There are a variety of ways of saying that people who voted for Eurosceptic parties like the UK Independence Party or the Danish People’s Party should not really be taken seriously.
The most simplistic way of trivialising the casting of a ballot for Eurosceptic parties in last week’s Euro-elections is to suggest that it represents the empty gesture of a protest vote. The label of ‘protest voters’ suggests that these people should not be taken too seriously because their actions do not express their true beliefs. The idea that these ‘protest votes’ were just about letting off steam was clearly stated by Phillip Hammond, Britain’s defence secretary, who described UKIP’s supporters as ‘lender voters’ who, after giving the Conservative government ‘a kicking’, would return to the Tory fold in next year’s General Election.
Another way of morally devaluing support for Eurosceptic parties is to diagnose it as a marker for ‘anger issues’. This was the approach taken by the British Labour Party’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, who said UKIP’s electoral triumph in the Euro-elections in Britain was a ‘symptom of anger’ related to the lack of dynamism in politics. This focus on anger psychologises people’s political behaviour. After all, the true antidote to anger is not political debate but a course in anger-management therapy. From this psychobabble standpoint, the alleged emotional state of the Eurosceptic voter is not really conducive to rational political intervention. This point was highlighted in the title of a piece written by Jim Pickard, chief political correspondent of the Financial Times: ‘Angry voters turn to anti-politics of Nigel Farage.’ In one line, the FT managed to depoliticise the behaviour of UKIP’s supporters, treating them as emotional nutjobs whose votes floated effortlessly towards, not the politics, but the ‘anti-politics’ of UKIP leader Farage.
The language of contempt with which the anti-EU electorate is discussed echoes classical elitist disdain for the demos and the so-called multitude. Apparently, this multitude lacks the moral and intellectual resources that are required to grasp and understand the political issues currently facing Europe. When Germany’s vice chancellor, the Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel, denounced Eurosceptic parties on both the left and right as ‘stupid’, he gave voice to a sentiment that is widespread among Europe’s political elites. They really do think that the angry protest voter is something of a simpleton who is unable to understand the complexities of modern society.
The medicalisation of the morally inferior Eurosceptic citizen is most clearly expressed through the EU elites’ handwringing over populism. It is not entirely clear when the word populist became a term of abuse. Today, it is almost always used abusively. In the EU context, the word populist is now intimately associated with xenophobia, racism, an addiction to simplistic outlooks, and an affinity with outdated and backward cultural norms and practices. ‘Populism in all its guises is anti-liberal, uninterested in nuanced solutions to complex problems, and always has the potential to be xenophobic’ – that is the verdict of one academic analysis of the alleged political pathology of populism. Another, more charitable version of this outlook says ‘populism might be described as the politics of offering easy answers while providing no real solution’.