Democracy Alert – Radical populists seize the initiative!

On 15th March 2017, Wayne Swan, who is currently the Australian Labor Party member of parliament for the Federal Division of Lilley in Brisbane, gave a speech at an Adelaide university. Swan was a former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and the Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party from 2010 to 2013 and Treasurer of Australia from 2007 to 2013.

The speech was titled “Beyond the GFC: Foundations for Prosperity and Inclusion

“A quarter-century ago Western liberal democracy was riding high: communism had collapsed, Europe was uniting; and a new global economic consensus led by the United States had been established.

This New Consensus dictated that free markets — uninhibited by government regulation, lower taxes and reliance on monetary policy to fine tune an economy — would deliver sustained economic growth and rising living standards and that the wealth created at the top would trickle-down.

For some time the New Consensus seemed to work – liberalised international trade helped power a strongly growing global economy.

But concealed by the strong global economy and a new age of consumerism, dangerous undercurrents were emerging in the developed world including: technological displacement, aging populations, and growing income and wealth inequality.

Finally in 2007-08 the Global Financial Crisis catalysed the Great Recession – an economic tsunami that exposed the dangerous undercurrents which had been submerged.

The new post-GFC global economy was characterised by failed austerity programs, anemic economic growth, persistently high unemployment, low and even negative interest rates, and even greater wealth and income disparity.

It’s clear an almighty economic and social cloud has formed over the developed world from what I call politically inspired inequality.

And this cloud now threatens the very political stability of the developed world.

To this point, global economic leadership from bodies like the G20 and domestic political leadership have been woefully impotent in meeting the challenges posed by these trends.

In the United States in particular, this failure of leadership has allowed radical populists to seize the initiative.

As Presidential candidates, Trump and Sanders were the poster boys for anti-establishment movements.

While this story has some way to run, it seems undeniable we are witnessing the most significant shift in the tectonic plates yet of the European-American political and economic order.

And more aftershocks are on the way……”

What caught my eye in Swan’s speech was the statement that “in the United States in particular, this failure of leadership has allowed radical populists to seize the initiative” and that Trump was a “poster boy for [an] anti-establishment movement[s]”.


A very experienced politician calls Donald Trump, the President of the United States, a radical populist. Well now, let’s just ponder this for a moment. How did this come about? Can Trump be considered to be a populist? And anyway, what is a populist?

I have to say that this growing trend of politicians and the media referring to “the rise of populism” in Europe and the USA, has not gone unnoticed by me. And to understand what is really going on, I thought that it would be good idea to take a closer look at what populism is.

I doubt that I would be wrong to say that many people do not know what the term populism really means or where it originated from. And for that I would excuse them because the real meaning has been steadily twisted and obscured by politicians and the media alike. Furthermore, the term “populist’ has almost become a meaningless word after being applied to all sorts of political movements, which have little in common with each other except that they all challenge Establishment political parties.

The word populist first appeared in America in the 1890s with the founding of the Populist Party, which stood for the interests of the farmers against the big-money interests. In later years, populism came to be associated with the blue-collar class in the cities as well.

The ideology of populism is often hard to grasp. It sometimes has a religious tendency; it usually isn’t very interested in international affairs; it has sometimes been unfriendly to immigrants and blacks; and it’s usually anti-intellectual. So populism often switches between liberal and conservative ideologies. But the populist style always associates its concern with people with average incomes as opposed to the rich and powerful. So the term “elitist” would be used to describe one who is the opposite of a populist and this is where the complications begin.

The Oxford dictionary defines a populist as “a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people”. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a populist as “a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people” and “a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people”. Now that sounds all very reasonable. But perhaps the word “claiming” in the second definition above gives the game away a little, especially in respect of unscrupulous politicians.

To start with, let’s have a look where and how the tag “populism” is being applied these days:

Populism in Europe: a primer

by Cas Mudde [associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA)]

Already in 2010, a good five years before a populist coalition government would be formed in Greece, the then EU President Herman van Rompuy called populism “the greatest danger for Europe” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 9 April 2010). Since then, many establishment voices have done the same, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the editors of the New York Times. What all warnings have in common is that they (1) come from people in power; (2) are vague on the exact meaning of populism; and (3) claim that populism is (omni)present in European politics.

Historically, populism has been a marginal political phenomenon in Europe, unlike in the Americas (North and South). In recent years populist parties of the left and right have gained electoral successes throughout Europe, although their effects on European politics have so far remained fairly limited.

What populism is (not)

Populism is a buzzword in the media around the world. There is virtually not a politician who has not been labeled populist at one time. In fact, accused would be a better term, as most people use populism is a Kampfbegriff to defame a political opponent. Few politicians self-identify as populist. Those who do usually first redefine the term in a way that is closer to the popular use of democracy than of populism.

In the public debate, populism is mostly used to denounce a form of politics that uses (a combination of) demagogy, charismatic leadership, or a Stammtisch (pub) discourse. None of the three are accurate understandings of populism. While some populists might promise everything to everyone (i.e. demagogy) or speak a simple, even vulgar, language (i.e. Stammtisch discourse), many do not. More importantly, many non-populist populists also do this, particularly during election campaigns. Similarly, while some successful populists are charismatic leaders, some are not, and many successful non-populists are also considered charismatic.

Instead, populism is best defined as

a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté general (general will) of the people.

This means that populism is a particular view on how society is and should be structured, but it addresses only a limited part of the larger political agenda. For example, it says little about the ideal economic or political system that a (populist) state should have. Its essential features are: morality and monism.

The key point is that populism sees both groups as essentially homogeneous, i.e. without fundamental internal divisions, and considers the essence of the division between the two groups to be moral. Consequently, its main opposites are elitism and pluralism. Elitism sees the same major division, but considers the elite to be pure and the people as corrupt. Pluralism has a fundamentally different worldview than both elitism and populism, seeing society as divided into several groups with different interests and favoring a politics based on consensus between these groups.

Contrary to what defenders and opponents may claim, populism is neither the essence nor the negation of democracy. To put it simply, populism is pro-democracy, but anti-liberal democracy. It supports popular sovereignty and majority rule, but rejects pluralism and minority rights. In the European context, populism can be seen as an illiberal democratic answer to problems created by an undemocratic liberalism. Criticizing the decade-old trend to depoliticize controversial issues by placing them outside of the national democratic (i.e. electoral) realm, by transferring them to supranational institutions like the European Union or to (neo-)liberal institutions like courts and central banks, populists call for the re-politicization of issues like European integration, gay rights, or immigration.

A final point to note is that populism is neither right nor left; or, perhaps better, populism can be found on both the left and the right. This is not exactly the same as saying that populism is like a “chameleon,” as it is not necessarily the same populist actor who changes colors. Populism rarely exists in a pure form, in the sense that most populist actors combine it with another ideology. This so-called host ideology, which tends to be very stable, is either left or right. Generally, left populists will combine populism with some interpretation of socialism, while right populists will combine it with some form of nationalism. Today populism is more on the left in Southern Europe and more on the right in Northern Europe.

[extract from Populism in Europe: a primer by Cas Mudde]

Understanding populism now becomes even more complicated because the article above suggests that the original, simple definition needs some serious qualification. My original understanding would have been that every single democratically elected politician could be described as a populist because they would, in all likelihood, represent the common people in the majority. However, we not encouraged to look at the subject in this way.

Perhaps if we consider the rise and development of populism in Europe, we can start to understand why so many people seemed to have got this negative idea about it.

Populism in Europe

Although populism has a long history in Europe, it has always been a marginal political phenomenon. It emerged for the first time in Russia in the late-19th century. The so-called Narodniki were a relatively small group of urban elites who unsuccessfully tried to stir a peasant revolt. While unsuccessful in Russia, Nardoniki did have a strong influence in Eastern Europe, where several agrarian populist parties existed in the early 20th century. Most of these groups had little political influence in the largely authoritarian states of that period. And while both communism and fascism used populist rhetoric, particularly during the movement stage, both ideologies and regimes were essentially elitist.

Post-war Europe saw very little populism until the 1990s. There was Poujadism in France in the late-1950s, the Danish and Norwegian Progress Parties in the 1970s, and PASOK in the 1980s, but all these movements were largely sui genesis rather than part of a broader populist moment. This changed with the rise of the populist radical right in the late 1980s. Although the oldest parties of this group, like the National Front (FN) in France and the Flemish Bloc (now Flemish Interest, VB) in Belgium, started out as elitist parties, they soon embraced a populist platform with slogans like “We Say What You Think” and “The Voice of the People.” In recent years a new left populism has also emerged in some countries, particularly in Southern Europe.

When we are focusing only on the (minority of) European countries where populism is a major political phenomenon, there are four important conclusions to draw. First, in five countries a populist party is the biggest political party – Greece, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, and Switzerland. Second, populist parties gained a majority of votes in three countries – Hungary, Italy, and Slovakia. However, in at least two of these countries the main populist parties are strongly opposed to collaboration. The situation in Hungary is most striking, as both its main governmental party (Fidesz) and its main opposition party (Jobbik) is populist. Third, populist parties are currently in the national government in seven countries – Finland, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Norway, Slovakia, and Switzerland. Greece is unique in that it has a populist coalition government of a left and a right populist party. Fourth, and final, in six countries a populist party is part of the established political parties – Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Switzerland. This is important to note, as populism is normally associated exclusively with challenger parties and deemed incapable of establishing itself in a political system. Yet, while populist parties have to be extra careful not to be considered part of ‘the elite’, populists like former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi and current Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán have been successful at retaining their cleverly constructed ‘outsider’ status in power.

Why is populism successful (now)?

Given the immense academic interest in the phenomenon of populism one would assume that we have a good understanding of why populist parties are successful and, even more specific, under which circumstances they rise and decline. This is not the case. Most analyses of European populism focus almost exclusively on one type of populist parties, notably the populist radical right, and particularly its non-populist aspects. However, immigration has little explanatory power for populist parties in countries that have little immigration (like Hungary and Poland) or for populist parties that don’t oppose immigration (such as Podemos or SYRIZA). At the same time, the most popular theories are often too broad and vague. While crisis and globalization have some relationship to the rise of populism, globalization is related to everything and crisis is usually undefined and simply used whenever a populist party becomes successful (making the ‘theory’ tautological). The following four reasons are also quite broad, and to a certain extent vague, but indicate some important factors that address both the demand-side and supply-side of populist politics.

First, large parts of the European electorates believe that important issues are not (adequately) addressed by the political elites. This relates to issues like European integration and immigration, on which established parties have long been unwilling to campaign, as well as socio-economic issues like unemployment and welfare state reform, particularly in light of the current economic crisis. While it seems fair to argue that political elites have indeed been less forthcoming and successful in addressing important issues, and to a larger extent than in previous periods (i.e. before the 1990s), what is more important to note is that large parts of the European populations have come to perceive this as a major problem. This has created widespread political dissatisfaction, which is a fertile breeding ground for populist parties, but also for other anti-establishment parties, such as Ciudadanos (Citizens) in Spain.

Second, national political elites are increasingly perceived as being “all the same.” Again, the perception is more important than the reality, although the two are not unrelated. While commentators have decried the so-called “end of ideology” since the late 1960s, there is little doubt that the situation today is much more extreme. Responding to the structural transformation of European societies as a consequence of the “post-industrial revolution,” including the decline of the working class and secularization, the main established parties have moderated their ideologies and converged strongly on both socio-cultural and socio-economic issues. The emergence of the “neue Mitte” (new center) and “Third Way” on the center-left, which by and large transformed social democratic parties into center-right parties targeting the same voters as the Christian democratic and conservative-liberal parties, alienated a large part of the remaining working class and left more ideological voters of both left and right without a political voice.

Third, more and more people see the national politically elites as essentially “powerless”. Again, perception and reality are closely linked, even if many people will necessarily be accurately informed. In the past decades European elites have engaged in one of the most amazing transfers of power from the national to the supranational. Rarely have politicians so happily marginalized themselves. Of particular importance was the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which has taken many important issues out of the national democratic realm and transferred them to the much less democratic EU sphere. This was, of course, most notably the case for the countries that joined the Eurozone, which no longer control their own currency or monetary policy. At the same time, the process of “cognitive mobilization” has made the European people better educated and more independent, and consequently more critical and less deferential toward the political elites. Getting mixed messages from the political elites, who claim to be powerless in the case of unpopular policies (“the results of the EU/globalization/US”) but in full control in the case of popular policies (“my successful economic policies”), European populations feel confident to judge their politicians to be incompetent or even deceitful.

Fourth, the media structure has become much more favorable to political challengers. Until at least the 1980s the established parties controlled most of the important media in Europe, be it party-owned newspapers or state radio and television controlled by parties-appointed boards. While active censorship was rare, most journalists self-censored stories that challenged the interests and values of the political mainstream. Consequently, critique of immigration or European integration was long marginalized, while major corruption, particularly involving elites from several established parties, was left uncovered. This is no longer possible in a world dominated by party-independent, private media and an uncontrollable Internet. Not only do all stories and voices find an outlet, populist stories and voices are particularly attractive to a media dominated by an economic logic. After all, scandals and controversy sell!

Finally, while the previous four factors have created a fertile breeding ground and favorable ‘discursive opportunity structure’ for populists, the success of populist parties like the FN or SYRIZA is also related to the fact that populist actors have become much more “attractive” to voters (and media). Almost all successful populist parties have skillful people at the top, including media-savvy leaders like Beppe Grillo (M5S), Pablo Iglesias (Podemos), or Geert Wilders (PVV). They can not only hold their own in political debates with leaders of established parties, but they are often much more adept at exploiting the huge potential of new resources, such as social media. For example, for years Wilders dominated the Dutch political debate purely through Twitter. Just one well-constructed tweet would be picked up by journalists, who would then force established politicians to respond, and thereby helped Wilders set the political agenda and frame the political debate.

[extract from Populism in Europe: a primer by Cas Mudde]

So there we have it.   Now we know what populism is.   Or do we?

“In the European context, as we all know, the label ‘populist’ is indiscriminately utilized to describe a vast variety of policies, politicians, parties or rhetorical styles. What this multiplicity of phenomena is supposed to share is revealed by the ‘enlightened’ gaze of the scholar or the public commentator: ‘populism’ is most often treated as a democratic malaise, as a virulent social disease threatening European democracy. It is supposed to invariably involve an irrational Manichean view of society that mesmerizes the ‘immature’ masses, releasing uncontrolled social passions and thereby threatening to tear society apart.

In this prevailing view we find a real ‘trap’ for the political scientist – as well as for every citizen for that matter….the temptation to oversimplify, to essentialize, or even hypostasize the object of analysis, to treat it as one and homogenous, as coherent, as a speaking and acting ‘it’.

Ironically enough this type of anti-populist critique is usually articulated in a very populist and Manichean manner: through the drawing of strict dichotomies, evident both in academia, journalism and politics. Such dichotomies include: ‘Democracy vs. Populism’, ‘Pluralism vs. Populism’ or even ‘Europe vs. Populism’. This last one is of particular interest, given our geographical location and the force with which it has been articulated by people like Herman Van Rompuy and Manuel Barroso.

Indeed, post-war Europe seemed to incarnate all the virtues of pluralism and the European Union was initially hailed as an innovative political experiment advancing democratic values, respect for otherness, tolerance, the welfare state, moderation, and so forth. Anybody opposing this project had to be an authoritarian/totalitarian enemy of democracy. Thus, when so-called ‘right-wing populists’ gained momentum from the late 1980s onwards, the representation that dominated the field was that of a clash between Europe, conceived of as intrinsically democratic, moderate, benign, and Populism, conceived of as inherently undemocratic, extreme and malignant.

This representation seemed persuasive to the extent that anti-European extreme right-wing forces were indeed predominantly anti-democratic (although the widening democratic deficit in European Union decision-making started providing them with an indirect democratic aura). However, to the extent that the crisis is transforming almost everything around us, is this representation still valid? Simply put, which ‘Europe’ and which ‘Populism’ can one observe in our crisis-ridden landscape? And how are we to judge their effects on democracy?

…..Can this Europe still claim to be rational and democratic? Only if one favours an unreflexive ‘rationality’ without reason and an oligarchic ‘democracy’ without the demos. Radical change is surely needed, but can this be conceived, decided and implemented without the involvement and consent of the people? Can the European project be reinvigorated without further involving the masses of the people in our common project?

The problem here is that whoever does that, whoever utilizes in her/his discourse the forgotten symbolic resource of ‘the people’, is bound to be accused as an ‘irresponsible populist’ or a ‘demagogue’ and to be demonized as an irrational enemy of democracy and the European project. This is the case even if we are talking about political forces that have nothing to do with the extreme right; even, that is to say, if we are dealing with inclusionary populism and not with the exclusionary dystopias of so-called ‘right-wing populists’”.

[extract from – “Populism, anti-populism and European democracy: a view from the South” by Giorgos Katsambekis and Yannis Stavrakakis published on]

We are expected to accept that “the people” appear to suffer from some deficiency that makes them a liability in the democratic process. What democracy really means is the availability of choice and the freedom to exercise that choice. And while the governing elite has increasingly borrowed populist rhetoric from the extreme right to win elections, it has also used the growth of populism to discredit the concept of “the people” and redefine the meaning of democracy.

I think that there is a lot of obfuscation being used to deliberately keep us off balance. But I refuse to give up so easily. I’ll let you know as soon as I have made more progress with my investigation.


About Peter Smith

A "foot-soldier" in the wider Post Capitalism Movement. First task - keep spreading the words of change, hope & inspiration.
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