We Are Thinking About Populism Wrong

We have to talk about the P-word. It is truly everywhere these days. And everyone is using it: men, women, I even heard some children say it. I’m talking, of course, about populism. You can’t read an article about politics these days without it. Virtually any election or referendum is set up as a struggle between an emboldened populism and an embattled establishment. There is no room for anything else.

Don’t get me wrong, populism is a useful concept to understand contemporary politics in Europe, and far beyond, but only under two strict conditions. First, it must be clearly defined and, second, it should be applied as one of several concepts to understand politics. Unfortunately, this is not the case in most accounts of politics and populism today. The dominance of the populism lens makes it so we see both too much populism and too little non-populism.

The dominance of the populism lens makes it so we see both too much populism and too little non-populism.

Populism is used in many different ways, mostly devoid of any clear definition, instead broadly referring to irresponsible or untraditional politics, such as promising everything to everyone or speaking in a folksy way. Neither is specific to populism, and both are in fact rather widespread in political campaigning more generally. Instead, populism is best defined as the following:

An ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups ― “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite” ― and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale or general will of the people.

Populism is both monist and moralist. Populists believe that all people share the same interests and values and that the key distinction between the people and the elite is moral, i.e. “pure” versus “corrupt.” They present politics as a struggle of all against one, one against all, which, ironically, is confirmed by the dominant media narrative of an emboldened populism versus an embattled establishment.

There is no doubt that populism is an important aspect of contemporary politics; populist parties are represented in most European parliaments and populist presidents and prime ministers rule in both European and American countries. But most of these parties and politicians are not just populists; they combine populism with other ideological features. Left populists combine populism with some form of socialism ― think Syriza in Greece or Chavismo in Venezuela ― while right populists primarily combine it with authoritarianism and nativism ― think U.S. President Donald Trump in America or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Prime Minister of Greece Alexis Tsipras delivers a speech during his Syriza party’s congress. Athens. Oct. 13, 2016.

Before the rise of left populism, right populists would be discussed as “radical right” rather than “populists,” while a combination of the two, populist radical right (or, if you wish, radical right populism), is most appropriate. This is not just an academic matter, however. Because Western media tend to perceive the contemporary challenge to liberal democracy exclusively in terms of populism, they focus predominantly on anti-establishment sentiments by political outsiders. Hence, media outlets were quick to celebrate conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s victory of “good populism” over Geert Wilders’ “bad populism.”

What was missed, however, was that the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, leader Rutte and Christian Democratic Appeal, or CDA, leader Sybrand Buma conducted an increasingly authoritarian and nativist campaign. Both CDA and VVD presented themselves as defenders of “Christian” and “Dutch values,” including the singing of the national anthem and the racist tradition of Black Pete. VVD parliamentary leader Halbe Zijlstra even suggested Easter eggs were under threat from Islam and Muslims, assisted by secular, left-wing fellow travelers. And Rutte took it a step further by explicitly targeting immigrants and refugees in his “act normal” campaign, implying that even descendants of immigrants are at best probationary Dutch citizens.

But whereas most media saw too little in the Dutch elections, they saw too much in the British European Union referendum and the U.S. presidential elections. Both are now routinely hailed as populist victories, which is an exaggeration at best and a falsehood at worst. While the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, played an important role in pushing the “Leave” camp over the 50 percent mark, the push for Brexit was always predominantly a Conservative endeavor. Hence, many Brits didn’t vote against some kind of “corrupt elite,” be it British or European, but rather for re-establishing national sovereignty, as they perceive it, in line with a significant part of the Tory elite.

Under the cover of fighting off the ‘populists,’ the political establishment is slowly but steadily hollowing out the liberal democratic system.

Similarly, despite all the hype, the 2016 U.S. presidential elections were, first and foremost, just another presidential election, in which Republicans voted Republican and Democrats voted Democrat. It might be true that populism motivated some angry white working class men in the “American heartland” to turn out, which might have swung these states and thereby the whole election, but they constituted at best a tiny minority of the Republican electorate. The vast majority of people who voted for Trump did so for traditional Republican reasons like abortion, immigration, taxes, and, most notably, partisanship.

In short, it is time to put the populism frame back in its correct place. Yes, populism is an important feature of contemporary politics, but not all anti-establishment politics is populism and populist parties are not just about populism. In fact, to accurately understand politicians like Trump and Wilders, and the challenge they pose to liberal democracy, authoritarianism and nativism are at least as important as populism, if not more. Moreover, while established politicians mainly adopt populism in their campaign rhetoric, authoritarianism and nativism are actually implemented in their policies, as we can see in recent responses to the refugee crisis and terrorism, from the EU-Turkey deal to the state of emergency in France.

If we want to truly understand contemporary politics, and protect liberal democracy, it is time we focus on all aspects of the populist radical right challenge, including from inside the political establishment, not just on the populism of the outsiders. Because under the cover of fighting off the “populists,” the political establishment is slowly but steadily hollowing out the liberal democratic system.

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