Give the people what they want?


Picture of Catherine Fieschi
Catherine Fieschi

What are the limits of populism?

Catherine Fieschi is a political scientist and the founder and Executive Director of Counterpoint

Some of us have been pulling the alarm for years, warning not just of the growing power of populist parties across Western democracies but of their increasingly obvious capacity to attract middle-of-the-road voters to their brand of politics.

For years, a long-held (and understandable) worry about the extreme right prevented most analysts from detecting the very real shift that was occurring on the ‘robust right’ of the political spectrum. Parties that began as heirs to mid-20th-century Nazism or fascism were starting to adopt broader, more hybrid stances. They couched their racism in talk of defending Western values. They moved away from their petty bourgeois base, broadening their appeal to the Left’s natural constituencies by focusing on joblessness and declining incomes. They converted unease with mass immigration into welfare chauvinism. A mix not so terribly different from fascism’s, but with softer rhetoric and sharper suits. Overall, they fed the anxieties of vast swathes of Western electorates who felt abandoned and fearful.

Add to this a steady stream of terror threats and the great gaping chasms created by social media channels and, suddenly, everything – Brexit; an erratic billionaire authoritarian in the White House; gloating, plotting gatherings of right-wing populists in small German cities – starts to make sense. If not ‘good’ sense.

As polls and surveys gave narrow leads to mainstream political options throughout 2016, voters went to the polls and simply turned their back on the status quo. They plumped instead for options that would have seemed near-impossible a year ago. 2017 unleashes a series of further challenges, notably the French and German elections, to see whether Europe as an idea and as a set of institutions will continue to be hollowed out by the forces of populism.

Ordinary voters feel left behind by elites who have failed to protect them against the harsher winds of globalisation

Populism may not be the perfect term, but it is useful enough for our purposes. The series of revolts we see across Western economies all fit quite well under this broad (and contested) heading: ordinary, middle-class or lower-income voters feeling left behind by elites who have failed to protect them against the harsher winds of globalisation. This feeling stems from falling wages and deindustrialisation, an ebbing of the comforts that many had come to expect after the Second World War, a sense of being less culturally ‘relevant’, or a combination of all three.

Regardless of the specific grievances, the sentiment voiced by a large minority, and sometimes a majority, is that a governing elite mandated to ensure their prosperity and well-being failed to do so, privileging its own more liberal interests above those of the ‘home team’. Trying to separate out the economic grievances from the cultural or social ones is a fool’s game: it is quite clear that the irrelevance felt and the ‘relegation’ experienced are about how economic power and social and cultural status are intertwined.

This populist revolt, a political chameleon, takes on the hue of its cultural and social context: bombastic, capitalist and aggressive in the US; insular, pragmatic and penny-pinching in the UK; grandiloquent, historic and paranoid in France; taboo-breaking, Kleinbürger-ish and technical in Germany. But the shared trait is that of populism: a menu of nostalgia, nationalism, outraged sentimentality, anti-elitism, suspicion of experts, all washed down with a large helping of xenophobia.

As the initial shock and consternation ebb, many on the non-populist side have been given to belated soul-searching. How could people who share a political and social space be so far apart in understanding the way forward and what would bring individual and collective well-being? The answer, of course, is that there is little shared political and social space (especially given the self-selection vice-grip of social media) and so little chance of there being a shared diagnosis, or a shared set of solutions.

The soul-searching is followed by a mea culpa phase that consists of good liberal self-flagellation. ‘We should have detected the distress earlier on’. ‘We should have paid more attention to the excluded from our own country’. ‘We should have looked out for the white-working class who missed the benefits of globalisation’. ‘We should have skilled-up our workforces more effectively to face this global workplace’.

All of this is true. It prompts all of us who have woken up to smell the Brexit coffee (and the whiff of other nationalist parochialisms) to pay more attention and range a lot more widely in our sources of information and social exchanges. And it is precisely why it is so important now to be proactive.

The people who ‘have spoken’ are the people who speak from their guts and without hesitation

At the moment, what seems to dominate is a sort of mantra: ‘the people have spoken and this is the kind of politics they say they want’. But are we not adding insult to injury by caving into this view, merely as a way of assuaging guilt or cutting our losses? Is this really what ‘the people’ want?

It’s a fundamental question. First, because it forces us to ask ‘who’, or ‘what’, is ‘the people’. Second, because it forces us to ask ourselves what we think ‘they’ want. And the two are, of course, intimately linked.

For most populists of the right, the people are defined in part according to a form of nativism. The true people are the natives. But some natives are ‘traitors’ (for example, the ‘elites’), so the ‘real’ people are also those who are defined by their capacity for common sense, their rejection of intellectualism, and their ability to see through the fog of expert knowledge. This knowledge is suspected of being used to bamboozle ordinary people to let an over-educated elite get its way. So the people who ‘have spoken’, as Theresa May put it, are the people who speak from their guts and without hesitation.

But what do ‘they’ want?

The current situation across Western economies suggests that what populist supporters want is a mix of better protection, wage guarantees, and the sense that their contribution both to a country’s economy and its cultural identity is valued. These understandable demands for forms of respect and recognition are interpreted and replayed by populist leaders as a need to ‘take back control’. In other words, legitimate (if not uncomplicated) demands are played back and articulated as an infantile fantasy designed to suspend any disbelief. Promising to deliver on this constructed fantasy – by building borders and walls, or limiting access – puts words into voters’ mouths, thereby limiting what they want. It is also dangerously counter-productive in economic terms.

The consequence is more uncertainty for everyone – but especially for those who the populists claim to help: those who have the most to lose from economic stagnation, a shrinking tax base, and lower investment in the skills they will need to face the world in the 21st century.

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