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Those Left Behind: How Mainstream Parties Can Prevent an Explosion of Populism

Updated: May 23

The term ‘populist’ is increasingly seen as a slur. A label for someone who, at best, appears to support simple solutions to complex problems. At worst, the term is used to describe politicians with anti-democratic, narcissistic, racist, and demagogic tendencies. 

Yet, critics of populism often fail to realise that the ‘democratic’ system they hold dear has been fundamental in creating and strengthening populist waves, specifically through ignoring the cultural and economic concerns and ambitions of large swathes of the population. 

To prevent a populist explosion from eventually engulfing the West, mainstream parties must start to pay attention and understand those whom they have left behind for so long.

Despite the term being increasingly used in media and popular discourse to refer to a wide range of actors from Nigel Farage to Hugo Chavez, close analysis regarding what populism actually is has frequently been overlooked. Populism, as defined by its critics is a strategy consisting of ‘performative features’, which relies on a ‘personalistic, plebiscitarian style of political leadership’ to relate to the public. Reducing populism to strategy alone suggests that there is nothing ideational about populism, and rather populist demands form simply due to bellicose leaders manipulating a frequently disenfranchised public into supporting them through a cult of personality and performance alone.

However, to define populism as simply a political strategy is wrong. This definition could equally apply to define a religious or social movement. Whilst some of these strategies may be utilised by certain populist leaders, populism can feature both top-down and bottom-up mobilisation. In Bolivia, Evo Morales gained power after mobilising the frustrations of cocoa growers, labour unions, and indigenous communities against who they saw as an uncaring elite. Similarly, the original ‘Populist Party’ in the US late 19th century lacked any particular charismatic leadership, leaders such as Trump and Chavez utilised their personality, image, and fiery rhetoric to agitate their voter base, employing a ‘top-down’ mobilisation model. 

Despite populists inherently viewing ‘the people’ and ‘the power block’ as being two irreconcilable and antagonistic groups and claiming to embody the will of the ‘people’, there are clear variations in the demands of populists everywhere. Different demographics and demands are referred to when referencing the ‘the people’ and ‘the general will’. Yet all share this basic unity in which politics is framed as a contest between ‘the elite’, ‘the people’, and their ‘general will’, which populists claim to embody; epitomised in UKIP’s slogan of "People, not Politics”.Populism has only been able to flourish due to a representational crisis. It is the product of  a mainstream that has, for years, ignored the concerns of many who felt alienated and detached from these parties. The political theorist and philosopher Ernesto Laclau describes these dynamics as creating ‘populist ruptures’, becoming the ‘illiberal democratic response to an undemocratic liberalism.

In Europe and the US, there is a clear disjuncture between those within ‘mainstream’ non-populist parties, who are overwhelmingly university-educated, more affluent, and more pro-globalisation, compared to the non-university educated and older individuals who are more likely to support populist leaders. In the US during the Kennedy era, 71% of House Members and 76% of Senators held bachelor’s degrees, while during Obama’s presidency, these figures were 93% and 99% respectively (the national average is 32%). Similarly, in the UK’s 1945 Government, half of the Cabinet had blue-collar jobs, compared to just one minister in Tony Blair’s Cabinet.

This growing absence of representation reflects the growing disillusionment with mainstream parties. In 1964, 76% of Americans had some level of trust in the government, however, by 2012 this figure was 22%. This feeling of being left behind was particularly strong among those without high-school diplomas and blue-collar workers. This is also seen over Europe, with majorities in Germany, Britain, Poland, Italy and France believing that traditional politicians ‘do not care about people like me’.

Divergences on key issues such as immigration and international integration are also clear; 55% of Europeans want an end to immigration from Muslim countries, with this being predominantly the non-university educated and older generations. The same demographic was also far more likely to vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum and hold more conservative views on social issues such as LGBT rights. Such sentiment may be connected to the growing relative inequality in many Western countries, as other demographics appear to be ‘prioritised’ over the ‘people’. 

Cultural and religious concerns are strongly connected to the growth of national populism, with leaders like Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. Wilders won a historic victory last year in the Dutch elections, and despite attempts to soften his image to form a coalition, he won on a violently anti-Muslim platform which compared the Koran to Mein Kampf and described Islam as a “retarded culture”.

There is current debate whether populist support for nativist policies is due to fears for the preservation of national culture alone. In Hungary, there are very low migration rates, yet Orban has attempted to criminalise humanitarian assistance to migrants. Growing populist support for nativist policies could possibly result from the increase in individualism, with increases in inequality, declining feelings of community, and weakening of religion which appear to attack traditional feelings of national identity.

Similarly, in Latin America, populism formed in reaction to the clear absence of representation from the mainstream. Whilst classical populism under Peron and Ibarra emerged as a reaction against the ‘oligarchic social order’ through promising to empower the ‘common people’, in the form of exalted workers’ against ‘foreign-orientated elites’, neoliberal populism was a reaction to the economic crises, as antagonisms between pre-existing ‘white elite’ and ‘non-white common people’ allowed populist leaders such as Menem and Fujimori to gain power. 

Moreover, radical populist leaders such as Chavez promised to represent those who had suffered under neoliberalism and the development of the market economy, whilst the recent vote for Milei in Argentina is similarly a reaction against his predecessors who formed the leftist ‘establishment’.  

Within the turbulent rise of populist leaders across the globe, there are clearly lessons to learn. Countries like Uruguay and Colombia avoided the emergence of strong populist parties through the incorporation of middle-class and working-class individuals into traditional parties. Mainstream parties across the globe, fearful about the rise of populism, must begin to recognise that many in society feel left behind, ignored, alienated, and unrepresented by mainstream politicians. Recognising this is fundamental to address the concerns, as the mainstream must start to listen and take this far more seriously.

There is clearly a dark side to populism; namely, its apathy towards democracy, inflammatory rhetoric, and oversimplifications of  complex dynamics. Whilst it may give problematic answers, it asks important questions which those in power must begin to face and provide answers for. Leaders must scrutinise why it is that large groups feel so alienated from the mainstream, and work to bring them into the political fold. Only this can prevent a populist explosion.

Image: Bryan, Judge magazine, 1896


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