Politics & Policy

The Misunderstood Nature of Populism

Brexit supporters celebrate the outcome of the referendum in London, June 24, 2016. (Reuters photo: Neil Hall)
It’s not a threat to democracy but a salve.

Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from the Menzies Research Centre’s sixth John Howard Lecture, delivered by John O’Sullivan on August 22, 2017. It appears here with permission.

Politics was once defined by Left and Right, or labor and capital. Now the divide is between the Somewheres, who are tied to family and nation, and the Anywheres, to whom culture, work, gender, and other fundamental concepts are untethered. The battles between these two sides are more bitter and resistant to compromise than most preceding politics. Contrary to what some pundits say, however, the winner of this new divide will be the one that authentically harnesses the rising phenomenon of populism.

That is merely one development, however, in the politics of the advanced democracies of the West which are almost all in an extraordinary degree of movement, even chaos. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: “All is flux.”

Consider merely a few random examples of dramatic political change across the globe:

1. There is the decline of mainstream parties of the Left. French socialists went from being the governing party to getting 7 percent of the total vote in the recent elections. Poland’s post-communist socialists have all but disappeared in the last three elections to be replaced by competition between an urban liberal party and a rural conservative one. There are now three Spanish parties competing for votes that only recently went to the Socialists. And though Jeremy Corbyn staged a surprise recovery for Labour in the U.K., the party has lost its reliable Scottish redoubt that gave it upward of 50 seats at Westminster.

2. The mainstream Right is a little better off, but not enjoying the dominance it might have expected from the decline of the Left. The French Right, the latest incarnation of a Gaullist-accented Center-Right, expected to be a major party in parliament this year. It is now an opposition of honorable size to Emmanuel Macron’s new “centrist” majority. The Right is also out of power in Italy, Greece, Sweden, Ireland, Canada, and elsewhere, but its overall condition is mixed: It is either in power or a realistic contender for power but uncertain, fumbling, doubting its own ideas but nervous of new ones, and often plagued by new rivals that are winning over its own base with policies that the mainstream parties shunned as old-fashioned some time ago. Often its internal debate is whether to co-opt or to condemn these rivals.

3. This flux reflects the underlying demographic reality that the class composition of the mainstream parties has been changing for some time. Almost everywhere one finds that the mainstream Left is losing its traditional base in the blue-collar working class as it designs its policies to attract the middle-class urban professionals with progressive views, especially those working in the public sector and in the “third” sector of the media, NGOs, and the academy. The Australian Labor party in particular has been distracted by the contortions of trying to woo and destroy the Greens simultaneously. And Mr. Howard was the first major Western politician to act upon the insight that blue-collar voters could now be won in an election in which he was cheered by miners and loggers. Recent elections in the United States and Britain have shown that the Republicans and Tories now win substantially more votes from the lesser-educated and fewer from the highly educated. And as we shall see later, this crossover trend seems to be consistent with a new division in electorates across Europe — that identified by the English social democrat, David Goodhart, in his recent book, The Road to Somewhere, as being between the “Somewheres” who are firmly attached to their home, district, nation, and identity, and the “Anywheres” who have the skills to live and work anywhere and a correspondingly weaker attachment to home and nation. Now, there are some worrying aspects of these trends for conservatives and non-progressive liberals. But we should recall Lord Northcliffe’s reply to a deputation of capitalists who asked for his papers’ support in a strike: “Gentlemen, the pennies of the working class are quite as good as yours — and there are a damn sight more of them.” The same applies to votes — not as much as in Northcliffe’s day but still substantially in net terms.

4. And, finally, there is the specter du jour, the rise in “populism” or what the media and the political classes call populism — namely, the emergence of new parties, some Left, some Right, some a blend of the two, that challenge the mainstream parties, that campaign on issues that the existing parties have neglected, and that become a serious and perhaps permanent part of the political system. A recent issue of the Journal of Democracy, published by America’s National Endowment for Democracy, provided a handy compendium of Europe’s populist parties. Takis S. Pappas, a Greek political theorist living in Hungary, listed 22 different parties he cautiously calls “challengers to liberal democracy.” Seven have held power in coalition and another four alone. I was surprised by those high numbers, and that may be because Professor Pappas includes parties — such as the socialist Pasok, which governed Greece for 22 years, UKIP, Italy’s main opposition party, and the present governing parties of Hungary and Poland — as “populists” when some of them look more like conservative parties, sometimes headed by charismatic leaders, to me. That said, these parties are undoubtedly taking votes from the mainstream parties. The question that we should be asking about them, however, is this: Have the populists taken these votes for the foreseeable future, thus becoming permanent contenders for power in our existing political system? Or are they merely temporary custodians of these votes that will return to the mainstream parties when their voters have completed their own transitions to different political identities with different sources of political support?

That is not, of course, the way that political establishments, existing parties, the media, or indeed Professor Pappas want us to think about populism. As the professor sees it, these parties are not participants in democracy but challengers to it. He fears that once in power they will turn against democracy and override its constraints if they become an obstacle to the achievement of their visions. He tacitly assumes that mainstream parties can be trusted not to betray democracy in this way — the European Union’s well-known “democracy deficit” almost never striking respectable opinion as such an infringement. And he is echoed on all these points by most other political commentators who instruct us as follows: The main choice before us today is that between populism and liberal democracy. Once examined skeptically, however, that hardly seems like a choice at all. It sounds more like a slogan to conscript the voters into shunning populists and continuing to vote for what are called the “legacy parties” without thinking too much about it.

As generally used, therefore, populism is not a neutral, dispassionate description but a ‘boo’ word employed to discredit those called populist or at least to indicate disapproval of them.

Yet thought is required here. As we shall see, populism and liberal democracy, though common terms in the higher journalism, are slippery ones. Consider the textbook accounts of populism. Among other things, it supposedly describes a movement that is personalist, rooted in a leader-principle, hostile to the “regime of the parties,” and based on blending Left and Right in a vague new synthesis. If that is the case, then the most successful populist leader in Europe today is Emmanuel Macron, president of France. He denounced the existing parties as corrupt and incompetent (not without some evidence). He founded a new party based on himself — EM standing for both En Marche and Emmanuel Macron. He carefully selected both parliamentary candidates and cabinet members on the basis of their loyalty to him and of their being untainted by the past. He advanced a set of policies that blended “pro-business” economic reforms with extreme social liberalism in identity politics — combining Left and Right politics in the French context. And finally, since his election, he has sought to present himself as a national leader above politics, at one point summoning all the legislators to Versailles, where he addressed them for about 90 minutes. (He got bad reviews from them and, more recently, from the voters.) Altogether Macron’s performance has been, if anything, an exaggeration of what populism traditionally means.

Yet Macron is never described as populist. Quite the contrary, the E.U. Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, hailed his election as the beginning of the end of populism and a New York Times analysis on Macron’s recent reverses pointed to his defeat of populism as one rare success. That is because Brussels and establishment opinion generally approve of his broad ideological tendencies, which embrace such familiar policies as multiculturalism, open borders, a banking union to underpin the Euro, and a kind of militant born-again Europeanism. They regard populism as a threat to these policies and so they ignore the populist aspects of the Macron victory. As generally used, therefore, populism is not a neutral, dispassionate description but a “boo” word employed to discredit those called populist or at least to indicate disapproval of them. This definition of populism seeks to end debate before it begins rather than to advance or clarify it.

Liberal democracy too is a protean concept that today needs a considerable amount of clarifying. In the relatively recent past — the days of FDR and Churchill, JFK and Harold Macmillan, Reagan and Thatcher — liberal democracy meant free, competitive elections in an atmosphere of free speech, free assembly, a free press, etc. How could an election be free without free speech to allow full discussion of the issues at issue? We fought the Cold War under this sign. To be sure, there were some additional liberal restraints on majority rule even then but they were modest and few in number.

In recent years, however, liberalism has come to mean the proliferation of liberal institutions — the courts, supra-national bodies, charters of rights, independent agencies, U.N. treaty-monitoring bodies, etc. — that increasingly restrain and correct parliaments, congresses, and elected officials. This shift of power was questionable when these bodies merely nullified or delayed laws and regulations. But more recently they have taken to instructing democratically accountable bodies to make particular reforms and even to impose them on the entire polity through creative constitutional and treaty interpretation. Their decisions have concerned a wide range of official powers from welfare rules through gay marriage to regulations on migration and deportation (of, among others, convicted terrorists). Liberal democracy under this dispensation becomes the undemocratic imposition of liberal policies — which, incidentally, is the core of truth in Viktor Orban’s somewhat misleading advocacy of “illiberal democracy.”

This transfer of power has happened in part because progressive elites at the top of mainstream political parties have happily gone along with it. They did so by the simple expedients either of not discussing these issues — in the common phrase, by keeping them out of politics — or, in the case of measures they favored, by leaving the courts or regulatory agencies to carry them out and then treating their passage as an irreversible fait accompli. Their justification in these latter cases was that since Parliament or Congress had “failed” to pass some urgent reform, it was the duty of the courts to step in and do so. In fact legislatures had not “failed” but refused to pass these measures. The courts, in stepping in to do so, were therefore arrogating legislative powers to themselves and hoping to get away with it, as they usually did, by rhetorical sleight of hand.

Immigration control is one example of policies excluded by silence in many countries. European integration is an example, especially in Britain, of a policy that has been pursued in silence or behind a veil. This shift of power is almost a constitutional convention by now. The longer it continues unnoticed, the more it will determine laws and regulations, the more that electoral or parliamentary majorities will cease to be the decisive decision-makers, and the more they will become one among several stakeholders around the table. Majoritarian democracy in these conditions mutates into a system that the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte calls “post-democracy,” in which elites and the institutions they control exercise more power than the voters and their elected representatives.

Contrary to most media commentary, the Brexit referendum is almost a parable of the necessary and valuable uses of populism in politics. Opposition to British membership in the European Union never ceased to be a significant strand of political opinion. It remained at the level of about one-third of respondents, sometimes rising, sometimes falling, for the entire period since the 1975 referendum. But since the leaderships of both parties, together with most cultural institutions, strongly supported the E.U., it was rarely at the center of political debate. The Tory party in particular was always far more Euroskeptic than its leaders. “Keeping Europe out of politics” only became unmanageable when Nigel Farage and UKIP fought and won elections on the issue. That compelled David Cameron to promise a referendum on E.U. membership. When the referendum was held, it revealed two things: first, that once party discipline was weakened, most Tories were Leavers, and second, that once a genuine public was held under rules of media neutrality, Euroskeptic opinion proved larger than expected and even grew to become a majority. In other words, “populism” in the form of UKIP helped to liberate a genuine and rooted democratic sentiment that might otherwise have been suppressed.

Once the result was announced, moreover, the reaction of the Tory government in promising to implement Brexit meant that this pre-eminent “populist” cause was absorbed into the conventional party system. It became clear that the great majority of Tories were relieved that the party had embraced the cause of British sovereign independence. It is now hard to imagine the Tories becoming a pro-E.U. party again, whatever the outcome of Brexit. It is gradually becoming clear also that most Labour MPs are natural Remainers — a fact hitherto obscured by the awkward fact that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his immediate circle, are among the minority of Labour Leavers. As it is gradually working itself out, however, Brexit will be increasingly debated across the floor of the House and, in elections, between the voters as a Left-versus-Right issue more than as a populist-versus-centrist one. Indeed, popular support for UKIP has drained away to mainstream parties since the referendum, and Nigel Farage himself has left politics, at least temporarily, for the media. But its cause continues to win.

The lesson is that if a populist party is drawing votes from the mainstream, then the mainstream party that deals seriously with its issue will eventually win its voters even if it has to argue with them.

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