03 Nov ARTICLE | We the People: the charms and contradictions of populism
John Keane, University of Sydney; Benjamin Moffitt, Stockholm University; Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Diego Portales University; Jan Zielonka, University of Oxford; Takashi Inoguchi, University of Niigata Prefecture; Thamy Pogrebinschi, Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB); Ulrike Guérot, Danube University Krems; Wolfgang Merkel, Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB), Yu Keping, Peking University; Stephen Coleman, University of Leeds; Mark Chou, Australian Catholic University; Adele Webb, University of Sydney; James Loxton, University of Sydney; Christine Milne, University of Sydney; Henrik Bang, University of Canberra; Laurence Whitehead, University of Oxford; Jan-Werner Müller, Princeton University and Nicholas Rowley, University of Sydney.
These comments on the topical subject of populism have been gathered by the University of Sydney’s Sydney Democracy Network and its Democracy Futures team. SDN is a global network of researchers, journalists, activists, policy makers and citizens concerned with the future of democracy. The comments form part of a longer series on populism on The Conversation.
Populism is everywhere on the rise. Why is this happening? Why are the peddlers of populism proving so popular? Are there deep forces driving the spread of their style of politics, and what, if anything, has populism to do with democracy? Is populism democracy’s essence, as some maintain?
Is the new populism therefore to be welcomed, harnessed and “mainstreamed” in support of more democracy? Or is populism on balance politically dangerous, a cultish recipe for damaging democracy by bringing to life what George Orwell termed the “smelly little orthodoxies” that feed demagogy, big business and bossy power?
As American voters consider whether to vote for Donald Trump, and Filipino citizens live with the fall-out of Rodrigo Duterte’s populist rhetoric, scholars from the United States to Britain, China, Brazil and Australia analyse the phenomena behind populism’s ascent in 2016.
John Keane, University of Sydney
Ancient Greeks knew democracy could be snuffed out by rich and powerful aristoi backed by demagogues ruling the people in their own name. They even had a verb (now obsolete) for describing how people are ruled while seeming to rule. They called it dēmokrateo. It’s the word we need for making sense of the contradiction that cuts through contemporary populism.
Populism is a democratic phenomenon. Mobilised through available democratic freedoms, it’s a public protest by millions of people (the demos) who feel annoyed, powerless, no longer “held” in the arms of society.
The analyst D W Winnicott used the term to warn that people who feel dropped strike back. That’s the populist moment when humiliated people lash out in support of demagogues promising them dignity. They do so not because they “naturally” crave leaders, or yield to the inherited “fascism in us all”.
Populism attracts people because it raises their expectations of betterment. But there’s a price. In exchange for promises of popular sovereignty, populism easily mass produces figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
And in contrast to the 19th-century populist politics of enfranchisement, today’s populism has exclusionary effects. The dēmokrateo of it all isn’t stoppable by anodyne calls for “dialogue”, or false hopes populism will somehow burn itself out. What’s needed is something more radically democratic: a new politics of equitable redistribution of power, wealth and life chances that shows populism to be a form of counterfeit democracy.
Once upon a time, such political redistribution was called “democracy”, or “welfare state”, or “socialism”.
Benjamin Moffitt, Stockholm University
If there’s one thing we need to do in response to populism’s triumphant return to the global political landscape, it is this: stop shaking our heads and feigning shock. Media pundits, mainstream parties, pollsters and experts of various stripes are continually dazed by populists’ success – think Donald Trump, Brexit, Pauline Hanson, Rodrigo Duterte – but these are not weird one-offs: these events are happening across the globe.
Erik De Castro/Reuters
Why now? There are at least five central factors. “The elite” is on the nose, for good reason, in many parts of the world. The shifting media landscape favours the simple, headline-grabbing, dramatic message of populists. Populist actors have become increasingly savvy and increased their appeal over the past decade. Populists have seized the crisis-ridden moment, and have been remarkably successful at not only reacting to crises, but actively aiming to bring about and perpetuate a sense of crisis. Finally, populists have been very effective at exposing the deficiencies of contemporary democratic systems across the globe.
So let’s drop the surprise, the shaking of heads in disbelief, the paralysis brought on by continually asking ourselves “how can this be?” It’s now time to acknowledge that populism is a central part of contemporary politics.
Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Diego Portales University
Whether we like it or not, populists around the world are posing legitimate questions about the state of democracy. Many citizens feel betrayed by mainstream political forces. To a great extent, this can be explained by the growing influence of unelected bodies.
Although elected leaders can take important decisions, their room for manoeuvre is increasingly limited by unelected institutions, which in theory are autonomous and contribute to the provision of public goods. However, nothing precludes that unelected bodies run amok or side with powerful minorities.
Consider the way the US Supreme Court has intensified the role of money in politics, or the failure of the European Union to force the financial sector to pay its fair share of the costs of the recession.
Populists are real experts in politicising these and other issues ignored by the political establishment. This is why policy makers and scholars need to avoid falling into the populist trap: portraying themselves as the good and smart fighters against bad and stupid populists. The best way of dealing with populists is to engage them in honest dialogue and to propose solutions to the problems they seek to politicise.
Jan Zielonka, University of Oxford
Ruling elites in the Western world have recently identified a convenient scapegoat explaining all their failures: they call it populism.
The future of America, Europe or Australia, they say, would be bright if not for a bunch of populists destroying all the good work done by (neo-)liberals. These distasteful populists propose simple solutions to complicated problems. They use moralistic rhetoric, make unrealistic promises and launch unfair personal attacks on their opponents. They demonise the elite and idealise ordinary people, setting the latter against the former. Populists manipulate the confused and uninformed electorate. They make it difficult for the elite to govern in a rational and effective manner.
The story is too devious to be true. There’s nothing wrong with simple solutions if they are just, efficient, and based on democratic procedures. Moralistic rhetoric is used by the ruling elite itself on a daily basis: remember the “axis of evil” on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion?
Smearing opponents and making empty promises are the daily bread and butter of mainstream politicians. And what is wrong with implementing the will of the people? Aren’t elections a means of defining citizens’ preferred policies, and not just a beauty contest of politicians? Mainstream elites, centre-left and centre-right today presume that government is a kind of enlightened administration on behalf of an ignorant public. Yet their political practices betray their proclaimed liberal ideals: they tolerate rampant inequality, spy on citizens, torture prisoners, and invade other countries.
The borders between democracy and autocracy, civility and barbarity have become blurred. No wonder voters are searching for alternatives. Ruling elites should look at themselves in the mirror before blaming others.
Takashi Inoguchi, University of Niigata Prefecture
John Maynard Keynes’ Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930) speculated that in one hundred years productivity would so increase by leaps and bounds that most of humanity would no longer need to work. The economic problem of how to produce and allocate goods and services, and how to distribute money, would cease to exist. Economics would lose its raison d’être.
Although, as Keynes predicted, productivity has risen, economic policy has obviously not reduced the need for work, or consumption. Understandably, American political economists came to argue that recent employment growth and per capita income increases would explain more or less which US presidential election candidate would win. No more!
What we witness today is not the end of economic policy but the beginning of populism. People the world over are now allured by the folksy slogans of populism, which raises the question: why didn’t Keynes imagine the thriving of populism after the death of economics?
Thamy Pogrebinschi, Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB)
The concept of populism is highly contestable, but clarifying the difference between its left-wing and right-wing variants is both the best and the worst starting point for making sense of its contours.
Populism is not an ideology. Yet populism of the left and populism of the right produce different sets of ideas, identities and effects. Populism can be so politically empty that it joins forces with ideologies as different as socialism and nationalism. Populist discourses can thus favour exclusion, or inclusion.
The experiences of Latin America and Europe illustrate this difference well. In Latin America, populism has tried to include workers and middle class citizens socially dislocated by capitalism. In contemporary Europe, populism is attempting to exclude people dislocated by wars, and by capitalism in different parts of the world.
In both cases, however, the appeal to popular sovereignty exposes the deep tension between democracy and capitalism. We should therefore care less about definitions, and ask the real question: is representative democracy now so overshadowed by capitalism that it is no longer able to make room for the popular sovereignty upon which it was founded?
Ulrike Guérot, Danube University Krems
Two hundred words on populism are barely sufficient to point out that a century ago, before populism became a swear word mostly directed at right-wing parties such as the Alternative for Germany, Hungary’s Fides and the Front National in France, populism was the pride of social democracy.
The “classes populaires” were important for left-wing leaders such as Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum and Jules Ferry. These were men who cared for the people, especially exploited workers; they wanted to improve their lives. Caring was their key word.
Today, nobody seems to care for people. The European losers in today’s globalisation, people living, and failing, mostly in devastated rural areas, are mainly left to themselves. If they fail, due to lack of education and life chances, they’re told they are living in free societies, where everybody has the potential to succeed.
Hatred for democracy stems from the fact that opportunity remains a fiction for many people. Hence Étienne Balibar’s warning: since there’s no such thing as freedom without equality, the right to rebel and change a political order is a human right, especially when “equaliberty” and dignity are quashed. Populists know this.
Wolfgang Merkel, Humboldt University
From a normative standpoint, things are clear: cosmopolitans who uphold equality, global justice, ethno-religious tolerance and human rights cannot accept right-wing populism. Nationalism, chauvinism, ethno-religious intolerance are incommensurable with the values of an open and tolerant society.
Things are less clear when we try to explain the rise of right-wing populist parties. People who belong to the enlightened, cosmopolitan, middle and upper classes often argue that right-wing populism is the result of a demagoguery that is especially attractive to uneducated people from the lower classes. This explanation is not just inadequate; it bespeaks arrogant ignorance.
Right-wing populism in Europe has three causes: a general discontent with European integration; economic exclusion; and disaffection and fear of a large influx of migrants and refugees. Large swathes of the lower middle class complain of their exclusion from public discourse. The neo-liberal version of globalisation and the general failure of the moderate left to address the distributive question have created feelings of impotence and marginalisation among the lower classes.
Right-wing populism is thus a rebellion of the disenfranchised. The establishment parties have arguably committed serious political errors. It’s high time that they leave their fortress of normative arrogance and grant a democratic voice to the non-represented. If they fail to do so, right-wing populists will transform our democracies: they will become more parochial, intolerant and polarised.
Yu Keping, Peking University
Both the Chinese government and Chinese intellectuals are acutely aware of the phenomenon of populism, which last flourished here during the Cultural Revolution. In 1996, I urged Chinese policy makers to prevent populism, which always tends towards extreme forms of plebeianism. Plebeian standards are seen as the ultimate source of legitimacy of all social and political dynamics.
In its opposition to elitism, populism ignores, or radically negates, the vital role played by political elites in processes of social and political change and historical development. Populism instead advocates radical reforms, and deems ordinary people the only decisive force capable of promoting these reforms. The hopes, needs and emotions of the people are the origin and destiny of its concerns. By affirming their spirit and capacity for innovation, populism has a positive implication: it teaches us to pay attention to the historical role played by people.
But populism has its limits. Not only does it ignore the role played by elites in making historical progress, by emphasising the need for mobilising the general population, it also calls for absolute obedience to the passions and will of the people. That is why populism often manages to manipulate and control people in highly centralised ways. Populism can thus easily lead to autocracy, and to anarchy.
Stephen Coleman, University of Leeds
The problem of contemporary democracies is not that citizens trust politicians less than they did in the past, but that leaders’ attempts to make themselves appear accountable have become increasingly implausible. Their scripts are stale, their gestures ritualistic, their evasions transparent, their artlessness palpable. Enter Donald Trump: so unbalanced in his affair with political form that he permanently teeters between a mesmerising dance of solipsistic decadence and staggering off the stage. Following a long line of populist form-busters from Silvio Berlusconi to Viktor Orbán, Trump performs as if he had just seen Peter Handke’s 1960s production Offending the Audience, and concluded that every previous performance had misunderstood what audiences were for. Handke said that he aimed to do “something onstage against the stage, using the theatre to protest against the theatre of the moment”. This is precisely what Trump does well; he uses the political stage to denounce the political stage. He enters the temple, but only to blow away its walls. Here lies the lesson for democratic politics. Just as obsolete forms atrophy slowly, lingering until the last drop of affective vitality evaporates, so new political forms often emerge as pre-figurative contortions, only discernible through the trace lines of oddity. Trump might not be the New Normal, but neither can his performance be dismissed as the Old Crazy. He is a spectre of things to come: of political performance in an age of projection rather than representation.
Mark Chou, Australian Catholic University
At first glance, Trump’s presidential persona and appeal aren’t hard to place. A populist anti-politician, Trump is a Washington outsider who swears and hurls insults at the “enemies” of predominantly white, male, working-class America. He entertains even as he reassures a fearful and angry demographic who’ve lost out to globalisation, low-wage immigrant labour, and free trade. His named enemies help his supporters to see him as their saviour. But for a man who couldn’t be more different from the people he claims to champion, it’s beyond puzzling how so many of his supporters have come to see in “the say-anything billionaire an image of their aspirations” (George Packer). To the baffled, I say this: don’t discount Trump’s theatrics. Intellectuals may have knocked his reality television credentials as a distraction, but it’s his bombast and stage presence that offer an insight into his popular appeal. Here, theatre buffs may have detected in Trump and his campaign some semblance of melodrama, a theatrical genre known for its overly dramatic portrayals of good and evil, where moral and political discrepancies are hyperbolised for emotional impact. The name he’s given this populist melodrama is “Make America Great Again”. So far, it’s been about building the wall, keeping Muslims out, demonising China, provoking IS, and championing the rights of “everyday” Americans. But here’s the thing: however popular and provocative Trump’s show has been in 2016, it’s no more real than any of his previous reality productions.
Marine Le Pen singing La Marseillaise, Paris, 19 November 2011.
Adele Webb, University of Sydney
The flipside of the populism coin is voter ambivalence with “democracy” as we know it. Populist candidates often derive great appeal because voters are unconcerned by, and perhaps even attracted to, claims by candidates that they will circumvent or completely override democratic processes. If such candidates pose a potential threat to democracy, aren’t their supporters and their ambivalence towards “democracy” also its gravest transgressors? Think of the way Trump supporters, Brexit “leave” voters, Pauline Hanson’s followers, not to mention the many middle class Filipinos who voted for the seemingly crude cowboy Rodrigo Duterte, have been portrayed through media and within the discourse of intellectuals. The point that is missed in these treatments is that democracy is always “on the move”. The deep tension between the tendency of an oligarchy to concentrate wealth and the desire to redistribute political power ensures democracies are always on a journey towards a destination they never reach. This is the genius of democracy. But we are now reaching the end of a long century when “democracy” was fixed in a particular constellation of institutions and procedures. Not only has this turned “democracy” into a legitimating discourse for practices of power that actually undermine democracy, but the expectation that “the people” will respond to excesses of wealth and power has also disappeared. Democratic ambivalence, as registered in the appeal of populist candidates from the US, to Europe, the Philippines and elsewhere, is thus a warning sign from “the people” that the current system of democratic governance needs recalibrating.
James Loxton, University of Sydney
Few regions in the world have as much experience with populism as Latin America. From Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s, to Alberto Fujimori in Peru in the 1990s, to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in the 2000s, the region has experienced wave after wave of outsiders who mobilised poor voters against the entire political and/or economic establishment. What effects have they had on democracy in Latin America? They have been mixed. On the one hand, populists have helped to incorporate previously marginalised groups, such as the working class in Argentina or the informal sectors in Peru and Venezuela, into the political system. On the other hand, populists have often used their power, and the anti-system mandates they received from voters, to undermine checks and balances, and to tilt the playing field in their favour. The result has been what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call “competitive authoritarianism”: regimes characterised by regular but unfair elections. These regimes have provided material and symbolic benefits to their supporters, but they have simultaneously skewed the playing field against their opponents to such a degree that they ceased to be democracies.
Henrik Bang, University of Canberra
Today, popular democracy’s true enemy is not Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Beata Szydło and Viktor Orbán, but the mainstream mix of neo-liberalism and populism. A new ruling cartel of parties is emerging. It endorses neo-liberal austerity and reform measures combined with populist exceptionalism and border controls. Democracy is reduced to strong and decisive leadership, nudging individuals to adjust to the “necessary” economic policies and moulding energetic and obedient people from the clay of a rigged system. Politics after Brexit features the end of popular democracy as a constitutive part of representative democracy. Some politicians, like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Uffe Elbaek and Pablo Iglesias, realise the dangers and are trying to stem the anti-popular tide ignited by the neoliberalism/populism dynamic. But their attempts to reconnect elite democracy with popular democracy are simply dismissed by mainstream media as anti-parliamentarian populism. This successfully frames the difference between liberalism and populism as society’s new core dichotomy. In these new circumstances, people must connect and reclaim democracy. They must prevent leaders from making themselves the masters of disciplined, reflexive individuals and homogenised ignorant masses. People need to show them what the self-governance of active citizens implies for identifying and solving our common concerns.
Christine Milne, University of Sydney
Two convergent trends are making populism a potent negative force. First, democracies have morphed into unrepresentative plutocracies that lead growing numbers of people to feel shut out and voiceless. Knowing their children will become even worse off, citizens are ready to follow someone who speaks for them. Those who stick it into the elites make things simple, lay blame and are willing to overthrow the status quo. A second trend favours success for Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Xenophon and Hanson populists. Media have undergone such a revolution that their business model is now based on social media and clicks, not facts. Clicks depend on theatrical performance, stunts, celebrity, entertainment and conflict. The combination of clicks with filter bubbles, or algorithms imposed by vertically integrated digital platforms, produces serious distortion. Truth and facts now mean what the populist chooses them to mean. Their meaning becomes self-reinforcing as like-minded groups who receive them are never exposed to opposing views. Those “facts” become the competing views of rival tribes, and they vote accordingly. Overcoming populism requires giving people a voice with proportional representation and rejecting neo-liberal economics and plutocracy. But it also requires factual, public interest journalism. We need to find ways of giving facts and evidence a common meaning, of restoring respect for them as the basis of national conversations and getting rid of the filter bubbles that create self-selecting online tribes.
Laurence Whitehead, University of Oxford
Why has “populism” become a recent term of abuse? Well, it can be a cover for chauvinism, xenophobia, and discrimination against minorities, especially when the focus is on immigration. But too many comfortably placed liberals and cosmopolitans have deployed these labels as a substitute for social solidarity, disrespecting their co-nationals and wrapping themselves in an abstract universalism sheltered from the messy social realities around them. “Populism” can be used as a code word for economic illiteracy, foreshortened time horizons, a denial of basic social arithmetic, and an unwillingness to grapple with the complex policy choices that experts can advise on. But then, many economic experts have been captured by establishment groupthink, or pursued hidden agendas, or have claimed more authority than their knowledge would justify. Or these experts have simply let us all down on such matters as financial deregulation, the realities of trade deals, or the dynamics of growing inequality. Such so-called expertise should meet the tests of open debate, and public monitoring. No doubt “the people” are often inattentive, sometimes misled, and all too easily frightened. But ordinary voters are not necessarily more stupid, or more misguided, than those who seek to rule over them. What voters need are not more sound bites, but more respectful engagement and genuine dialogue. Obviously, populism takes many forms, and comes in many shades. Although some of its tones are darker, others can be hopeful, and even emancipatory. That’s why its use as an undifferentiated term of abuse should be resisted. Who is doing the labelling? Ask first who is denouncing “populism”, then why they should be trusted to know better than the unwashed masses. Critics of populism only deserve a hearing if they themselves show they know how to listen, as well as to condemn.
Jan-Werner Müller, Princeton University *
In Austria, where a presidential election is soon happening, it is often misleadingly suggested that there are growing numbers of populist, or “anti-establishment”, voters on both sides of this conflict, and hence they must share crucial political or moral characteristics. But only one side denies the pluralism of contemporary societies altogether. Only right-wing populists claim that they alone represent what they call “the real people” or “the silent majority”. As a consequence, the defenders of openness and increasing pluralism must somehow be illegitimate. Norbert Hofer confronted Alexander Van der Bellen with the statement that “you have the haute-volée [high society], I have the people behind me”. Farage declared the outcome of the Brexit referendum a “victory for real people” (thus rendering the 48 percent who voted to stay in the EU somehow “unreal”). Donald Trump has said so many offensive things over the course of the past year that one remark at a rally in May 2016 passed virtually unnoticed, even though it effectively revealed the populism at the heart of Trump’s worldview. “The only thing that matters”, he said, “is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything”.
* A revised excerpt from the New York Review of Books, with permission.
Nicholas Rowley, University of Sydney
Performance and “feeding” the media have long been skills required by those aspiring to derive authority from the people. The Romans knew how to put on a show; Goebbels and Speer were masters of the backdrop; and John Kennedy ensured Jacques Lowe had photographs of every sailing trip off Cape Cod. All were vital ways for political actors to become “popular”. Today, by contrast, there is no need for circuses, flags, Nuremburg rallies or gifted photographers. Contemporary populism is a machine with a new and potent fuel: a social media able to communicate constant, concise, simple opinions and solutions to millions in seconds. Populism is thought to be synonymous with Le Pen, Duterte, Wilders, Farage, Hanson and Trump and other right-wing nationalists. Yet populism is not defined by what it aims to achieve. Think of Jeremy Corbyn, a leader who left a parliamentary meeting of all Labour MPs articulating their concerns, to speak to an adoring crowd. Populism is more than a politics focused on simplicity and packaging over content. It scorns elites and experts. It supposes that the purpose of politics is to act on the will of the people, and it proposes simple solutions to complex problems that require serious and effective policy responses. For populists, sadly, politics equals compromise, defeat and betrayal.