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Home Opinion Countering populism: Snog, Marry, Avoid?
Progressive • Populism • Democratic Stress

Countering populism: Snog, Marry, Avoid?

Tim Bale - 24 April 2013

Any progressive party that can come up with a populism of the centre could reap rich rewards

As soon as we define populism properly, it becomes apparent that it need not be the exclusive property of the far right. Because populism is as much about style as substance, the radical left is often populist too – and so are some centre-right parties. Indeed, one can argue that – for several interlocking reasons – populism is on the rise across Europe and the Americas. Unfortunately, none of the strategies normally employed to counter populism seems especially effective. This need not mean, however, that nothing can be done.

So what is populism?  What it is not is a synonym for ‘popular’ or culturally low-brow, although that is often how it is used – or rather misused – by the press.  The media, along with politicians, also routinely use the term to dismiss policies that go against their partisan preferences but which they worry will go down well with voters.

So, social democrats and their supporters will not only call moves to crack down on crime and immigration populist, they will also apply the label to tax cuts. Conservatives, Christian democrats and market liberals, on the other hand, often dismiss as populist additional spending on health and education; likewise any measures which smack of redistribution or the supposedly sovereign right of firms to minimise their tax burden.  Meanwhile, Euroscepticism is likely to be labelled populist by both sides of the mainstream.

In fact, populism has less to do with particular policies than with the nature of the appeals made by those who employ it.  At its core is a distinction drawn between ‘the people’ – long-suffering, sensible, salt of the earth – and the political (and sometimes financial) class – a self-obsessed, self-interested, nest-feathering elite which will sell them down the river every time.  Sometimes the two groups – the betrayed and the betrayers – are afforded a mythical location: ‘Middle England’, for example, or ‘La France profonde’ is set against metropolitan London or Paris or Washington.  Sometimes, the locations are even more specific – ‘the Westminster bubble’, Washington DC’s ‘Beltway’, for instance. Wall Street vs Main Street is another classic example.

Populism is often associated with an ambivalence or even antipathy to representative or party-based democracy which, it is argued, make for a damaging disconnect between electors and elected: hence populists’ enthusiasm for direct democracy – for referendums which restore the link that has apparently been lost.

Populists claim that they alone have the courage to say what everyone is ‘really’ thinking, to ‘tell it like it is’.  They, along with the people (but not mainstream politicians), put a premium on ‘common sense’ policies which cut through political correctness and bewildering complexity and which tap into hard-wired notions of belonging, of us and them, and of fairness. Populists also seem intuitively to understand that voters are often ruled as much by emotion as rationality.  As such, there is always an audience for their promise to ride to the rescue and mend a system that is somehow ‘broken’.

Populism has always been latent in politics in Europe and the Americas – and almost certainly elsewhere in the world, too.  But it does seem to be growing more manifest, whether we judge the extent of that growth by the electoral performance of populist parties on both the far right and far left, or by the willingness of mainstream politicians (particularly on the centre-right) to employ its appeals.

Rising populism has many drivers, and although austerity may have added fuel to the fire, it is important to remember that the fire had already started long before the global downturn which began five years ago.  Probably more important, in fact, is the slow switch from what political scientists call ‘position politics’ (based on a clash between classes and big ideas fought by tribal, mass parties) towards ‘valence politics’ (where parties – some historic, some new – compete to persuade the electorate that they are the more competent team of managers).  This switch, plus the fact that the world really has become more complicated and therefore old, ideological solutions less useful, means that mainstream politicians are easily portrayed as lacklustre compromisers – not least in a 24/7 media which craves colour in order to boost ratings for the political coverage that its remaining public service obligations mean it has to provide.

So how to respond?  Essentially the choice seems to come down to three options that, borrowing from the title of a British television reality show, we can sum up as ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’.

Centrist politicians often try the last of these strategies first, either changing the subject (for example, by insisting that xenophobia is actually all about the economy or housing etc.) or refusing to have anything whatsoever to do with their populist challengers, even going so far as to impose some sort of cordon sanitaire or bans on them.  The problem with this is that they are then accused of ignoring issues that the polls (and the press) suggest are very real concerns for voters.  Meanwhile, their attempt to isolate and ignore their populist competitors means they end up looking every bit as remote and conspiratorial as those competitors have always claimed.

Snogging (or French kissing as it’s called in politer circles) turns out to be no good either.  At first glance, the logic seems unimpeachable: by cosying up to their populist challengers, focusing on the concerns they focus on, and even copying (albeit in slightly diluted form) their policies, mainstream parties can claim to be in touch with the public and unafraid to tackle the big issues of day; in doing so, they are closing down the space which allowed those challengers to gain a foothold in the first place.  However, this strategy can end up simply swapping short term gain for long term pain by lending credibility and legitimacy to the populists’ charges and their platform; the system’s centre of gravity and momentum then slips away from the centre towards one or even both of the extremes.  

Marrying – inviting the populists to join you in coalition government or else to support your minority administration in votes of confidence – has so far proved rather more popular among centre-right than centre-left parties (presumably because working with the far right is less likely to impact directly on economic policy that working with the far left).  But it has considerable downsides.  Not only do you go even further in lending credibility to your populist challengers, you also find that you have to sign off on policies that you would ordinarily regard as damaging or even idiotic.  Sure, if you are lucky, you may find that your new best friends implode in office: look what happened, after all, to Jörg Haider’s FPÖ or Pim Fortuyn’s LPF. But as often as not they will learn from their mistakes, find new leaders, and come back all the stronger, either in a slightly different guise (see the Netherlands) or pretty much the same one (as in Austria).

However, before progressive politicians throw in the towel in the face of what seems like a counsel of despair, they should ask themselves whether this triptych really does exhaust all the responses on offer.  It may, for example, be possible – even, as a recent report suggests, preferable – to engage populists directly rather than emulate or run away from them.  And because populism itself isn’t by definition an appeal open only to the extremes on the left-right spectrum, it may even be possible to fight fire with fire.  Any progressive party that can come up with a populism of the centre (the place on that spectrum where most voters are located, after all) could reap rich rewards.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London

Policy Network and the Barrow Cadbury Trust recently launched a major new report on “Democratic Stress, the Populist Signal and Extremist Threat

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Tim Bale , Populism , Observatory , Progressive , Centre-left , Centre-right , Left , Right , Far-left , Far-right , Radical-left , Radical-right , Conservatives , Christian democrats , Market liberals , Euroscepticism , Europe , EU , Middle England , La France profonde , Westminster bubble , Beltway , Wall Street vs Main Street , U.S. , United States , UK , United Kingdom , France , Jörg Haider , FPÖ , Pim Fortuyn , LPF , Netherland , Austria , Extremism , Maistream ,

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