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Home Opinion Responding to the populist signal
Society • Populism • Inequality

Responding to the populist signal

Ernst Hillebrand - 13 March 2014

The growth of populist movements all over Western Europe can be understood as a political "signal" to mainstream politics, and not as a full-scale "shift to the right" in a more classical party-political understanding of politics and voter behaviour

European populism flourishes within societies which are by far the most liberal and tolerant societies on earth, far more liberal, tolerant and open than the societies of the 1950s, 1960s or even 1970s. Its voters come, by any economic and sociological criteria, from the midst of these societies. Their everyday culture and values are quite liberal, hedonistic and non-authoritarian. They are – just like the rest of our societies – deeply consumerist in a Baumanian sense. Even worse, because of the reluctance of parts of the multiculturalist left to speak out loudly and clearly in the defence of core values of these liberal and hedonistic societies against religious obscurantism and intolerance, these movements – like Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands and the Front National in France – have been able to open up new political spaces, trying to present themselves as the true defendants of western liberal values against challenges emanating from “imported” religious fanaticism and pre-modern cultural norms and patterns.

In a bitter irony, they pretend to defend the societies created by the sexual and hedonistic revolt of the leftist 68-generation against new threats and challenges and the political and moral amnesia of its former protagonists.

What set off the populist signal?

From a centre-left perspective, I would argue that the populist signal points to three major shifts in centre-left mainstream politics and policies in the last decades:

First of all, it points to the growing social and economic divide within our societies. Inequality is on the rise everywhere, the Gini-Index has been rising constantly, wages are stagnating or rising very slowly, the low pay sector is growing, labour regulations have been liberalised, creating large sectors of precarious employment situations, unemployment is unreasonably high, compared to the standards of the whole 20th century. At the same time, additional pressure on the labour market is created by national and European politics of immigration and open borders. David Goodhart has quite rightly pointed out the socio-economic ambiguities of these processes in The British Dream.

Secondly, it reflects the fact that parts of the traditional electorate have been estranged from centre-left political forces (including the trade union movement) due to the ideological change that these movements underwent since the 1970s. After 1968, former centre-left “workers’ parties” have gradually muted into liberal parties of the left. Because this reformist liberal left proved to be largely unable to deliver much in the field of socio-economic justice and a fairer distribution of wealth and income, it concentrated on the battle ground of socio-cultural reforms, where it could execute a newly defined liberal ”progressive“ agenda of multiculturalism and anti-discrimination without having to disturb the established socio-economic order too much.

I do very much agree in this respect with the writings of Jonathan Haidt, arguing that the moral base on which the current political left (or liberals) operates has changed and narrowed over the last decades, becoming increasingly disconnected from the moral and cultural values of a considerable part of blue collar workers in Western societies (“settlers“).

Thirdly, it is a signal of the social and cultural dis-embedding of the mainstream left from blue collar working class and lower middle class environments. Centre-left parties are increasingly dominated by academic middle class groups and state employees. This social alienation has a deep effect on the way the leading groups of these parties see and treat their former core constituencies and their interests. It was Richard Sennett, who spoke some years ago in an interview on the “class contempt“ with which New Labour treated traditional constituencies whose ambition, as Sennett described it, was simply to preserve the world they were accustomed to and had learned to cope with. You will easily find the same “class contempt“ for ordinary people with ENA-trained French Socialists as with German Social Democrats of the ”Neue Mitte“ School.

What should be done?

So, in sum, the rise of populism is a signal to shine light on the deep feeling of alienation of a significant part of the population from mainstream political forces, who feel they have been let down economically and disrespected culturally.

What should centre-left and progressive political forces do to re-establish a link to these citizens? Any attempt of reconnection would have to contain a very strong symbolic element – I would call it the “politics of recognition.” But in the end, it has to be about giving people back a real sense of agency over their lives and the world they live in. It is about empowerment in an economic as well as in a political sense. While I have written more extensively elsewhere on my vision of a “society of empowered citizens”, I will concentrate here on three major elements that are central to any effort to reconnect:

1. Politically, we have to overcome the current state of “low intensity democracy” by strengthening participatory and direct democracy deploying referenda at multiple levels of governance. Strong decentralisation as well as strict respect of the principle of subsidiarity in the construction of the multi-layered system of the European Union is necessary. One of the main reasons for the rise of populism seems to be the feeling of not being sufficiently represented in the “post-democratic” political system and the dominant media. The only way out is to give people a stronger say in the political decision-making process itself.

2. In the socio-economic sphere, we will have to struggle for a strengthening of the negotiating position of labour; this implies “re-regulating” labour market reforms as well as a strengthening of trade union rights. The aim has to be to correct the redistributional dynamics of the last forty years, which saw a large-scale redistribution of income from labour to capital. A new distribution of the fiscal burden is necessary, taxing capital and gains from financial operations much more efficiently. Finally, an increase of co-determination rights within the enterprises would signify a clear move to recognise the role of workers and employees as key stake holders in the economy, whose individual fate is much more connected to the performance of the firms they work with than that of your average hedge-fund manager who happens to own it for the moment.

3. Culturally, we need to create a stronger a sense of belonging and identity among alienated citizens with a politics of recognition based around their moral and cultural values. This implies, as Anthony Painter points out, a strengthening of local identities, which could be used to build social bridging capital within a citizenry marked by unprecedented economic, cultural, religious and ethnic cleavages. But this would also have to encompass a revision of the multiculturalist relativism of past decades, which is at odds with some very basic moral values of ordinary people who subconsciously expect newcomers to respect the values and norms of the host society.

However, I don’t want to end leaving the impression that the rise of populism concerns only the left. Of course it doesn’t and in that sense it reflects a broader divide between increasingly liberal elites and ordinary citizens. Populace-bashing is the flavour of the day not only in liberal, but also in traditional right wing and neoliberal circles. It seems to be more about class than about parties. Mainstream intellectual life and media on both sides of the traditional left-right divide is rife with contempt for the ignorant masses, which show a certain stubbornness in defending their own version of a decent society against the incantation to relentless change and unconditional openness. Unfortunately, people are using the populists to send a signal that they are fed up with this.


Ernst Hillebrand is head of the department for International Policy Analysis, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Berlin

This text expresses only the personal opinion of the author and does not engage the institution he works for.

This is a contribution to the Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Trust project on ‘Understanding the Populist Signal'.

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

Tags: Ernst Hillebrand , Opinion , Neo-liberalism , Selfish , Individualism , Responsibility , Consumerism , Hedonism , Society , Community , Liberal , Liberalism , Welfare , Citizens , Law , Morality , Citizenship , Civic Duty , Capitalism ,

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