Populism is the new panic

Populism is the new panic-word for the broad centre of liberal-democratic politics. This is in large part because of its association with the Right and even fascism. The populism of UKIP or Trump aims to create a homogenised constituency of ‘the people’, racialised and hostile to those outside their categorical borders. This is not to say that this ‘people’ actually exist. I will go on to argue that they do not. But, the term ‘populism’ does tend to raise the spectre of this political force, either as an actually-existing political community or as one emerging from the left-behind zones, fertilised by the venal and bombastic politicians who call them to the ballot box.

The term populism relies in some degree on the presence of a mass politics of ‘the people’ in this purified and exclusivist sense. This creates a kind of discomfiture for liberal democrats and those on the Left because the moral foundation of democracy is rendered as in part – perhaps in large part – threatening to what is habitually considered to be ‘good politics’. In more adventurous analyses of populism, it is suggested that normal democratic politics (shallow though it might be) could even be overthrown. The core legitimacy claim of liberal democracy is partially re-written as problematique: what John Dunn characterised as setting the people free comes to resemble releasing the animals at the zoo.

Of course, the main reason for the rise of populism as a hook for a growing range of discussions about the politics that we are living through is the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum. (Dare one use the double-portmanteu Trexit? No.) These two events share a sense of shock that ‘the people’ did something that most within the liberal centre-ground are dismayed by. Bad political outcomes have issued from universal voting exercises. Populism has become the lightning rod for the moral and strategic reaction of a swathe of political journalists, academic commentators, and some politicians who one might broadly define as part of a liberal-democratic establishment.

As a concept, populism is enjoying a healthy mid-life career boost. But, we need to make sure that we separate the sound and fury of populist leaders and specific groups of followers for the substance of a real social phenomenon. In some of the more panicky reportage and commentary, it seems as if a populist ideology and a populist mass insurgency are one and the same. The consequences of this conflation are politically worrying.


A map of contemporary populism

Populism is in essence the politics of ‘the people’, constructed through an evocation of ‘the masses’ as the legitimate political community, mobilised against the injustices perpetrated by an ‘elite’ and also alien others. Thus, both the Brexit referendum and the Trump election victory have been characterised as the shock results of a mass social grievance against the elitism of the political class which complacently expected that people would fall in line with the prevailing elite management of liberal market integration and globalisation. It is also a term that encapsulates the mass resentment against immigrants, non-nationals, or non-‘whites’.

We have the populist imagery ready-made: the northern English white housing estate family and the rustbelt or southern rural (white) American family. Each of these stereotypes becomes the dramatis persona for analyses of populism in which politics-as-normal is being disrupted by an insurgency of the rump: those left behind who cleave to a grievance of the ‘ordinary person’ against elites, multiculturalism, and globalisation. Both of the populisms are explained as being a result of ‘racism’.

The revival of the concept of populism to characterise the political shock of Brexit and Trump provides a broad explanation for what had happened in the argument that a mass of people voted against the current of sensible politics and in line with some pernicious political agenda. Intuitively, there seems to be some truthiness in this, but that is not good enough and political analysis need to do better.


Populism and evidence

Once conjured by some journalists and commentators, ‘the masses’ seem to need no empirical verification of their existence. They sit out there in their millions, defined by their rejection of liberalism, cosmopolitanism, or multiculturalism. It is remarkable to see how brazenly political commentators start sentences with ‘people are tired of…’ or ‘the majority of those left behind resent…’. None of this discourse is based on any empirical evidence. It is, at best, accompanied by a vignette derived from an interview.

There is a not inconsiderable ventriloquizing going on here. The one Brexit survey carried out (the Ashcroft poll) did not provide clear evidence of a single mass voice and indeed considerable percentages of those who identified with liberalism, feminism, and environmentalism voted Brexit. Any decent social scientist would want to ask questions about how tried and trusted variables interact in voting behaviour: class, region, gender, ethnicity, party loyalty and so on. These are the standard things that behaviouralist surveys concern themselves with. The introduction of the notion of populism to Brexit has effaced all of these in favour of a set of grand narratives that are, quite plainly, gross generalisation and stereotyping.

In the US elections, data exists to show that voting behaviour was far more complex than ‘race’. There was a considerable percentage of ‘Latino’ votes for Trump. Some states that voted strongly for Obama last time voted for Trump this time (did they become racists within four years?). Also, it was more complex than gender: Clinton is on track to win more votes than any previous American president with the exception of Barack Obama which suggests that she was not scuppered by a male backlash, although she was certainly subjected to a raft of ugly misogyny.

Populism, a concept that fundamentally relies upon the categorisation ‘the people’ can be bad political science. It is odd that in a discipline increasingly enamoured with ‘complexity’, ‘reflexivity’, and ‘nuance’, the P-word runs roughshod over all of this in the name of gross simplification and with an apparent a disinterest in moderating claims with an awareness that we know very little about why people voted the way they did.


Epochal politics

Those writing about populism might well do so in part because of its novelty. The term is not new but it has been out of service for some time, at least in the political village of the Anglo-Atlantic. And, the media-blogosphere-university nexus, keen to be heard and to sound relevant, is constantly searching for an eye-catching term, new or dusted off. Even better, the way populism is often used wants to suggest that politics-as-normal is finished. That sounds exciting. It poses the possibility that Brexit and Trump have buried the two-party system, the centre ground; that neoliberal post-democratic managerialism issued in by Blair and Bill Clinton has been dashed on the rocks of populist demagoguery.

This might be eyebrow-raising stuff but it is over-egged. There are no real signs that the two-party-state systems in either country is substantially undermined. Quite the opposite: the ways in which state machineries ingest these disruptive moments seem more noteworthy. The judicial decisions, due process, and ‘muddling through’ since Brexit seem entirely within the remit of ordinary government. Watching House of Commons debates or the Chancellor’s autumn statement, one notices that not much has changed. If anything, both Labour and Conservative politics seems less unruly than before Brexit. In the US, Trump’s rhetorical excrescence seems more challenged by the path dependencies of actual government than it was by the rather anaemic opposition of Hillary and the Democratic/Republican coalition that supported her. Of course, we should be concerned about Trump’s presidency for all manner of reasons but we should expect and hope that he will be out in four years, not that the American political system will have changed altogether.



Relatedly, it is striking how populism talk is based in a revitalised fear of mass or popular politics. Having constructed the spectre of the an ugly mass, many commentators proceed to worry about them. The bare-faced prejudice against poor people who voted Brexit was remarkable: the assumptions of their racism, stupidity, and mean-spiritedness were so pervasive that they seemed openly ideological. In America, trump’s victory has been met with a shock based in a generalised fear of a white racist insurgency.

Of course, racism is a powerful force in British and American politics and public culture. Also, there is lots of evidence in media reports and campaign organisations that racism was a major driver in some – perhaps many – people’s voting decisions. There is something about ‘the people’ that encourages a quick move from the identification of racism as a causal factor in voting behaviour to a broader gloss that ‘white power’ has re-emerged, or that fascism is just around the corner. The staggeringly naïve reports about America being on the verge of fascism is the best example of this. Anyone who has read into what Nazism is and what generated it as a movement and then government in Germany would be rather befuddled by the analogy-augury which is often based on nothing more than a partial textual overlap in Trump’s statements with those of leading German fascists.

Racism is not a single kind of politics; it is a political value based in the essentialisation of ‘race’ difference which becomes political in the differentials it produces: racial orders, hierarchies, programmes of ‘cleansing’, separation, dispossession, invasion and so on. Racism is part of European liberal democratic politics. It is also part of many post-colonial ethnonationalisms. Because it is a doctrine or ideology, it is not a simple thing but a mutating, distorted, cunning prejudice that might feed into all manner of social milieux, not least within political elites. It is a mutating virus.

This might all sound like academic sophistry but it is in fact a better way of understanding racism than the notion that racism is a single thing and that some people have it and others don’t, and the others are a mass of undifferentiated people driven by one thing and one thing alone. The concept of populism does tend to encourage the glossing of a mass population as having common and deeply-held modes of political behaviour.

The populist view is predisposed this generalisation, and it is energised by the notion of a mass people all steeped in a single and dominant racism because. This can generate a political imagery that is epochal – full of suggestions of an end of democracy, a fascist threat, a cultural insurgency. Complex societies are rendered as ‘elite’ and ‘mass’, the former ‘liberal’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ and incompetent and, the latter as ‘racist’, ‘parochial’, and ‘angry’.


Not fit for democracy

A populist worldview based on an elite-mass oppositional dualism, and filled with glossed essentialisms about the content of these two constituencies. This is not only poor social science with exaggerated and often panicky punditry about the future. It is also a representation of politics which poorly serves the democratic project. If we assume that the rise of populist politics is a result of a populist social revolt, we find ourselves amidst all manner of anti-democratic arguments about retro-engineering Brexit and some odd arguments about how Clinton’s majority of the gross vote means that the elections should be overturned.

Democracy’s political traditions in the West are based in an acceptance that societies and far more complex than the populist vision allows. They are based in ideas of plurality citizenship, of political education and socialisation, of deliberation, and complex processes of decision-making and accountability. They focus around a bundle of political norms that legitimate power is good power, that representation is the foundation of just politics, that the power of the state derives in some ideal fashion from the will of the people as a complex whole.

If this is a fair representation of the basis for democracy’s claim to being the least worst form of state, what use is a political concept that sees majority publics as a potential mass of racialised recidivism and parochialism, acting as a single entity, led by aspirant tyrants, and unable/unlikely to think or act differently anytime soon?

Populism offers little in the way of political imagination for a democrat. It poses a problem without offering a way of thinking itself out of the problem. Perhaps it is time to moderate universal franchise? Perhaps it is important to ‘lock in’ aspects of policy to insulate them from the popular will? Perhaps there ware ways to challenge elections through legal processes? Perhaps there are ways to ignore a referendum’s results? There is far more written around these questions than there is interest in understanding the democratic process, the complex social dynamics that produced Brexit and Trump, or of thinking about how existing political organisations and institutions might address any properly identified socio-economic issues that might move some of the public towards more social-democratic forms of political engagement.


Ad nihilum

Populist politicians, political movements, parties, and cultural warriors are most certainly present, but ‘the people’ that all of these forces have to assume exist and are only in need of leadership and empowerment are not. Care needs to be taken with the concept of populism because it has proven tempting to blend an interest in the rude insurgency of populist leaders with a moral panic about a reactionary mass. The former should be challenged and the latter should be deconstructed, problematised, and subjected to more nuanced empirical research.

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