Nearly everywhere, it seems, there’s a populist revolt against established politics. From the True Finns in Finland, to the Front National 2.0 in France, to the Tea Party movement in America, and to the Sarrazin-upheaval in Germany the populist revolt continues. But what are the common causes? Why is it happening? Why now? What is it aiming at? My position on populism is a Blairite one: we have to be tough on populism and tough on the causes of populism.
Because bashing populism is the favourite sport of the politico-academic community, I tend to provocatively stress the other side of the coin, trying to understand the rationality of populism in reaction to the behaviour of the political mainstream. Populism, indeed, is created by the mistakes made by established politics. It is a product of the fundamental trust and representation problem of the established parties.
Showing some understanding for populism, is not an easy position to take. Not in Europe, where the whole debate about populism, national identity, and immigration & multiculturalism is traumatized by the scars of the twentieth century: the barbaric perversion of the ‘voice of the masses’ into communism and Nazism. In Europe, populism is a code word for fascism or Nazism, unlike the US where anti-Washington populism is much more accepted as part of the American political DNA.
But the core question remains: why populism now? Why a populist revolt nearly everywhere in the post-industrial world, from the Swedish Democrats in social paradise Sweden to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and the new Haider, Heinz-Christian Strache, in Austria?
Why do these parties, which mostly started as radical right protest parties, threaten to occupy political centre-ground as is the case in Belgium? To what extent are the established parties to blame?
To demonstrate how fundamental the populist challenge really is, here are ten rather polemical characteristics of what I would call ‘the Populist Crisis of Western Politics’.
10 Definitions of The Populist Crisis in Western Politics:
1. Populism is the substitute for the eroded Left/Right divide in politics. it replaces it through the populist cleavage of ‘the establishment’ versus ‘the people’. They are perceived as false unities and indeed pose a potential threat to the pluralist and constitutional dimensions of democracy.
2. Populism is a revolt against (the narrative of) globalisation.
3. Populism is a revolt against what the Germans call the Second Modernity, or late modernity: that is the modernity of individualisation, de-traditionalisation, cosmopolitanism, neoliberal capitalism and the global network society.
4. Populism is a revolt against expert-driven, technocratic policy-making.
5. Populism is the revolt of the working class and the squeezed lower middle class against the dominance of academic professionals in society and public discourse.
6. Populism is the revenge of the working class after the neoliberal betrayal (permanent welfare state austerity reforms) of socialist and social-democratic parties.
7. Populism is a dangerous, xenophobic revolt against ill-managed mass migration which negatively affected the lower end of society much more so than the upper end.
8. Populism is a revolt against a world that is changing too rapidly and where traditions, identities, and securities are no longer respected.
9. Where socialism and Christianity no longer act as moral and cultural restraints or breaks to the disrupting process of globalisation, populism has filled the vacuum: populism is a romantic, irrational, emotional revolt against the inhuman philosophy of efficiency in both the market and the state.
10. Populism is a revolt against the powerlessness of the political class who have seemingly lost all grip after handing control over to the anonymous forces of globalisation, the financial markets, and the logics of EU technocracy.
Indeed, we must be tough on populism and the causes of populism.
(This blog is based on the presentation I gave at the Seminar ”Neopopulismo de derecha en Europa”, organised by the Fundacion Pablo Iglesias in the Circulo de Belles Artes in Madrid (28 and 29 april 2011). Other presenters were: Fernando Vallespin, Ann-Cathrine-Jungar, Laurent Baumel, Werner Perger and Josep Borrell. )