Populism

The Guardian is currently running a series of reports and articles on European and American ‘populism’, of which this is one of the latest and, I think, best: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/22/populism-concept-defines-our-age. Cas Mudde (A Dutch political scientist) defines and explains populism not in terms of ideology, but as centred around a perceived or instinctively felt ‘opposition between the people (good) and the elite (bad).’ That perception can have both Right- and Left-leaning forms, but today is mainly associated with Right-wing nativism: extreme nationalism, xenophobia and the like; and authoritarianism: ‘firm government’, exclusion, protective walls, masculinism, intolerance of difference, and – in the USA – guns. The Left-wing alternative made a brief appearance a few years ago – Podemus, Syriza, Corbynism – but now seems to have been eclipsed by Trumpism, Ukippery, the Sweden Democrats, and all the other forms of overtly Rightist – sometimes suspected of being proto- or neo-fascist – movements all over Europe and Trumpland. These movements’ particular political ideologies are important, and in the case of Rightist populism are I think to be feared, but they vary from case to case, and at bottom are merely attached to this underlying feeling of resentment of political elites – hierarchies, experts, metropoles, snobs, ‘bubbles’ – who are considered to have no ties at all with ‘ordinary people’ and their concerns.

All this crystallises my own views, which I think I’ve vaguely indicated in some of my blogs: for example, https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/20/this-dreadful-referendum/. Mudde doesn’t supply an answer to the problem – if it is such – in this brief article. (He may do so in his books, which I haven’t got round to yet.) My solution to them would be twofold.

The first would be to study the people’s resentments and their real roots (which may not necessarily be what they think they are) more empathetically, and without dismissing them as merely stupid, even if many of the expressions of them objectively are. Apart from anything else, that merely puts the populists’ backs up. Remember, this is – in part – a revolt against ‘elitism’, which can easily be confused with knowledge, expertise (viz. Michael Gove) or even intelligence. Expressions of superior knowledge, or even ‘facts’, can be provocative. We must tread carefully here.

Secondly: can’t we try to make our (British) Parliament, both Houses, more truly representative of the generality of our population: electing or appointing Members, for example, who have done real jobs, quite apart from student politics, privileged placements in Party central offices, or public relations and journalism? (I’ve also posted before on this: https://bernardjporter.com/2017/07/19/boris-the-harlot/.) That should pop the ‘bubble’ which is felt to surround our ‘political class’ just now. It would also allow us to point out how fundamentally unpopulist and indeed elitist most of the present leaders of our (British) Right-wing populist movement are – mostly Old Etonians and rich stockbrokers. And it might even warm the ‘people’ – as it did at the very beginnings of the ‘Labour Representation Committee’ in 1900 – to a radical Labour Party as a truer and more hopeful expression of their deepest feelings than a movement led by the likes of Farage, Boris and Rees-Mogg can ever be.

It could also ease the transition to a genuine social democracy, whose betrayal at the hands of Thatcher and the late-capitalist behemoth lies – in my humble and more controversial opinion – at the root of all our troubles, including the blinder sorts of populism. But first we have to – gently, and without sneering at them – see the current populists off.

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4 Responses to Populism

  1. The first would be to study the people’s resentments and their real roots (which may not necessarily be what they think they are) more empathetically, and without dismissing them as merely stupid, even if many of the expressions of them objectively are.
    In the US, Trumpism, by many accounts, is driven primarily by racism, which also seems to be the driving force in Europe. There is of course a precedent in this regard. Is it possible to look at this phenomenon ’empathetically’? Where would this get us and how would it, the empathy, begin to overcome the basic problem? It is not as though racism is caused by, for example, poverty, which can be overcome by improving the lot of the poor.

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    • I agree that poverty is not a major factor, but a feeling of being excluded in other ways may be. That’s why it’s only counter-productive to patronise Brexit voters.

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      • Members of the elite have often been genuine racists and anti-Semites – not mere opportunists, who have sought to whip up racist sentiments for their own purposes. And these racist attitudes are not connected to the members of the elite’s exclusion, but more by their wish to exclude. Are you suggesting that if the Brexiteers are in fact driven by racism, then it is patronising to challenge them on this issue? Similarly, if support for Trump is largely backed by racism in the US, are you advocating that critics focus on anything but racism when challenging Trumpism?

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      • I was mainly referring to calling them ‘stupid’, or – what was it Clinton called the Trumpists? ‘Disreputables’? I can’t remember. Anyway, if racism is the underlying factor behind Ukippery, that should certainly be called out. Also, I was mainly thinking of Brexit voters, not their elite leaders.

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