Populism emerges when people want more from politics.
People are fundamentally failing to make sense of populism. Whether in debates about Donald Trump, Brexit or national populism in Europe, one common problem is a tendency to focus almost exclusively on the short-term; to view our political world through an incredibly narrow lens.
The ‘sudden’ rise of populism is routinely traced to recent events. Populism was caused by the post-2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession. It was caused by the harsh austerity that followed. It was caused by the post-2014 refugee crisis. It was caused by the arrival of social media, like the launch of Facebook in 2004, or Twitter in 2006. Or, most often, it was caused by a specific event at a specific election, whether revelations about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Cambridge Analytica influencing voters, or Brexit campaigners spending more money than they should have during the 2016 referendum.
Some of these things are undoubtedly important, but I would suggest that they have received a level of attention that is wholly disproportionate to their actual level of significance. Meanwhile, across the West, we have lost sight of a deeper and ultimately more important source of strength for populism: a fundamental and irreconcilable tension between different ‘models’ of politics that has characterised much of Western society since the birth of mass democracy.
You don’t need to be a political historian to understand why short-term takes on populism are clearly inadequate. As we outline in a forthcoming book, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, while many writers would have you believe that the likes of Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini or Marine Le Pen are unique to the modern era, the West has a tradition of national populism that is older than our modern conception of liberal democracy.
You do not hear about them today, but this tradition runs all the way back through movements like the French ‘Poujadists’ in the 1950s, and the Russian Narodniks in the 19th century, to the ‘Populares’ in the later Roman Republic, who sought to rally citizens against a dominant oligarchy (while usually pursuing their own interests). Similarly, you cannot begin to make sense of Trump without first exploring his incredibly important ancestors on the populist family tree, like the People’s Party in the 1890s, the American ‘Know Nothing’ Party of the 1850s, and influential early figures like Andrew Jackson. These movements differed in important ways but they all contributed to the general evolution of the national populist tradition, and remind us that this has been a long time coming.
To begin to understand why this force has remained on the landscape for so long, I think it is useful to consider the work of Margaret Canovan, one of my favourite thinkers on populism, and one who sadly passed away recently. Canovan, who was in turn influenced by Michael Oakeshott, argued that contrary to much of the public debate about populism today, this movement is not an aberration or some kind of outlier. Rather, it is intimately entwined with the practice of democracy. For as long as we have democracy, we will have populists. This is because movements like Brexit, Trump, Five Star in Italy or the Sweden Democrats do not simply draw strength from things that happen today, but from a deeper conflict between two different ideal types, tendencies or styles of politics that have run through the West (and especially Europe) for centuries. These are ultimately two very different ways of seeing the world around us. On one side is ‘politics as faith’, on the other is ‘politics as scepticism’.
Populism is ultimately rooted in the politics of faith, grounded in the notion that human beings – through politics – can achieve perfection, salvation or utopia here on Earth. The political arena is not a forum in which we simply debate policy or manifestos; it is also a vehicle through which the people can pursue their own salvation – the salvation of their community, their nation and their group. Politics as faith is thus highly emotional, demands total obedience and seeks to inspire mass enthusiasm, affection, love and tribal loyalty. The otherwise routine humdrum of political life is transformed into a far grander and ambitious narrative; a campaign to save the nation or its people; a promise to ‘Make Country X Great Again’, or to ‘Take Back Control’.
Though populism is routinely portrayed as a reactive force, one that is only against, politics as faith appeals to a recognised authority, namely the people, and claims to speak on their behalf. This is why Canovan described the politics of faith as displaying ‘the revivalist flavour of a movement, powered by the enthusiasm that draws normally unpolitical people into the political arena’. Indeed, today’s populists, like the Alternative for Germany, Brexit and Trump, have done exactly that, drawing votes from people who had previously given up on politics but who now saw an opportunity to re-enter the political arena in order to pursue the salvation of their group and nation.
This is important because while populists target mainstream issues like economic distribution, EU membership, immigration or law and order, they are simultaneously and constantly translating these debates about policy into far more fundamental questions about democratic power, which they often argue has been given to or stolen by elites. This leads us to a point that many find uncomfortable – that at least some of the grievances on which national populism thrives are legitimate. The loss of voice in a political or economic system or a lack of democratic accountability in institutions that operate above the nation state. The politics of faith contends that much greater democratic power should be granted to the people and that only the people, who are pursuing their own salvation through the system, can be trusted with this power. Citizens can ultimately be counted on to make the right call.
This is why some see populism as deeply problematic and brings us to ‘politics as scepticism’, which is a counter-balance of sorts to populism. Politics as scepticism is a fundamentally different way of viewing the political realm. In sharp contrast to the ‘revivalist flavour’ that characterises politics as faith, politics as scepticism is far more focused on incremental rather than radical change. It is about the formality of government, procedures, rules, technicalities, self-control and moderation, which makes it practical but inevitably dry and boring. It is sceptical not only of grand ideological visions but also of any concentration of power and also the involvement of the masses in complex issues, though this scepticism can quickly slide into open disdain. Politics as scepticism is about siding with the experts. Max Weber once said that politics is slow, steady drilling through hard boards. That is the politics of scepticism.
This means that the politics of scepticism is deeply wary of the idea that perfection, renewal or salvation can ever be achieved here on Earth. It worries, often intensely, about how politics as faith is dismissive of barriers and checks that are seen to delay the pursuit of salvation; the distant bureaucratic structures in Brussels; the ‘Deep State’ in Washington; the pro-Remain civil servants in Westminster; or the president who refuses to sign off on your Eurosceptic minister. If the politics of faith is the Daily Mail, then the politics of scepticism is the Financial Times.
The crucial point about these competing models, however, is that they are inseparable. They need each other. Without politics as scepticism, the salvation-seekers risk dismantling the checks and balances and morphing into authoritarians. But without the salvation-seekers, the sceptics risk being taken over by political quietism; becoming far too readily accepting of the status quo and too slow to pursue change or reform. This is why some writers (including us) are at least willing to accept that populism can become an important corrective when groups feel left behind, when certain grievances are ignored, when the social contract between the rulers and the ruled has begun to break down.
Indeed, politics as faith typically arises when politics as scepticism is unresponsive to specific concerns or specific groups. It is perhaps no surprise that in Britain the rise of the national populist UK Independence Party, then radical left-wing Jeremy Corbyn and then Brexit all emerged in the shadow of 13 years of rule by New Labour, an exemplar of ‘whatever works’ managerialism that was often unresponsive on identity issues and dismissive of public opinion.
Brexit in particular was not just a formal request for Britain to leave the EU. It was the politics of faith rubbing up against the politics of scepticism; an attempt to correct an imbalance in a nation that had become more interested in big business, cities, social liberals and middle-class graduates at the expense of workers, conservatives, rural communities and towns.
This should not prevent us from calling out instances of racism or xenophobia that often come with the politics of faith. But it is also true that many of those who flock to populism do not hold such views and are instead pursuing radical political change in the hope of nudging the dial away from the politics of scepticism and back toward the politics of faith and salvation, however they might define it. By obsessing over what happened during the campaign, we are losing sight of a deeper tension that is at work and losing an opportunity to reflect seriously on where politics as scepticism has gone wrong.
I think this better helps us to understand where, in the context of the revolts of 2016, the liberal mainstream went wrong. Look back at those campaigns and all you see is the politics of scepticism; incredibly dry and transactional offers to voters who were looking for something far more meaningful. ‘This is how much money you get from EU membership’; ‘This is how much GDP your region gains from EU structural funds’; ‘This is how much damage Trump, Salvini or Le Pen will do to your economy.’
Remainers, Democrats and social democrats in Europe are the masters of politics as scepticism. But they are incredibly bad at building bridges to those voters who are more inclined toward salvation, redemption and faith. The former strip emotion out of their campaigns and hide from debates that focus on community, belonging and identity, which is exactly what the latter want to see. This reluctance to adapt brings up another problem for the sceptics; that while they might win respect from the people they can never inspire love or faith (as, say, Emmanuel Macron is now discovering). This makes them dependent on, at best, indifference or, at worst, contempt. As Oakeshott said: ‘It is always difficult to be enthusiastic about moderation or passionate about self-control.’
While sceptics are forever prone to suffer from the very moderation they live to install, those who practice the politics of faith are forever prone to suffer from their disregard of detail and their indulgence in excess. And so they thrive off each other. ‘Take back control? Show me how in practice’; ‘Want us to Remain in the EU? Show me how it gives voice to the people and saves our nation.’ And back and forth we go. The distant technocrats and self-styled moderates on one side, and the passionate salvation-seekers on the other. What is more important than who emerges to represent either side is the fact that this tension, embedded into the very fabric of our political lives, will always be there.
This is why Canovan argued – and I think she was right – that populism can never be ‘outgrown’; that a movement that appeals strongest to the left behind can itself never be left behind. Populism, in her mind, was democracy’s shadow and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
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