Defending democracy from the demos

The political classes’ fear of right-wing populism is really a fear of volatile voters.

Baris Tufekci

Topics Politics

A few weeks after February’s Eastleigh by-election in the south of England, the centre-left, Labourite think tank Policy Network published a report titled Democratic Stress: The Populist Signal and Extremist Threat. It addresses the problem of ‘right-wing populism’. It argues that populist parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP) are threatening, or ‘stressing’, liberal democracy in Western Europe and elsewhere because they are undermining the ‘political mainstream’ – that is, the realm of ‘parties who sit comfortably within the pragmatic, pluralistic and institutionally bounded traditions of Western liberal democracy’. If democratic wellbeing is to be secured, mainstream parties must change their relationship with the public, the report says.

Apparently there are three political approaches today ‘which are consequential in terms of real world outcomes: the mainstream, populism and extremism’. The parties of the mainstream – whether ‘centre-right’ or ‘centre-left’ – have common cause in opposing approaches to politics that are contrary to their own ‘style and content’. While populism currently tends to take right-wing forms (UKIP, the Tea Party in America, the French Front National), populist challenges to the mainstream can also emerge from the left, the report argues. And any approach to politics that runs counter to that of the ‘liberal democratic’ mainstream is suspect and a cause for concern.

The report says liberal democracy’s virtue lies in its array of checks and balances on majority rule. The ‘populists’, by contrast, demand a democracy in which ‘the will of the morally pure majority is enacted – without much if any obstacle’. By wanting to impose majority rule, the populists don’t appreciate ‘social complexity’. Nor do they accept that complex bureaucratic institutions like the EU should have the right to impede what individual states can achieve. Liberal democracy is sensitive to these limitations and it has a range of institutional constraints on majority decision-making that safeguard minority interests. À la Robert Dahl, the report champions liberal democracy as a kind of ‘polyarchy’, a form of ‘minorities’ rule’. Its aim is to protect minorities from a majority that would otherwise engulf, overpower and oppress them.

Such a view of democracy is, of course, not new, so the report doesn’t endeavour to substantiate its assumptions with much evidence or reasoning. Crucially, the idea that there is in modern Britain a majority that actually wants to repress ‘minorities’ is not established at all. The report presents survey data showing popular support for less immigration, but it doesn’t show that such views have their origin in the social constituency that the author clearly has in mind: a white working class with ‘anxieties around culture, immigration and welfare’.

Nor does the report show that discomfort with immigration levels reveals mass hostility towards ‘minorities’. In reality, support for tougher immigration laws has come from across classes and ethnic groups in Britain. Racism and anti-immigration can go together, of course, but they are distinct phenomena, particularly in our present period where people’s fears about immigration are less likely to be expressed via the old language of racial politics than through concepts currently popularised in different contexts by the ‘mainstream’ itself, like ‘limited resources’ and ‘sustainability’. In any case, the view of immigration as a potential problem is by no means the preserve of the non-mainstream right; all mainstream parties now call for limitations on immigration.

What the report’s critique of populism really amounts to is fear of the public in an era of political fragmentation. As it correctly identifies, the political certainties of the past are gone. The breakdown of postwar class-party alignment – where, on average, around 90 per cent of the electorate voted either Labour or Tory – means the mainstream can no longer safely channel people’s discontent in the way it once did. As the old party loyalties disappear, rejection of the ‘mainstream’ sets in: ‘Now the space of political conflict is not only contested – the very rules on which it is based are under question.’ Liberal democracy is itself placed on trial, says the report, as mainstream parties – ‘the mainstays of liberal democracy since universal suffrage’ – are abandoned in favour of apparently radical-right populist parties like UKIP.

The report argues that ‘real “demand” exists for a populist radical right’. Is this true? Surely UKIP’s recent relative success is better understood as a product of a longstanding process of public estrangement from the main parties rather than being evidence of a sudden ideological transformation among sections of the electorate. There is no obvious relationship between adherence to ‘mainstream values’ (greater tolerance of minorities, say) and support for mainstream parties. Indeed, survey evidence cited in the report seems to indicate that ending immigration receives only minority support from younger sections of society. But those sections are still most likely to dismiss mainstream parties at the ballot box.

The report calls on mainstream parties to ‘address the anxieties that create the opportunity for populist and extremist parties to emerge and gain support’. This includes strategies ranging from ‘cordon sanitaire’ – mainstream parties refusing to cooperate or share a platform with the offending party – to ‘statecraft’, where mainstream parties acknowledge and engage with the ‘thorny issues’ apparently preoccupying the alienated public (from immigration to ‘on-street grooming’). This is really about bringing the public back into the mainstream, bringing the apparently frightened or ill-informed electorate once again under the influence of mainstream political machines.

How is this to be achieved? Not so much by parties setting out the precise ways in which they differ from each other, or through offering the electorate something to vote for, but rather through manipulating public discourse. Apparently, the problem is less that the ‘populists’ are wrong politically than that the public is ill-convinced, is unaware that its concerns could be better dealt with in the mainstream. The public needs to be persuaded that ‘there is a robust mainstream response to [its] concerns’.

The part of the public the report is really concerned about is, unsurprisingly, the working class, the only class it discusses at all, in fact. The idea that the working class is politically volatile and prone to ‘extremism’ is not new. What worries the centre-left and the political establishment in general is that, unlike in previous periods, today’s working class is increasingly cut-off from its ‘natural home’ in mainstream politics. Indeed, the working class was in a sense the original mass deserter of the mainstream. By the 1980s, millions of workers had come to the conclusion that the Labour Party lacked any strategy for fighting in their interests. Some turned to parties on the right; many abstained from voting altogether; most of those who stayed with Labour did so with little enthusiasm. For the political elite, this meant that it no longer had a direct check on the political actions of this unruly mass. Hence contemporary attempts to bring the ‘alienated’ back into the fold of the ‘mainstream’, under the watchful eye of the political elite.

In sum, Policy Network’s defence of democracy amounts to a rejection of the idea that the demos can determine their own destiny free from the constraints of decrepit political forms. There isn’t much to welcome in the rise of parties like UKIP. But there is little to defend in the moribund mainstream, either. Recognising the political bankruptcy of the mainstream will produce unpredictable electoral outcomes; but it is also a key starting point to breaking away from the status quo and starting to think about politics anew.

Baris Tufekci is a PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London, researching British party politics.

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Topics Politics


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