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.

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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.

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