‘Populism’. Perhaps many of us are simply more than a little sick and tired of the phrase by now, reminded as we are on a daily basis of the potentially toxic combination of xenophobia, climate-denial and social media. But if we are to ever stop reading about populism, perhaps we need to devote time to going beyond mere frustration and dismissal of the phenomenon. Associating populism with a seismic shift in Western politics or simply as a dangerous blip in history that will soon be defeated may not be the best option to understand what is going on. Rather than a populist wave built on a coherent unified ideology, reality appears more nuanced but invariably associated with opportunistic politics.
Just take the issue of market regulation as a case study. Britain’s Nigel Farage, a former commodities trader, favours large-scale deregulation, ostensibly as part of his effort to bring about an outward-looking, ‘Global Britain’. France’s Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, promotes a distinctly protectionist economic policy whilst strongly opposing moves to privatise the extensive French welfare system or other public services. However, these two prominent politicians share something in common with each other and their counterparts across the West: they claim to speak for the voiceless, the forgotten, the trampled-upon – as opposed to the elites, the privileged, the powerful, the ruling class, the establishment. Call them what you will.
Populists will also likely tell you that their primary aim is to restore power to the masses and reverse a gradual, irreversible decline of society into corruption. Together with ‘corruption’, you can throw other terms in the mix, such as cosmopolitanism, liberalism, multiculturalism, transnationalism, globalism, oligarchy and so on, depending on who you’re speaking to. These are powerful sentiments, and tend to be something of a reaction against the supposed individualism of our age – that core postmodern idea that class, ethnicity, nationality, religion and other identity markers no longer hold much weight on our perspectives and choices. Perhaps this marks a return to more communitarian (not to be confused with communist), collective social and political movements. Many people appear to be embracing the concepts of nationhood and national identity, long derided as simplistic concepts by ‘elites’. The pace of global change, felt at every level of society and across rural and urban areas alike, is no longer accepted – if it ever really was – as a positive, a necessary precondition for economic, and hence social, prosperity.
Central here is the assertion that existing democratic institutions have failed to deliver positive change for ‘the people’. Willingly isolated in their ivory towers, in the often distant capital cities, it is to wealthy donors that representatives turn and not the citizens they were elected to represent. The result is a kind of perverse political ecosystem that operates solely for the 1%. To this distinction we can again add ‘metropolitan elites’, ‘globalists’ and so on. Perhaps we take it as a given for our political systems – the inescapable flaw of representative democracy. Yet populist politicians often proclaim to embody ‘the people’, operating as other parties do through parliamentary institutions and thereby frustrating the efforts of the ‘establishment’ figureheads and challenging them on the floor of the chamber. This, of course, makes for some great cameo opportunities in the age of social media – as was on full view during a recent visit I paid to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
What is wrong with shaking up the establishment a little? Is it right for the same old faces to dominate the political life of a country for decades on end? Can’t populist politicians, truly in touch with the concerns of their electors, make a positive impact within representative institutions? Undoubtedly they can. At the heart of a populist vote – be it Brexit, the 2016 U.S. election or the 2018 Mexican presidential election – unpalatable as it may be to some, there is a definite desire by voters to see power and respect returned to voters’ communities: the ability for ordinary people to walk out of their door and feel some pride, that their vote mattered. This of course ties in with a broader desire for renewal, or even simply a return in some ways to the past, driven by voter frustration at the pace of seemingly uncontrolled change in their immediate, local contexts. This is certainly a feeling that anyone who’s lived in Malta for a while can empathise with, at least in theory; just consider the rate of seemingly uncontrolled urbanisation and construction that has accompanied almost unprecedented economic growth. Local culture also comes into play; consider the hostility shown in many parts of Europe to irregular migrants – a large proportion of them being refugees fleeing from war-torn, impoverished regions of the globe.
However, whilst it may be easy for heartfelt personal convictions on matters such as refugee rights to lead you to dismiss the very notion of populism, I believe we need to dig a little deeper, even if we find many of the sentiments associated with it offensive to our world views. Consider Brexit for a moment. The adamance of a majority of Leave voters that Britain’s departure should go ahead irrespective of the risk of incurring significant economic damage is almost solely emotional. Behind that emotion lie mantras such as ‘take back control’ and ‘the people have voted and cannot be betrayed’. To back down – to ‘remain’ – would be humiliating and implicitly reject the notion of the traditional resilience and ingenuity of Britain, accepting defeat. What would it say about Britons themselves? The ‘Leaver’ perception of the European Union and its institutions as decidedly bureaucratic, oligarchic – authoritarian even – has only been exacerbated by the shambolic exit negotiations (for which most of the blame rests with the Tory government). But will restoring all authority to Westminster in the event of a no-deal exit really solve the problem of control? The United Kingdom, despite the creation of devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (though the latter has been dysfunctional for some years now), remains a thoroughly centralised state. This centralisation has consequences; indeed, the UK boasts Europe’s most regionally unbalanced economy. Research and development and direct foreign investment are concentrated in the southeast, and London in particular whilst vast tracts of the country suffer from a chronic lack of expenditure on public services and infrastructure. Many areas have yet to recover from the decline of industries such as mining, steelworking and shipbuilding in the 1970s and 1980s, so it is quite understandable why change is often associated with theft and degradation. It is also understandable how these frustrations are channelled towards the European Union, towards Brussels, towards those seemingly distant and unrepresentative office blocks where they issue proclamations in ‘foreign languages’; and supposedly plot to burden kipper manufacturers with cumbersome plastic ice pillows.
Policy shifts such as changes to national industrial and innovation strategies and so forth are critical in altering the painful regional disparities and inequalities which drove, in part, the vote for Brexit. However, central government can only do so much. If we are looking for solutions to a historic impasse, it makes sense to look beyond Westminster, beyond simple ‘remain and reform’ arguments from UK ‘remainers’. Change must come to solve these deep-rooted and very real problems: to be sustainable, innovative ideas must be combined with a more emotional, if also practical, sense of ownership. Locals must feel that they are, and indeed be, steering this change. And that’s not just a sentiment particular to the UK. Amidst an increasingly unsettled international climate, perhaps what we need are new local platforms for debate, existing alongside the representative institutions that are so often railed against as inadequate and corrupt, delving deeper into communities and providing a more appropriate and inclusive platform for crafting solutions. Why shouldn’t democracies innovate, after all? It’s a discussion that needs to take place, but as of yet, remains on the sidelines.
My question is whether populist parties are the best-placed forces to truly transform politics and return this sense of ownership to communities. To think so is to trust that these new politicians truly understand and represent you and that they’ll not err and succumb to the temptations of power when in office. In which case, it makes sense to evaluate these leaders – by no means ignorant and politically illiterate, but nevertheless opportunistic poseurs, improbable contestants for the title of ‘man of the people’. Salvini’s electoral beach and disco tours may resonate more with a social media public than Matteo Renzi waving from a podium, but let’s consider the end result: just another set of mainly white men occupying the offices of state. Different faces, different donors, different slogans, different vocabularies, sure. But at the end of the day, yet another government administration with its inevitable corruption scandals and strategic blunders. Is electing the Lega, the Brexit Party, Trump’s Republican Party, Orban’s Fidesz really the gateway to the transformational politics, the ‘taking back of control’, aspired to by millions of voters? Why let yet another politician class waltz off with the prize of power, confident that their deception of the electorate has paid off? Why stick with the same old failed system and do nothing other than change the figureheads at the top? This is something to consider as Salvini manoeuvres to topple a government he himself forms part of in the hopes of capitalising on momentum through a general election.
The cruel definition of politics that I suspect we all have lingering in our minds – as a tool for achieving power and influence for the few – has not been transformed by the seemingly radical, ‘breath of fresh air’ movements that have risen up over the past few years. We’ve seen this before. Populism is a change primarily in vocabulary – the resurrection of divise language in the political realm, redefining the boundary between fringe and mainstream, shifting the Overton window. Language that is fiery and emotional rather than numbingly cold, distant and scripted; perhaps a new style of ‘doing’ politics, bypassing the blinkers of the mainstream media and reaching voters directly. But what lies behind that powerful discourse may be no more than a gaping void into which humanity’s worst instincts are being channelled whilst very real frustration is misdirected.
Written by: Jacob Grech