This promiscuous diagnosis of populism is a classic example of what Jean-Paul Sartre called bad faith. It is a form of self-deception. It allows the elite to displace its anxiety about its lack of legitimacy, its isolation from the public, and transform it into the public’s problem: the problem of populism. What’s more, labelling movements populist is a way of suggesting that they are morally inferior to, well, the unpopular elite. Populism, then, has been redefined as the pathology of the simple-minded masses, those who are apparently predisposed towards authoritarian, xenophobic and anti-democratic sentiments. This contrast between what Hillary Clinton called the ‘deplorables’ and her own superior supporters flatters an otherwise morally disoriented political class, and turns the very unpopularity of elite values into a marker for their moral superiority.
The rise of anti-populism
Capturing the meaning of 21st-century populism is difficult, because the use of the word ‘populist’ has been so heavily influenced by the anti-populist temper that dominates public language. In the past, populism was a form of self-designation – people knowingly described themselves as populist. During the 19th century, the Narodniks in Russia, like the People’s Party in the US, took pride in their populist outlook. In the 21st century, it is the advocates of anti-populism who get to define their opponents as populist. The political scientist Ivan Krastev raised an important question when he asked, ‘Who decides which policies are “populist” and which are “sound”?’ (1). The answer: an influential coterie of anti-populists.
In the 21st century, populism’s opponents have attributed a wide range of negative qualities to populism. Take the academic literature on populism. It is almost always hostile to its subject matter, and often projects negative values and attitudes on to ‘populist’ movements that their members would not recognise as their own. So a book called The Politics of Fear asserts that populist ‘EU scepticism’ combines a ‘chauvinist, nativist view of “the people”’, with an ‘extreme right-wing orientation’ (2). This association of Euroscepticism with right-wing ideas is no doubt a product of genuine incomprehension, but it also distorts the aspiration to democracy and solidarity that has led millions of people to reject the EU.
Anti-populist academic work is often rich in double standards. For example, Jan-Werner Mueller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, rightly criticises the negative impact of identity politics on the US elections. But he only really criticises ‘Trump’s populist identity politics’, as he calls for a move away from ‘white identity politics’ back ‘to the realm of interests’. What he fails to note is that identity politics is a weapon used by all sides and that Trump’s opponents were as guilty as anyone else of promoting it. If anything, the fossilisation of identity and the homogenisation of social and cultural experience – white privilege, toxic masculinity, hetero-sexism, black identity, and so on – are more dominant among anti-populists than among so-called populists.
The hostility of many academics towards populism largely reflects the tension between values deemed acceptable by the political and cultural establishment and values that influence the people’s everyday lives. This tendency is particularly visible in the media, where anti-populist commentators are often unable to take seriously people whose values are opposed to their own.
Movements that are designated as populist – from the left-wing Greek Syriza movement to France’s right-wing Front National – are not simply hostile to the political institutions of the EU but also to the cultural values of the elites. It is this direct challenge to values represented as mandatory by the dominant institutions of society that anti-populist commentators find so hard to accept. As the political theorist Margaret Canovan pointed out, unlike other social movements, populism does not merely challenge the holder of power but also ‘elite values’ (3). So its hostility is also directed at ‘opinion-formers and the media’. For its part, the media have a real problem in grasping the dynamics of populist politics. This is not simply the fault of the media’s shallow analysis; rather, a significant section of the media is increasingly estranged from the life of working people, and so is intensely suspicious of those who do not share its cultural outlook.
Many representatives of the cultural elite claim that the people no longer care about the truth. What they really mean is that people don’t care about their version of the truth
It is important to note that, historically, anti-populist ideas have been mostly hostile to democracy, not demagoguery. From Plato onwards, the social and cultural outlook of the political elites has been suspicious of and often hostile towards public opinion. Typically, they viewed the people as a ‘problem’. The American commentator Walter Lippmann’s 1922 study, Public Opinion, provides the classic statement of this position. He warned that the proportion of the electorate that is ‘absolutely illiterate’ is much larger than we suspect, and these people are ‘mentally children or barbarians’ and are therefore the natural targets of manipulators (4). These are the early equivalents of today’s ‘low-information voters’, who are apparently drawn towards the ‘post-truth’ politics of Brexit and other political phenomena.
Since the 19th century, anti-populist theories have dominated Anglo-American social-science literature. These theories assume that people do not know what is in their own best interests. By the 1950s, many American academics had adopted an intensely hostile tone towards populist strands of public opinion. For 1950s American intellectuals like Daniel Bell, Edward Shils, Seymour Lipset and Richard Hofstader, ‘populism became the paradigmatic case of American-style xenophobia’ (5).
So the tendency to stigmatise populist politics as a symptom of psychological disorder and irrationalism has a long history. In his important study The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin notes that in the US during the Cold War, populism became the ‘great fear of liberal intellectuals’. These intellectuals blamed mass democracy and an ‘authoritarian’ and ‘irrational’ working class for the rise of McCarthyism. Indeed, their hostility to McCarthyism, like their antagonism to the religious right today, was underpinned by distrust and antipathy towards ‘the very kinds of white American-Catholic workers, military veterans, discontented families in the middle of the social structure – who had once been the foot soldiers in causes such as industrial unionism, the CIO and the Popular Front in the 1930s and 1940s’.
What is 21st-century populism?
Contemporary anti-populism is shaped by influences that are very different to the anti-populism of the Cold War era and earlier. In the post-Cold War era, conflicts over values – the so-called Culture Wars – have assumed a significant role. The relatively fragile cultural authority of the political class and its institutions has undermined their relations with many sections of society. While the ideologues of the elite can flatter themselves for possessing post-traditional, post-material or cosmopolitan values, they also know that their cultural legitimacy rests on feeble foundations.
What unites the different movements labelled as populist is their rejection of elite culture and values. Despite the attempt to represent populist movements as a distinct political species, they have little in common other than their hostility to the ideals and the political practices of technocratic governance. Even a single movement, such as the Brexit vote, was motivated by a variety of different ideals and political aspirations. But what bound these different strands of people together was a shared rejection of the values of the EU oligarchy.
Insofar as there is a common goal that distinguishes the Brexit voter and the supporter of Podemos from the parties of the oligarchy, it is an aspiration for solidarity, and for community. Throughout the Western world, many people feel alienated and estranged from their governments and institutions. They feel patronised by technocrats and they have become sceptical towards the so-called truths communicated by professional politicians and experts. Many representatives of the cultural elite claim that the people no longer care about the truth. What they really mean is that people don’t care about their version of the truth. So when the French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy declared that people have ‘lost interest in whether politicians tell the truth’, he was really describing an electorate that no longer shares his values.
The people whom Levy is patronising feel that their habits, customs and traditions are constantly being ridiculed by an oligarchy that acts as if it has a right to dictate how people should lead their lives and behave towards each other. Consequently, many people, feeling uncertain about their capacity to conduct their everyday affairs in accordance with their own inclinations, are drawn towards movements that promise to take them more seriously.
Of course, the people speak with different voices, are motivated by diverse concerns, and are drawn towards a variety of heterogeneous solutions. Many of the reactions and attitudes associated with populism constitute what Hannah Arendt described as a search for pre-political authority. The common quest for gaining meaning through pre-political solidarity can express itself in many different ways. That is why populist aspirations can lead people, in the quest for social solidarity, to embrace contradictory political standpoints — from a desire for more social justice and equality to anti-immigrant chauvinism.
In the long run, the relative authority of the competing cultural and political influences will determine the outcome of the anti-technocratic populist movement. In the short run, through its challenge to the values and the language of technocratic governance, populist sentiments can help to create the conditions for the re-politicisation of public life, reviving a culture of political participation and democratic debate.
However, the populist rejection of elite values does not in itself constitute a positive and viable alternative to the politics of technocratic governance. What’s needed is not simply a rejection of the prevailing anti-demos culture; we also need a positive political alternative that promotes the values of democracy and social solidarity. The crystallisation of the populist impulse into a political movement that infuses the aspiration for solidarity with the ideals of popular sovereignty, consent and an uncompromising commitment to liberty might sound utopian — but it is a cause worth fighting for.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator and author of the What’s Happened To The University?: A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).
(1) ‘The strange death of the liberal consensus’, by Ivan Krastev, Journal of democracy, 18(4), (2007)
(2) See The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, by Ruth Wodak, Sage, 2015, pp41-43 and pp54-55
(3) ‘Trust the people! Populism and the two faces of democracy’, by Margaret Canovan, Political studies 47.1 (1999), pp2-16
(4) Public Opinion, by Walter Lippman, FQ Classics, 2007, p75
(5) ‘Culture/Wars: Recoding Empire in an Age of Democracy’, by NP Singh, American Quarterly, 50, 3, (1998), p13
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