourse has a far clearer measurable impact for those at its sharp end, than concepts such as populism, nationalism or nativism. For example, even according to the Home Office, the number of race hate crimes reported by police increased from 35,816 in 2011/12 to 71,251 in 2017/18. This rise has been confirmed by other sources, and widely attributed to the Brexit campaign and results, particularly media discourse and political rhetoric.

Moreover, those who claim that racism is in the past and that we are ‘post-race’ often use the far right as the last and only remnant of ‘real’ racism today. Yet, the euphemisation of not only racism, but also the far right, as ‘populism’, serves to undercut and deny even that. Moreover, when this is called out, accusations of racism are often portrayed as being worse than racism itself, and even at times a kind of reverse racism.

This could not be clearer than in the decision, later reversed, from the BBC to suspend Breakfast Show host Naga Munchetty for comments she made about her experience of embedded racism in relation to Donald Trump’s ‘go home’ comments. The BBC’s justification was that in an attempt at impartiality, it does not condone “calling out people for being liars or racist”. Of course, this approach is at best naïve, but more importantly illustrates the misguided notion that objectivity rests on the idea that one should be neither racist nor anti-racist, as it once was believed that climate sceptics should be invited for ‘balance’ on discussions about climate change.

To sum up, we argue that what is at stake in the euphemisation of racist politics is not an issue of neutrality versus advocacy or of impartiality versus bias, but something else altogether, whether it is the denial of power structures, poor research due to current media pressures, the refusal to engage with experts in the field or the fear to say something that really matters.

To be clear, we do not argue here that those researching or reporting on the far right, whether in academia or in the media, should necessarily settle for racism as a qualifier. We simply ask that they engage with the concept and the wealth of literature on the topic. This is hardly a radical demand. This would provide us with a better understanding of our current context and who is really at the sharp end of the resurgence of reactionary politics.

At a time when we witness a revival of fascism and biological racism, even in academic circles, many of those who can shape public discourse and impact most directly on our politics have shirked their responsibility in the rise of the far right. We have reached a point where sitting on the fence can no longer be defended as impartiality and only be seen as complacency if not complicity.

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