The Populist Challenge

Gabriela Baghdady, Editor, Foreign Affairs Review

“The time of the nation has come.”[i] These are the words of Marine Le Pen, former French presidential candidate, president of the National Rally party in France, and alleged “populist.”  Populism is the international phenomenon that has been sweeping European countries for last decade, prompting a flood of analyses from leading political thinkers. As political scholarship grapples to reach a consensus on populism, populist leaders continue to fight for dominance in European governments. The recent surge of populist movements across Europe has not only transformed mainstream politics but has also posed a challenge to liberal democratic norms, mainly through fostering antipluralism and a rejection of important aspects of democracy.

Is populism an ideology, style, theory, or something else entirely? This has been widely debated among academics. However, analyses have recognized several commonalities in how populists present themselves and their ideas. First, populists usually identify a dichotomy between a “people” and an adversary, usually political and economic elites. In speeches, they rail against the elites for their suppression of the “real” people of the nation. In contrast, the populist often portrays himself or herself as the sole representative of the will of the people and promises dramatic changes to the status quo.[ii] They manufacture a morally charged and inherently exclusionary distinction between a “good” citizenry and an “evil” elite in power, portraying themselves as the hero. However, this hero is often not intent on “saving” every person within a given country—populists have been known to target a certain national or social class that they claim to represent.

In Europe, populists have appeared on both the right and left of the political spectrum. The French National Rally (right-wing) and Podemos in Spain (left-wing) are just two examples. While the policies of these parties are clearly divergent, there are elements of populist rhetoric and tactics found in both. The National Rally (led by Marine Le Pen), has attacked several perceived threats of the French people, including globalism, Muslim immigrants and Islam in general, and the European Union. Le Pen and her party have worked to revive French patriotism and Le Pen portrayed herself as a “candidate of the people” in her presidential campaign.[iii] Left populists like Podemos, though overtly nationalist, have made similar claims about a “people” and advocated for a greater focus on the “nation.” In Spain, the charismatic Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has rallied Spaniards against the corrupt government elites and in favor of rescuing an impoverished middle class, advocating for more economic sovereignty.[iv] While characteristics and ideas vary by leader and across the political spectrum, there are key commonalities: a portrayal of the populist as a champion of a “people” and a rejection of elites and the status quo.

A burning question remains: what does populism mean for democracy? In a number of ways, populism is challenging and even damaging democracy already. Antipluralist rhetoric has fostered a nationalism that has begun to manifest into xenophobia and a rejection of other cultures in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and other European countries. This poses a threat to civil liberties of immigrants in Europe—liberties that democracy is meant to protect—and far-right populism specifically plays a role. Furthermore, populism also poses a threat to the political party system within many European democracies.[v] The tendency of populists to make distinctions between what is “good” and “evil” creates what Jan Werner Müller calls a “moralization of politics.”[vi] An outright portrayal of political opponents as morally “bad,” coupled with populists’ claim that they are the sole representation of the people, rejects the mediation and compromise that is a cornerstone of party democracy. Additionally, some populists have directed attacks against democratic institutions, including global/internationalist institutions, the media, and the free market. Therefore, while the long-term implications of populism are not well-known, it is possible that populist leaders can have a transformative impact on mainstream European politics for much of the foreseeable future, and could possibly become a “new normal” if strong enough.

There are some reasons to believe, however, that populism has the capacity to strengthen democracy. Populists may be able to bring greater awareness to certain issues for an underrepresented population. The potential populist threat to democracy may also motivate politicians to fight more strongly for democratic values and norms. If not, rampant antipluralism and a negative attitude toward the political status quo may erode representative democracy as it exists today.

 

 

 

[i] Peterson, Matt. “2016: The Year in Quotes.” The Atlantic,www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/12/ranked-the-year-in-world-leader-quotes/511421/. Accessed 23 November 2019.

[ii] Mudde, Cas and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2017.

[iii] Nossiter, Adam. “Marine Le Pen Echoes Trump’s Bleak Populism in French Campaign Kickoff.” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/05/world/europe/marine-le-pen-trump-populism-france-election.html. Accessed 13 November 2019.

[iv] Iglesias, Pablo. “Understanding Podemos.” New Left Review, May-Jun. 2015, pg. 7-22.

[v] Urbinati, Nadia. Introduction. Me the People, Harvard University Press, 2019, pp. 1-39.

[vi] Müller, Jan Verner. What is Populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

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