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Understanding populism

When we point the finger at every ‘radical’ or ‘mould-breaker’ we lose our grip on what populism is and why it is dangerous, writes Megan Corton Scott.


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Populism. As a concept, it litters thought pieces around the world. In politicians, it’s been applied to Trump, Wilders and the Five Star Movement, to name but a few. Voices from across the political spectrum find they can stretch the definition of the word to fit their slightly oversized theories. Or, as Theresa May did recently with Jeremy Corbyn, they attach the label to those whose popularity or appeal they fail to understand.

This variation of use (and misuse) illustrates the fluidity of populism as a political force. Yet when we point the finger at every ‘radical’ or ‘mould-breaker’, and cry populism, we lose our grip on what populism is and why it is dangerous. Instead, we must be rigorous in the use of the term if we are to fully understand what populism is and how to curb it.

In a world turned upside down, we are right to worry about populist elements working their way into mainstream politics, but until we understand that there is a distinction between populist rhetoric and real life populism, this worry loses credibility.

So what then is populism, anyway? The most accepted and widely used definition, coined by Cas Mudde, is termed ‘ideational populism’. It is defined as a ‘thin-centered ideology’; a lens through which to view the world, rather than a vision of what the world should look like.  The populist lens views ‘the people’ as a homogenous block, with one purpose, mind and will, and pits their interests against the (also homogenous) ‘elites’. It is the vagueness of who exactly ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ are that allows populism to be used by a variety of political actors.

There is also a distinction between right and left-wing populism. John B Judis states that while left-wing populism operates ‘vertically’- an upper elite suppressing a lower demos – right wing populism can be viewed as triadic, looking upwards at the elites but also down at an ‘out group’ such as welfare claimants, minority groups and immigrant communities.

In both cases, the ‘elites’ and the ‘out group’ are viewed as homogenous groups. The simplicity of ideational populism is why it is termed ‘thin-centered’. Whilst populism may stoke anger, animosity and a demand for change, it lacks the ideological content necessary to provide answers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current Brexit negotiations. We can see populists as political parasites, feeding off ‘richer’ ideologies such as nationalism and socialism to provide the solutions to key political challenges.

The ‘thinness’ of populism is why it is easy to use, and indeed this has led to criticism of the term itself; that it has lost any real meaning. Francis Fukuyama said recently, “populism is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like”. It is true that the overwhelming majority of ‘populists’ are not self-styled – it is a label thrust upon political leaders rather than one they embrace themselves. Yet there is no denying that this is a political phenomenon of the present, far different from what has come before.

Populism is a way of framing the political debate, a simplistic world view that removes nuance and negates the ability to negotiate across political divides. Yet, beyond this, it involves a sinister lack of respect for pluralist democracy and difference of political opinion where detractors are styled as villains of ‘the people’. In this respect, populism embodies what American historian Richard Hofstader called the ‘paranoid style of politics’. Populism not only insists that there is one right way to be – and that is on the side of ‘the people’ – but also that any questioning or critique is anti-democratic.

Populists also have little time for democracy, unless democracy goes their way. This is why Jeremy Corbyn cannot be seen as a populist. He has publicly accepted the defeat of his party in the last election. He has not blamed shadowy forces, or liberal elites, or threatened to overturn the democracy that exists – even if he might prefer more proportional democratic systems. We can contrast this with Nigel Farage, who vowed to fight for a second referendum if Britain voted to remain, or with Donald Trump, who refused to commit to accepting the election results if he were to lose, and who continues to spout conspiracy theories about losing the popular vote. We see who the real populists are.

Yet, current Labour messaging does have elements of populist rhetoric. You cannot on one hand condemn Farage and Trump and, on the other, draft campaign slogans and political messages that use the same tricks.  The link between ‘fake news’ and populism is well documented, and is not simply a preserve of Infowars or Breitbart. On the UK left, we have Skwawkbox and The Canary – two examples of left-wing websites that consistently churn out opinion pieces framed as fact. Even when these websites have been debunked time and time again – and have been seen to cause real upset to people, especially certain female MPs – they are read and shared widely by many within the Labour movement.

In some senses of course, socialism is a natural partner for populism. For a thin ideology like populism, that needs two sides to pit against each other, you might say it’s tailor made; the Labour party has always been ‘the people’s party’, with the people versus the elites or, even, the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie. Moreover, in the same way that Brexit or Trump were seen as political outcomes of years of simmering anger and frustration, so too is Jeremy Corbyn. He articulates an anger with the system, with the poverty and inequity we see today. After all, it was Labour’s message of hope and change which was so popular last June, and it is this message that has Theresa May running scared. But simply because Corbyn resonates with many, it doesn’t make him a populist. To paraphrase Fukuyama, May is criticising Corbyn’s popularity, not his populism.

So, while it might be easy to point at Jeremy Corbyn, or in a similar vein Bernie Sanders, and call them populists, it is incorrect to do so. The true irony of Theresa May accusing Labour of being populist is that May herself relies on fanning the last flames of Brexit populism to keep her premiership alive. Ministers who speak out against Brexit are reprimanded and High Court judges who decide on legal processes are enemies of the people.

Yet, the fact Corbyn is not a populist does not mean there is not an increasing threat of it in the party. Years of factional infighting have formed a battle-ready loyalty to the leadership. Whilst many in the party have been proven wrong on Corbyn’s ability to lead Labour into a general election, this does not mean that those doubters should now be excluded altogether. For some, questioning Corbyn is now seen as a betrayal, and nowhere is this clearer than on Brexit – where genuine concerns over leaving the European Union are seen as factional point-scoring against a historically Eurosceptic leader. Nor does the promotion of websites like The Canary and Skwawkbox by senior Labour MPs help to promote rational debate.

Theresa May can call Jeremy Corbyn a populist all she likes, as she continues to push for a hard Brexit on a referendum victory won by populists. It will make little difference to those who genuinely believe in Corbyn’s message and the power of Labour to make a difference to people’s lives. But inside the party, those in power must make sure that debate and disagreement is still valued, that quality journalism is cherished and that respect between party members is not simply earned by unwavering loyalty.


Megan Corton Scott

Megan Corton Scott

Megan Corton Scott works on women’s rights policy for a Labour MEP and is a member of the Fabian Women’s Network national executive.


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