14 nov 2011

Populism in Europe

All over Europe, Green and left-wing political parties are confronted with rising political movements that claim to speak in the name of 'the people'. These movements pit themselves against mainstream politics, which they regard as elitist. They create an unbridgeable gap between the 'bad' elite, the 'good' people and the 'other' (usually minority groups). By doing so, however, the most fundamental European values ​​are threatened, since the leaders of these movements deny notions of diversity, open-mindedness, critical (self)reflection and tolerance.

The discourse of populism touches the essence of democracy and cannot be left without a retort. In the just published collection of articles, Populism in Europe, politicians, scientists and journalists from different parts of Europe take up the urgent challenge of analysing what is going on in our societies today. The authors try to formulate the questions left and green parties in particular have to answer when it comes to combating these 'fantasts of simplification', as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Edouard Gaudot call them in the first article of our book.

We usually refer to these political movements as 'populists' – the latin word populus means 'common people' – although there is no clear definition of this term. The interpretations of populism differ: it can be seen as a way of doing politics in an emotional, simplistic and manipulative style that might be employed by both left-wing and right-wing parties; one can, however, also think of this phenomenon as a new postmodern ideology or as nationalism in a new shape. The quest at stake in this book is finding out what populism means today and how to deal with it.

A new phenomenon

There are certainly similarities between today's populism and the 'old-school' extreme right. Both play on the mechanisms of exclusion and differentiation in order to be heard; both draw from the same source: a demagogic, protectionist and xenophobic nationalism. In this book, however, we put more emphasis on the rift between the 'old' extreme right and new right-wing populism. For instance, the new populists do not want to abolish democracy. On the contrary, they thrive on democratic support and call for more instruments of direct democracy in our political constellation. A shift can also be observed from racial arguments to cultural elements and from collectivism to individualism – a shift that might be more than just a change in strategy.

An important role in Populism in Europe is given to the analysis of Chantal Mouffe, who states that the eviction of the political from politics that occurred after 1989 gave right-wing populists the opportunity to reshape the political landscape. She introduces the term 'postpolitical', which refers to a political sphere without political and ideological conflict. This can be described as follows: in the nineties, the polarity between left and right, which until then had been the defining opposition in politics, was changing. Social Democratic parties abandoned their ideological stance for a pragmatist, (neo)liberal approach. Politics became increasingly a matter of expert administration, technocratic governance and public management. Political issues were no longer defined by socio-economic divisions between left and right, but marked by a cultural opposition between the cosmopolitan multicultural 'elite' on the one hand, and the more conservative, nationalist 'people' on the other

Along with this new cultural opposition, a new political dividing line has developed between libertarian and authoritarian voters. While Green parties are campaigning for post-material issues like environment, equality, individual freedom and minority rights, populist politicians start to shape the 'will of the people' by claiming to be the voice of the people neglected by the libertarian elite. They focus on the decline of traditional norms and values, the erosion of social structures such as the family, the loss of national identity and sovereignty, and the need for more repressive and authoritative political methods. They do not use the conventional political methods of convincing and reasoning, but their main tools are provocation and the building of fixed images, which tend to be very effective in our media culture.

New populism thus cannot be easily identified with the old racist extreme right. The differences are great. However, this certainly does not mean that the new cultural approach is more innocent, since the populists are still harping on the old 'mechanisms of exclusion and xenophobic nationalism'. This is why the focus of Populism in Europe is on right-wing populism in all its different forms. However, zooming in on right-wing politics does not imply denying the existence of left-wing populism. Several authors point to the fact that right-wing populism confronts leftist and green parties with their own populist features, while at the same time pointing to the delicate question of how to deal with them.

Populism confronts us with all kinds of questions that touch the heart of our societies, like the functioning of democracy or the meaning of national identity, especially in relation to the project of building a common Europe. Populists appeal to modern European cultural values, especially freedom, and by doing so, they manage to influence the political speech of almost all political parties in Europe.

As populists embrace values that used to be connected to the left and humanist tradition, like democratisation and women's rights (sometimes even gay rights), they especially compete with left and green parties. Even the leftwing slogan from 1968 l'imaginaire au pouvoir, seems to be very effective these days, but in a completely different way than the movements of those days dreamt about. We see a symbiotic relationship between populism and media and even advertising. In our culture, the imaginary succeeds over the rational and influences political talk as well.

Open questions

The approach of the progressive parties to populism is far from uniform. Some parties choose the line of opposition, others prefer a policy of accommodation. Both evoque questions. Is it a good idea to discredit the populist imaginary outright, without engaging with the questions it poses to us? On the other hand, should one accept that populists speak in the name of the people, as they claim to do?

This takes as to the necessity of looking more precisely into the manner in which populists are framing political talk, but also of the way they are influencing the political talk of mainstream parties.

This seems to be one of the important challenges this book poses to the Greens: how to profile themselves clearly in the political debate. Will they have to become more populist in their methods, show more emotions, become more personal? Or should the Greens stick to the old political practice of convincing others by way of arguing and reasoning?

Another political dilemma explored in the book: both populist and Green parties are gaining votes in most European countries; Green and populist voters seem to have very little if nothing in common, since the one follows the libertarian, and the other the authoritarian line. This leaves campaign strategists with the question whether or not Green parties should try to win the populist vote. If the latter is considered useless, the challenge remains to come up with better strategies. To put the question differently: how do the Greens evaluate their relationship to the "orphans of globalisation", as the British historian Robert O. Paxton calls the members of the new underclass, who do not profit from globalisation and who no longer understand the language of politics?

There are other points of discussions in the book. I will just mention a last point that seems to be especially important for the discussion tonight, namely the question of popular sovereignty as the basis of democracy. Populists use the term 'people' in an absolute and exclusive way. How to develop a truly European pluralistic democracy when the notion of national sovereignty is being used to exclude people from our societies? Populists compel us to reflect on the essence of democracy. And since they nationalise democracy, the left and Green parties are confronted with the question what democratisation means from an international or at least European perspective. How to establish democratic structures that interconnect international and local communities?

If this book makes anything clear, it is the insight that populism poses a great challenge for Green and left parties all over Europe to review their own political concepts and narratives. And if they take their own traditions seriously, there is no way to avoid this challenge.

Zie Populism in Europe

Onderzoeker en docent aan de Protestantse Theologische Universiteit. Oud-hoofdredacteur van tijdschrift de Helling.
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