Yet another piece about populism

Much has been written and said about the rise of nationalism and extreme right wing movements nowadays. This will not be yet another piece belittling its supporters and ridiculing its politics. It will talk about some ideas that help explain why it is here, and what we can do.

Text: Mark De Hoop

In fact, neither rants about punching people in the face and behind the gym nor the scornful perplexity with which much of the established media has responded to these phenomena, will bring us any further toward understanding it.[1] The word ‘Populism’ has become synonymous with rhetoric that is notoriously fraudulent with facts and draws upon emotion. Words like demagoguery, hate-speech and bigotry come to mind. In the political landscape, Populism is the odd one out that occupies an ambiguously defiant role within the very institution it criticizes.

Cas Mudde has introduced a widely accepted description of Populism. According to him, its philosophy is a loose set of ideas that share three core features: anti-establishment, authoritarianism, and nativism. What has frustrated political scientists is the fact that the ‘populist philosophy’ tends to morph according to the landscape from which it emerges. Its political agenda is inconsistent across countries and over time. What is consistent though, is that Populism claims to speak for ‘the people’. Their virtue and wisdom are contrasted with ‘the establishment’. It feeds a deep cynicism of existing authorities. With regard to the political institutions, the will of the people is thought to be expressed most effectively in direct democratic institutions like referenda. In addition to that, it favours strong, charismatic leadership. By emphasizing that an imminent crisis is at hand, emotional decision-making with clear-cut solutions is preferred over tedious deliberation.

This raises plenty of questions; who are ‘the people’? Are direct democratic institutions a proper expression of their ‘will’? Think about the British pickle. In addition to wondering what it is, we should ask ourselves: ‘why it is here?’.

This summer, Norris and Englehart, two of the most well-known scholars on Populism, published a thorough study on the ‘Rise of Populism’.[2] Their findings suggest that economic uncertainty and decreased productivity combined with massive growth of inequality, are important contributors to the phenomenon. Nevertheless, it does not sufficiently explain why Populism popped up in countries like Sweden, Finland and Germany. Norris and Englehart note that most consistent support for populist parties is among less educated and older citizens, especially white men. In other words, the privileged majority culture in Western societies. This leads the two researchers to conclude that populist support is a ‘cultural backlash’. It is a response to decades of rapid cultural change marked by the rise of progressive values. Think about the peace movements in the 70s, LGTB-movements, woman’s rights and the rise of green parties. These represent deep cultural changes within a relatively short period of time. The result is a generational gap whereby part of society is responding to the feeling that a lot of the values with which they were raised became politically incorrect. Or, as Norris and Englehart put it, ‘they are being marginalized within their own countries’.

Criticism tends to focus on the rhetoric, the simplified, black and white world-view. In passing, its supporters are depicted as poorly-educated with a disturbing lack of understanding; ‘deplorables’. Bluntly, it paints supporters of populist parties as ‘stupid’. Support might be emotionally driven but it should not be equated with ignorance, nor should all policy proposals be thought to represent the voters’ ambitions. In fact, a recent Pew study shows growing pro-immigrant sentiment in the US since 2010.[3] In the Netherlands, recent research has shown that supporters of the extreme right wing PVV are, by far, not as radical as its election program suggests.[4]

All this inevitably leads to the question ‘what can we do?’. Start the dialogue and make critique visible. We have recognized everybody’s right to have an opinion, but that doesn’t mean all opinions are ‘right’. It is important to participate in the discussions on every level, because those who don’t speak up against harmful ideas are equally guilty. From the rise of Populism as I have explained it, we can draw meaningful lessons. Namely that there is uncertainty about social identity which has to be addressed, but it is a long-term process. People, groups and opinions are becoming increasingly abstract categories instead of personally experienced realities. If you read carefully you will find nothing new here, at the essence lay ancient truths. Meet your neighbourhood, connect and commit to communities around you and be surprised at what you can learn. You, readers of a student magazine, are responsible not just for informing yourselves, but also to share what you have learned. With new technologies and media like Facebook, there are plenty of ways. Let’s use them.

[1] An eloquent critique on the Republican presidential candidate.

[2] This is the research by Norris and Englehart (2016) ‘Rise of Populism’

[3] Pew survey on increased pro-immigrant sentiments from 2010, albeit small.

[4] ‘Behind the PVV’, Aalberts (dutch only)