Head to Head | Should the European Left Take On The Populists At Their Own Game?

by Julian Mueller-Kaler and Alistair Somerville

April 9, 2020

In this blog post, Alistair Somerville and Julian Mueller-Kaler go head to head on whether European center-left and left wing parties should take on the right wing populists at their own game.

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Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

The left should reject populist tactics

by Alistair Somerville

If the coronavirus crisis and the international response tell us anything about global politics, it is that the left must reject populist tactics. European center-left and left wing parties should take the events of recent weeks — and the actions of right-wing populists in power in recent years — as a warning: If you pursue populist tactics to get elected, you become part of the establishment you sought to undermine during your election campaign. Moreover, by vilifying the experts who make up the establishment, you undermine your own ability to deal with the crises you inevitably face once in power.

What does it mean to be a populist? Populism is unlike our traditional left-right understanding of the ideological political spectrum. The academic literature is in broad agreement that, put simply, populism is a “thin-centred” ideology on either the left or the right that places a pure “people” in opposition to a “corrupt elite” — the so-called establishment.

Although the most significant populist threat in Europe has come from parties on the political right (such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Lega in Italy and National Rally in France) there is theoretically no reason why leftist parties could not adopt populist tactics to win power. Attacks against elites based on narrow definitions of the people need not be limited to right wing movements, although such attacks are most pronounced among populists who advance a definition of the people based on national or cultural ties. But this approach is short-sighted and would set up left and center-left parties for failure once in power.

In their campaigns against the elite, populists typically attack institutions, which they see as centers of corrupt elite power that stand in the way of realizing the “people’s will.” A recent example came in December 2019, when the UK’s Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson criticized Parliament for supposedly subverting his plan to take the country out of the European Union and — in turn — the will of the people. Yet in a representative democracy, the parliament serves to represent the electorate’s will through elected members, which makes Johnson’s populist critique of the most democratic institution in the country striking.

Since then, Johnson’s rhetorical assault on British institutions has continued. The government’s war on the BBC is another recent development. Once populists target one institution, the only way to sustain their assault on the elites seems to be to find other institutions to attack. The free press is often a target, because populists view it as a bastion of cosmopolitan, liberal, establishment thinking. If the left adopted populist tactics, where would its attacks end? In the U.S. context, the only substantive similarity between Bernie Sanders and President Trump, is their attacks on the media. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, who is of a similar left populist tradition to Sanders, has also had a combative relationship with the media. Would a leftist party in power do the same?

The left should place extra value on protecting liberal democratic institutions, especially at times of great uncertainty such as the current pandemic. Parliaments help to guarantee minority rights, for example, while the press holds power accountable in all its forms. As Georgetown University professor Irfan Nooruddin argued recently in The Hindu, countries with populists in government such as India — the world’s largest democracy — often see protections for minority communities eroded. In India, where populists who define the people in narrow ethnic terms set the agenda, each election becomes a battle over divisive social issues, rather than economic policy.

Given that the European social democratic parties of today have their roots in providing a voice to the voiceless and advocating for social justice, it would be unwise for left-of-center parties to pursue a narrow definition of the people. This would ultimately damage the minority groups the center-left claims they want to protect.

Even if populist tactics brought the center-left back to power, any rhetoric and policies targeting institutions are short-sighted. Certainly, as Prime Minister Johnson’s victory in the December “people vs. Parliament” election demonstrated, populist rhetoric can galvanize support for a cause in an election campaign, by giving people a clear enemy on which to blame societal ills. But once in power, parties must deliver for the population, who need to see the dividends in their pocket books. If the left is committed to maintaining open and democratic societies, as I believe European social democratic parties are, the populist approach leaves it with a problem.

If you spend an election campaign bashing the institutions you need to pass your agenda once in office, you will struggle to get anything done in power, and will lose the trust of those who elected you to drive change. In such a situation, the right, represented most clearly in Europe by former Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, turns to a different “other” on which to blame the country’s problems: the immigrant and the refugee. Center-left parties would not stoop to such lows, nor should they. Without an enemy to turn against, people lose faith in government, and the populists in government become part of the despised elite. A cycle emerges, as distrust in government grows, and the left loses out to a less scrupulous right-wing opposition.

Let us return to the events of recent weeks and the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Analysts have begun to note that the spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated another weakness of populism: populists’ distrust of experts. But society now needs the leadership of educated experts more than ever, working in consort with democratic institutions and elected representatives, to develop treatments, vaccines and public health campaigns through cross-border collaboration. Faced with such an insidious threat (and countless other global challenges) — it would be a mistake for the left to abandon the power of expertise and strong institutions for the short-term expediency of populism. Instead, it should highlight the power and efficacy of strong institutions and international cooperation in a crisis, and build trust with the electorate to affect positive change for the long term.

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The left should embrace populist rhetoric

by Julian Mueller-Kaler

There is no doubt that the ongoing global health crisis is exposing the dangerous incompetence of populist governments. Despising expertise, lacking strategic foresight, and dismantling bureaucratic institutions does not bode well for fighting a deadly pandemic. And it might as well end in a disaster. As a matter of fact, numbers around the world indicate that the lower a society’s trust in its government — best exemplified by the success of populists — the higher its infection and death rates. There seems to be a realization of such paradigms and many come to appreciate the experience of establishment politicians in times of crisis. Consequently, public support for populist parties in Europe is declining.

One would think that the establishment’s revival in the wake of COVID-19 is not an opportune time to call for increased populism. However, the exact opposite is true. The reasoning for that is twofold: First, it is essential to look at populism through a more refined lens, rather than to simply dismiss it as a dangerous ideology. Second, the coronavirus not only exposes the inability of failing governments, it also debunks the false promises of the neoliberal system at large. Whether it is the breakdown of chronically under-financed health care systems, the inability of many to work from home, or skyrocketing unemployment rates, the crisis brings to light the flaws of unbridled capitalism — many of which have paved the way for the rise of populism.

For the purpose of arguing that the European Left should make use of this opportunity and take on the populists at their own game, one first needs to comprehend the phenomenon’s meaning and the source of its appeal. This is certainly a difficult endeavor because the term itself is widely used, broadly contested, and cannot be tied down to a single definition.

As Alistair stated, many scholars argue that the phenomenon must be understood as a (thin-centered) ideology, establishing a framework of the pure people versus the corrupt elite and demanding that politics should be an expression of the general will. While basic characteristics remain the same, others hold the opinion that populism is rather a strategic form of organization, through which a charismatic leader seeks or even exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, and un-institutionalized support.

Understanding the political force as such leads to the prevalent conclusion that populists disrespect pluralistic societies, undermine existing institutions, and ultimately pose a threat to liberal democracies. That is, of course, not entirely wrong as numerous examples suggest. But it is too short-sighted.

Populists are dangerous for democracy, not because they are populists, but rather because they are often also nationalistic, authoritarian, and jingoistic. By focusing on features that occur with populism but are not part of it, most people miss the larger point. Racism, xenophobia, and nationalism might be reasons for some to support political arsonists, but they are not the main source of the phenomenon’s appeal. Instead, populism thrives due to social turmoil, the loss of faith in the problem-solving capacity of government institutions, and public dissatisfaction with the status quo.

An argumentation that becomes particularly evident, if one changes the analytical perspective and understands populism for what it is, namely a rhetorical style. According to political theorists such as the late Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the point of departure for a more sophisticated analysis is the accumulation of unfulfilled social demands.

They argue that if public confidence in the problem-solving ability of the political system is persistently shaken, a populist moment occurs and initiates the following mechanism: Disappointed people are captured, mobilized, and most importantly united by a clear, rhetorical demarcation of a common enemy. The antagonistic opposite is held responsible for the non-fulfillment of the original claims, and, thus, the populist social division “us against them” is established.

By emphasizing the affective dimension of politics, populist rhetoric helps to overcome feelings of perceived powerlessness and translates them into a positive sense of collective self-empowerment. The original frustration of non-fulfillment transforms into political energy, which in turn expresses itself as an antagonism to the perceived causes of disappointment. A novel identity does not determine populist discourse, but is in fact constituted by it. Interestingly enough, initial social demands can thereby differ fundamentally and may even contradict one another, but on the basis of a common opposition, they combine a unified front. A rhetorical strategy that leads to extremely high potentials of mobilization, effective above all with regard to the morally loaded dichotomy “people against establishment.

This theoretical approach is supported by empirical evidence, too. Studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between low trust in the problem-solving ability of national parliaments and the electoral successes of populist parties. Notions that offer promising ways to ask for the reasons of public disappointment and thereby identify the sources of the phenomenon’s appeal.

Living in an interconnected world in which neoliberal capitalism is the measure of all things, first and foremost low skill workers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of globalization, the decisive relocation of production, technological modernization, and advancing automatization.

It should come as no surprise that almost all populist movements share a stark anti-establishment orientation, claim to speak for the people, and oppose liberal economics and globalization. Whether it is the AfD in Germany, Donald Trump in the United States, UKIP in the context of Brexit, the National Front (RN) in France, or the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland, all actors promise to “drain the swamp” of corrupted elites and pledge to return power to their nation by fighting back against global forces that have caused their people ill — real or perceived.

Of course, once in power, quite the opposite is happening, and many populist governments leave a pile of broken promises, even for their supporters. Due to the establishment’s paralyses, though, most are able to maintain the outsider status they rely on. Instead of finding answers to issues of economic protection and social security, mainstream politicians across the ideological spectrum fear that any deviation from neoliberal economics would lead to uncompetitive markets, ultimately causing their countries to fall behind in the global race for higher productivity. Such trepidations create an open space for populist actors to appeal to the emotions of frustrated citizens, pretending to have magical solutions for complex challenges.

Unfortunately, the European Left has not been any different. Its adoption of the “Third Way” in the early 2000s married economic liberalism and social democracy, with devastating consequences for societies and working classes in particular. Left leaning politicians continued the conservative revolution, started to call for a market economy, rather than a market society, and it didn’t take long until democratic institutions were deprived of their abilities to control and regulate markets effectively. Such adoptions of neoliberal policies and the Left’s inability to fight the negative ramifications of capitalism and economic transformation felt, and continues to feel, like betrayal for many — and it goes some way to explain why social democracy does not profit from high levels of inequality and public frustration.

Everybody knows that free trade and the spread of capitalism has always been a net good, not an absolute one, and if the main purpose of today’s economy is efficiency, it is naturally going to cause industrial and social disruption. In most parts of the Western world, economic transitions as well as shifts in cultural and political ideologies have resulted in upending labor markets and a degradation of what it means to be middle class. Real (inflation adjusted) wages of blue and white color workers have been stagnating over the last decade, all the while being outnumbered by increasingly expensive costs of living. Unstable, insecure, and poorly compensated employment has risen and eroded not only the stability, but the dignity of labour and the health of working communities. To put it simple, the rise of populism is a symptom rather than a cause. It is the political manifestation of public disenchantment with a system that stopped delivering for the people.

The ongoing health crisis continues to expose these systematic shortcomings, and in many cases puts them on steroids. Almost inevitably, the public now suffers the consequences of unrestrained privatizations, unchecked deregulations, and the merciless cuts to public spending. But crises always create opportunities, too. That is why the Left should use this moment, seize on the public’s awareness, increase its populist rhetoric against big business, corruption, and inequality, and make the case for the restoration of social democracy. It might be their last chance before sinking into oblivion.

Julian Mueller-Kaler is a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council where he works on strategic foresight, researches global trends, and studies the implications of emerging technologies on society and politics. He is a Fulbright Schuman Scholar and an alumnus of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

Alistair Somerville is an M.A. Candidate in German and European Studies at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and a graduate fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He is editor of The Transatlanticist and produces the podcast, The Europe Desk.

The views in these piece are solely those of the authors.

You might also enjoy this episode of The Europe Desk podcast from December 2019, in which Alistair and Julian discussed global trends with Mathew Burrows, director of the Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Sadly they didn’t predict the coronavirus…

A blog from Georgetown University European Horizons

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