Patricia Casey: 'Not all populists are extreme – they just reflect the voters'
Suppose there was a table quiz and you were asked to name four populist politicians. I guess you would say Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban. There are also populist leaders in power in Austria, in waiting in Finland and Sweden, and emerging in Spain and France.
Another was added since last week’s election in the Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian, was brought to power by a huge majority in the country’s presidential election. He is viewed as part of a wave of populist leaders emerging across the globe. So what is the defining feature of all of these political leaders, stamped as populist? Despite the myriad of articles in which the word populist is now used, it is seldom defined, so it is whatever the reader thinks it is.
In the dictionary it is defined as a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people, who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. Flann O’Brien’s descriptor, ‘The Plain People of Ireland’, would fit the populist’s electorate.
The word is frequently used since the election of Donald Trump in the US and since Brexit, both occurring in 2016. The co-occurrence of these two unexpected and momentous events had the additional effect of linking the word itself to policies that protect national borders, aka Trump’s proposal for a wall to halt immigrants, and Brexit to maintain British sovereignty respectively. Such policies are identified as “right-wing” in orientation by the commentariat.
Then when Angela Merkel opened the borders of Germany to Syrian refugees this acted as a lightning-rod to other countries worried about unregulated immigration, and this stimulated the growth of parties with immigration as the concern of their citizens. This was witnessed even in liberal havens such as Sweden and Finland. The extraordinary concatenation has created a cognitive bias that all populist parties are to the right of centre or even worse, alt-right, since protecting national borders is their goal.
And, of course, the EU has open borders for its member states. Thus political groups that wish to have some control of their borders, and to maintain distinct national identities, such as the Brexit Party and its supporters like Nigel Farage, are branded as extremists, racists and even fascists/Nazis. A group such as this will inevitably feel disenfranchised and alienated from their fellow countrymen.
Are all populist parties on the political right? Do Donald Trump and Nicolas Maduro have anything in common? Maduro is also described as a populist but coming from the extreme left of centre in Venezuelan politics. Yet he and other left-of-centre populists are seldom criticised by the media despite the obvious problems in their countries.
Magazines such as the ‘New Statesman’ or the ‘Huffington Post’ pit the opinions of populist and progressive against each other. Progressives are viewed as lofty compared with populist politicians, who are seen as pandering to current, atavistic instincts and buying votes cheaply. On the other hand, progressives are presented as looking into the distance and seeing the big picture.
One is reminded of the “basket of deplorable” image conjured up by Hillary Clinton in her view of Trump supporters during the presidential election in the US. These are the three words that likely won the election for Trump.
This caricature, of populists and progressives, fails to recognise that even mainstream parties do buy votes and that they are just as capable of capitalising on voters’ anxieties as are populists. The water charges issue is a case in point in which left-leaning parties in Ireland brought tens of thousands out on the streets in protest. The gilets jaunes in France are in the same mould. The political party that supports them will be populist.
The concatenation of populist with right-wing has led to unpleasant name-calling and shut down debate on some topics. The reaction of some recently when Peadar Tóibín, the leader of Aontú, called for a debate on controlled immigration is a case in point, and he is certainly not right-wing and he is only populist to the extent that he is building a party based on the disaffection of a large swathe of the electorate with the current elite politicians.
The perception of a privileged, elite class and a sense of disenfranchisement and alienation by a large group of citizens is the bedrock from which populist parties evolve, be they right or left-wing. But surely the way in which most new political movements have developed, whether it be the labour movement to represent workers, or Fianna Fáil to give voice to our nationalist aspirations, or the PD’s for the middle class, is from visible and sustained dissatisfaction among the public on issues that matter to them.
It is only because the media is left-leaning that it has given the trope of populism and alt-right wing to those movements that are reaching out to disaffected voters on one side of the political spectrum.
Attempts to shut down debate and to demoralise and undermine voters will not be successful as they have found their voice in people like Trump, Farage and a host of others.
By stereotyping populism as bad and elevating progressivism as superior, while stifling debate on matters that are felt to be important, the elite in Europe and the US have been hoist by their own petard. Pride may be coming before a fall.