Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Populism, cynicism and “the people” by Tom Crook



Scholars continue to labour over the ideological credentials of “populism.” At best, populism is ideologically emaciated; at worst, nothing more than a style of politics—a mode of posturing, speaking, signifying. But few dispute that a core part of its appeal is an ability to mobilize popular cynicism about the conduct of mainstream parties and politicians, left and right. Even self-consciously minimal definitions insist that a defining feature of populism is its depiction of “elites” as essentially self-serving and self-interested. As most liberals would agree, it is entirely right that we should be sceptical, even cynical, about those who govern us. But populism thrives on something more extreme and visceral: an often rage-fuelled conviction that we’re all being ripped off, lied to, preyed upon, ignored and neglected by the establishment. “Drain the swamp!” the crowds yelled at Trump’s rallies back in the autumn of 2016, capturing one of the few readily identifiable ideologicalor stylisticprops of populism.
  
This is not all, of course. The other key element of populism is “the people,” which is pitted against a corrupt elite and in whose name the populist leader operates. The two operate together, making for the master distinction of populism. As is often pointed out, if criticizing elites was the hallmark of populism, then most political actors, of whatever ideological affiliation, would qualify as populist. But the populist leader goes further and adds a crucial anti-pluralist twist by claiming that he and he aloneand it’s commonly a male protagonistspeaks for “the people.” The democratic appeal of populism is thus easy to grasp. Democracy has somehow been subverted and captured by self-interested, liberal elites, when really, as democracy dictates, power should reside with the people—and it’s this situation that the populist leader claims he will reverse, returning power to where it rightfully belongs.       

More might be said about this crucial facet of populism, however ideologically grounded or not. Who, after all, are “the people”? Are they really as homogeneous as the rhetoric would imply—is it not just a fictitious referent? There is a rich literature now on the sociological mystifications of populism. Nonetheless, it is here where the cynicism of populism is said to stop. Some scholars indeed have argued that populism turns upon a peculiar idealization of “the people,” which, defined in more or less exclusive nativist and/or class-based terms, is held up not just as the true source of sovereignty but of a fundamental moral decency and common sense. Small wonder, perhaps, that some have sketched the conceptual roots of populism back to Rousseau’s notion of “the general will.”

It is true that populism thrives on a distinction between a corrupt “elite” and a morally wholesome, if perhaps na├»ve, “people.” But it doesn’t necessarily follow that populism is any less cynical about those it claims to defend and represent. Nor again that it is any less cynical when it comes to the conduct of politics, or even the very meaning of politics.

This is most apparent in the way “the people” functions as one of populism’s core referents, which involves a two-fold manoeuvre that is at once overtly cynical and more subtly so. In the first place there is the altogether limited way populists conceive of “the people” and their grievances, where there is a striking absence of any sense that “the people” have, or should have, any additional responsibilities or democratic capacities than they already possess. Instead, they are presented as those who have, in one way or another, suffered because of the apparently rampant self-interest of others, principally immigrants or elites, or some combination of the two. It follows that what “the people” want is not the better mediation of interests or their distribution and managementthe old-school “elite” solutionbut the swift and brutal assertion of their own much-neglected self-interests, whether in the form of their cultural resources and identity, access to welfare, or share of national wealth. In policy terms, what populists offer can often be boiled down to a simple formula: life must be made much harder for those who are not truly of “the people” (immigrants, minorities and elites) and much easier for those who are—a cynical, low-grade politics of spite and revenge on the one hand, and entitlements and material comfort on the other.

Perhaps this is not too unusual. After all, tax cuts and enhanced access to welfare have long been part of the politics of established parties. But populism is distinguished by a second and more subtle, if again quite cynical, manoeuvre which completes the first and, in a remarkable twist, seeks to dignify it. This, too, concerns the people, and in particular the way populism seeks to reduce democracy to a matter of mere counting. Crudely, “the people” are the numerical majority and therefore, as democracy dictates, in a position of political authority: their interests and needs carry the most weight. And yet, this very same people, so populism suggests, is also defined by an aversion to politics and democratic association. It is this latter facet that completes the picture, for this is also what endows “the people” with an unassailable moral goodness: composed of average, ordinary and common folk—so-called “real people”“the people” have no desire to engage in the dirty and convoluted world of politics and collective deliberation, beyond voting in secret now and then. Put another way, what populism offers is indeed an “anti-political” politics, as scholars suggest; but more than this, it quite cynically asserts its superior democratic credentials on the basis of an altogether impoverished conception of democracy as the aggregation of self-interested selves.

The above is but a sketch and a crude and abstract one at that; and there are of course multiple other manifestations of the cynicism of populism, not least its casual conspiracism and dismissal of uncomfortable facts and counterarguments as the product of biased, self-interested perspectives (“fake news”, etc.). But the key point is that this pervasive cynicism might help to explain why populism is so ideologically thin and superficial, and why scholars grasp after paradoxes in order to characterise its peculiar qualities (as in an “anti-political” politics).

At any rate, “the people” of populism are decidedly not the same as those imagined by Rousseau’s “general will,” which envisaged a perpetual becoming of patriotic, engaged citizens. Nor do they bear any resemblance to “the people” idealized by interwar fascist and communist movements, which invoked transformational images of a “New Order” and a “New Man.” Rather, they are much closer to Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” whose moral authority lay not just in their majority status, but also in their quiet silence and subservience: they were unsullied and uncorrupted by politics and a desire for more expansive forms of citizenship.
 

Tom is currently writing a history of political corruption in modern Britain. He co-organised (with Barrie Axford and Rico Isaacs) the “Populism 2.0” symposium held in January of this year.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Populism: What’s in a name? By Barrie Axford and Richard Huggins


Ambivalence, but more usually outright hostility, marks any discussion of populism. Even when allowing for a “progressive” strain, outside the United States, populism has always enjoyed a bad press, mainly because of its association with authoritarian, far-right and even fascist tendencies, especially in Western Europe. Terms such as “radical right”, “extremist right” and “far right” certainly invest the literature with a degree of conceptual variety, but may smack of a regard for academic connoisseurship that actually blurs the wider picture, or does less than justice to its variety. For conceptual richness still fails to capture key facets of populist politics, parties and movements around the world, such as in the Americas, Eastern and Central Europe and Asia, where some practitioners – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the late Hugo Chavez, in Venezuela, are the most cited currently – favour leftist economic policies.

Image result for what is a populist

In a previous frisson of localist -populist politics found mainly in Western Europe in the mid- to-late 1990’s, the temper of critique was sharply critical of its “anti-political” style and brand of political mobilization. The label “anti-politics” was intended to capture the alleged passing of a relatively benign and ordered system of democratic elitism in the global north and west and its replacement with a version completely and unhealthily framed by media; whose ubiquity was exploited by “know-nothing”, but resourceful adventurists. The democratic credentials of populist movements and their increasingly sophisticated exploitation of the media, led Georges Balandier (and many others) to lament a serious outbreak of “democratic sickness”.

By mid-decade among the main culprits in this regard were the Lega Nord and Forza Italia in Italy and James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in the UK; the latter enjoying only a brief flowering in public support. Meanwhile in the United States during the same period, Ross Perot’s populist assault on the presidential nomination process and Pat Buchanan’s “new populist” appeal to the worried burghers of Virginia in 1996 touched raw nerves, in part because they looked set to attract a coalition of support among people who might not normally vote together, or vote at all; thus threatening older constellations of more predictable voting behaviour.  In Pierre Taguieff’s noteworthy phrase, both figures were the epitome of the tele-tribune. Taguieff’s was an early foray into the by now fevered debate on the scope for a media-saturated politics to undo the rules on political mobilization, party identification and the ethical conduct of electioneering.

Today, populist rhetoric and appeals again display a good deal of vigour, whether on the part of those “left behind” by globalization or, and / or, worried that immigration endangers national culture and values, pace the UK after the Brexit referendum and Germany according to the AfD. It is seen too in the machinations of Donald Trump, with his seeming rejection of the global liberal order in favour of a latter-day Jacksonianism, with its emphasis on economic nationalism. Down-home populisms can be seen from Marseilles to Moscow, via France, Italy, Spain and Greece, Hungary and Poland. On some accounts it is visible in Narendra Modi’s strain of Hindu nationalism in India and in the ‘patronal authoritarianism’ practised by Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recip Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.

But we need to be careful about conceptual stretching and trying to standardise strains of populism, regardless of context. Donald Trump, whose social media appeals to American voters went over the heads of established party elites, and played fast and loose with much of the etiquette of usual politics, has distanced himself from facets of both neoconservative and neoliberal dogma. His electoral platform (since modified in part, to be sure) included populist-left slogans on trade protectionism (higher tariffs on Chinese goods), renegotiating NAFTA, and more right wing items, such as his now implemented promise of tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy. In his State of the Union Address in January 2018, president Trump called for a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants, a constituency previously accused of heinous crimes and misdemeanours, and whose very presence had been deemed an affront to American social and cultural mores.

Leaving aside Trump’s unpredictability; all this is much in line with the idea of populism as a “thin” ideology and so points up the need for caution when attributing consistency, let alone core values, to populist thinking. Populisms share a suspicion of and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions.  Beyond this, as Cas Mudde says, no definition of populism will fully describe the gamut of populists. There is no encompassing and “thick” description of what precepts should guide and which strategies might implement the will of the people. And there is no holistic take on how politics, economy and society should be ordered. Populism is a long way from being programmatic. In part this is why it is both an attractive, portable formula for electoral success in times of crisis and an empty signifier when it comes to proffering a blueprint for and the necessary policy detail on how to deal with perceived hard times.

For a practitioner like Donald Trump, populism’s very imprecision and lack of detailed prescription is both an incubus because, among other undesirable attributes, he looks light-weight and irresolute; and an advantage, because he refuses to be burdened by anything that resembles a dogma or a coherent programme.  But to underline the variety of populisms, the same cannot be said of one of the U.S Democratic Party’s presidential hopefuls during the party nomination contest in 2016. Socialist Bernie Sanders ran a campaign based on a potent mix of dry policy detail and left-wing polemic. Unlike Trump, and many other leading populists, neither did Sanders engage in the politics of victimhood to bolster his appeal, and this is a departure from more usual practice in this constituency. In an age when the culture of victimhood infects ever more relationships, such leaders have not been coy about presenting themselves as at once powerful and marked for greatness – all while remaining the conduit for the aspirations of the virtuous public from whom s/he has a mandate - and the butt of establishment corruption, perennially lying media (witness Trump’s penchant for castigating any dissenting opinion and all criticism as “fake news”) and sabotage by a coterie of domestic and global elites. This simplification of politics breaks all the rules of electioneering and of governing, disrupting the grain of usual politics, questioning its ability to deliver for the people, and thus its legtimacy. Simplification lies at the core of what one might call populism’s methodology.








Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Who are the Corbynites? by Glen O'Hara



The Centre for Global Politics, Economy and Society hosted a recent one-day workshop around the theme of "Populism 2.0", at which Professor O'Hara present this paper.

Corbynism is a strong brand: indeed, paradoxically for a creed that makes a great deal of offering an entirely new economic and social sentiment, its presentation owes a great deal to the present vogue for ‘craft’ and ‘artisanal’ products. Apparently old but in reality new, and theoretically rough-and-ready while being highly packaged and marketable, its supporters and spinners have laboured long and hard to target an audience that then projects a positive image back on itself.


Some of the key elements of that brand have to do with the people attracted to it. The Corbyn appeal is often presented as particularly attractive to young people: idealistic students, passionate advocates for social change, political campaigners, twentysomethings locked out of the housing market. Media coverage of the 2017 General Election reinforced this impression: television images of large and enthusiastic crowds, often full of younger voters, played very (and unexpectedly) well on regional and local news programmes. When Labour did unexpectedly well at the ballot box, the newspapers were full of the ‘youthquake’ that had apparently taken place, with some very high figures for youth turnout doing the rounds.

There are a couple of reasons why this explanation instinctively appeals to us. The first is the rise of generational inequality. Income inequality, and even wealth inequity, has not risen very much in recent years: indeed, on some measures, it has declined a little. But the disparity of living standards (and especially the ownership of capital) between older and younger Britons has become an ever-more noticeable part of our collective life. Rising house prices, in particular, are still making the over-50s richer and richer (at least until they need social care in their 70s and 80s), while younger Britons struggle to get on the housing ladder.

The second reason that such a phenomenon seemed quite plausible was the outlook of young voters. Overwhelmingly for Remain in the 2016 European Union referendum, and just as likely to be socially liberal on a whole host of issues such as immigration, Prime Minister Theresa May’s search for a Brexit mandate – and conservative rhetoric from foxhunting to grammar schools – just became impossibly distant for younger voters who had backed David Cameron in far greater numbers just two years before.

Unfortunately for the mental shortcuts that we often use to assemble mythical knowledge, a great deal of that impression is simply inaccurate. There does not, for instance, seem to have been a ‘youthquake’ in terms of actual turnout. The authoritative British Election Study did not record any such move among young people, and although there has been some criticism of the Study’s techniques and sample sizes, these remain the best figures that we have. There was indeed a ‘youthquake’ in terms of a large swing towards Labour among 18- to 24-year olds, but this was matched and indeed probably exceeded by moves towards Corbyn’s party by voters in their later 20s and their 30s. According to Ipsos-Mori, the swing towards Labour even among 35- to 44-year olds (at eight per cent) was not far behind the ten per cent or so move among Britons in their late teens and early twenties.

Labour’s success among 25- to 44-year olds, of course a far larger group than students and early twentysomethings, speaks to much wider trends in contemporary Britain than can be captured via the concepts of housing scarcity and generational inequality. These literally middling Britons are often dealing with a multiplicity of crises: in health care, in their families, infrastructure, the welfare state. Cuts to school budgets, and the inadequacy of in particular England’s fragmented and inadequate social care system for looking after the elderly, often press in on voters facing care challenges for both their young children and their elderly parents: letters home from head teachers outlining the potential school-by-school effects of education cuts seem to have played an underrated role in the 2017 election campaign. Such voters are often forced to navigate complex lives, suffering frequent delays across Britain’s outdated transport infrastructure while taking children to different schools while being forced into unpaid and unwanted caring roles across both nuclear and extended families. Their resentment – that the Government simply does not seem to be there for them – played a much bigger role in Labour’s appeal than more discrete issues such as unpaid internships or university tuition fees.

Nor does the Labour membership appear to have become younger or more liberal. In fact, according to data gathered by the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project at Queen Mary, University of London, the average age of Labour’s members is 53 (as opposed to 57 among Conservatives). By contrast, only four per cent of Labour’s members are aged between 18 and 24. Labour’s membership has surged to over half a million since 2015, but its appeal appears to be disproportionately to graduates, left-leaning voters in London, the South and South-East of England, and to returning ex-members who found the Labour revisionism of the 1990s and 2000s not to their liking. There is little evidence here of a particularly millinerial surge in the party’s support base: the pro-Europeanism and social liberalism that do seem to form two key planks of Labour’s new energy seem to emanate from Baby Boomers and Generation Xers who hold these opinions.

‘The Corbynites’, like any political group, are not a homogenous tribe, though Labour’s new voters and members possess many traits in common. They tend to live in cities, particularly London, but they are also particularly noticeable amidst Southern England’s more radical university centres and faded seaside towns. They are, counterintuitively, not particularly young – and their attachment to Corbyn is focused on a wider rejection of the post-Thatcherite economic settlement than discourses of youthful radicalism, disengagement and campaigning assume. If the Conservatives think that they can counter this appeal via policies aimed only at the youngest voters, they are very mistaken indeed.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. A former journalist at The Independent, he contributes to a wide range of current affairs publications, including The New Statesman’s ‘Staggers’ online politics blog. He is the author of a series of books and articles on modern Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He will be discussing many of these themes in his inaugural Professorial Lecture, to be held at Oxford Brookes University on Wednesday 9 May.