Following Donald Trump’s election victory a spectre is haunting the West — the spectre of Populism. All the powers of the old West have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre. The trouble is none of them can tell us what this spectre actually is, or if it even exists.
Donald Trump’s election victory has produced a further flood of angry and worried commentary from neoliberal writers complaining about the threatening rise of something they like to call “Populism”. This one by Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian is a good example, but in truth such articles now exist in their myriad. A fact common to all these articles is however that none of them ever properly define “Populism”, though they vigorously condemn it whatever it is.
The extent to which this word is empty of any meaning is shown by the sort of people neoliberal writers attach this label to.
They include Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Viktor Orban, who all belong to the right (invariably referred to as “the far right”); Jeremy Corbyn, Alexis Tsipras, Bernie Sanders and the Podemos movement in Spain, who all belong to the left (invariably referred to as “the far left”); whilst Italy’s Beppe Grillo, inhabits a strange politically indefinable world of his own, and therefore gets talked about rarely.
Of the other political leaders regularly called “Populists” Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey are impossible to place in conventional Western left-right terms, whilst Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński combines a socialist economic and welfare policy with a strongly conservative social and cultural policy and a militantly nationalist foreign policy, which also makes him difficult to place easily in conventional Western left-right terms.
Not only is there no ideological unity between these people, but far from being political allies they often detest each other.
Thus Tsipras has made known his personal loathing for Marine Le Pen (whom he has never actually met), spurning her offer of support during Greece’s bailout crisis last year; Marine Le Pen in turn makes no secret of her loathing for Turkish President Erdogan (whom she has also never met); Erdogan had a major falling out with Putin last year, though the two have now patched things up; whilst Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders both stand in principled opposition to Donald Trump.
Of the others, Orban is Putin’s friend, Kaczyński is Putin’s enemy, but Orban and Kaczyński are friends.
Despite the absence of any discernible ideological commonality between these people, those who call them “Populists” say they are a “threat to democracy”, Timothy Garton Ash’s article being a case in point. Little explanation is however given of exactly how this is so.
Tsipras has now been Prime Minister of Greece for almost two years, and Orban has been Prime Minister of Hungary for almost six. Despite lurid scaremongering about both countries both are still recognisably democracies. In the case of Greece the only popular vote which has been set aside since Tsipras came to power was one which he called and which he won but which the EU forced him to set aside.
It is sometimes said that what defines “Populists” is that they tend to glorify the nation, carry out constitutional changes and legal reforms to make the executive power in their countries stronger, and that they oppose immigration, which supposedly makes them racist.
All that was once true of President De Gaulle of France, who no one ever called a “Populist”, and who certainly was not a racist.
Besides it is not even true of some of the people who today are called “Populists”. By way of example Tsipras of Greece is a committed internationalist who takes a very liberal approach to immigration and is a fervid anti-racist. The same is true of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US. In Spain Podemos does not want to make the executive power in Spain stronger but wants to make it weaker, and is so uninterested in glorifying the nation state that it is actually prepared to contemplate the secession of Catalonia.
Sometimes it is said that “Populists” are intolerant of alternative views and try to crack down on dissent and seek to control the media in their countries once they gain power.
The relentless campaign by the neoliberal Western establishment against Julian Assange, Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, the Russian media, the Iranian media, and the alternative media (Hillary Clinton’s “alt right”) makes this a strange argument coming from neoliberal writers.
Some politicians referred to as “Populists” eg. Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, are more intolerant of independent voices than some other politicians are.
However it is very much a matter of degree and in no state governed by people called “Populists” except Erdogan’s Turkey has the right or ability to express an opinion so far been suppressed or even limited to any significant degree. The most repressive government in that respect in Europe by far (much more so than Erdogan’s Turkey) is the post Maidan government in Ukraine, which is never called “Populist”.
Another common claim (very widespread today in America) is that “Populists” are social reactionaries, who hanker for a return to the moral and social certainties of the 1950s with women kept in their place and gay and lesbian people locked up or hidden away.
That may be true of Kaczyński in Poland and Orban in Hungary. It is certainly not true of Putin in Russia, who is a social conservative who wants to keep things as they are, not a social reactionary who wants to turn the clock back. It is the diametrically opposite of true in the cases of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Alexis Tsipras and Podemos, all of whom are radical social progressives, as by the way is Marine Le Pen.
Lastly, it is sometimes said that “Populists” are all somehow favourable to Putin and Russia, with the claim commonly made that Putin and Russia back then and control them by giving them money and publicity through its supposed “propaganda channel” RT.
The entirety of the “evidence” for this claim is that Marine Le Pen’s party after being denied access to the French banking system obtained a loan on commercial terms from a Russian bank. In all other respects it is nonsense. Kaczyński of Poland is Russia’s resolute enemy not its friend, whilst from November of last year until June of this year Erdogan of Turkey was Russia’s enemy also.
In fact the only thing so-called “Populists” have in common is that though often for completely different reasons they all find themselves in opposition to the West’s post Cold War neoliberal political and economic establishment.
In some though not all cases this also comes with criticism of the EU, and in some cases, though again by no means all – Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland being an important case in point – it comes with a certain skepticism about the present campaign against Russia.
That the one issue which defines whether or not a politician gets called a “Populist” is support or opposition to the existing neoliberal establishment is proved by the case of Bernie Sanders.
During the contest for the Democratic Party’s nomination he was labelled a “Populist” because he challenged the establishment’s candidate who was Hillary Clinton. The moment he declared his support for Hillary Clinton he instantly stopped being called a “Populist” and became a statesman instead.
The claim that there is such a thing as “Populism” and that it is supposedly a terrifying and sinister wave that is sweeping the West is nonsense. There is no intellectual justification for this term, which is actually meaningless. If anything it appears to criticise politicians for being popular, which in a democracy is absurd since being popular with voters is surely what politics in a democracy is all about.
The term though meaningless is however sinister. Any term used as a blanket term to label and delegitimize political leaders because for any number of different reasons they find themselves opposed to the West’s neoliberal establishment is sinister by definition. Moreover it is sinister in the most insidious way, by using the very fact of the popularity of their opposition to the neoliberal establishment against these political leaders, in order to delegitimize them as “anti-democratic”.
This shows from where the true danger to democracy comes: from a neoliberal establishment that has come to conflate democracy with power for itself, and which considers any challenge to its power “undemocratic” and therefore illegitimate, even if it is supported by a majority of the people, at which point it calls it “Populist”.
Where Abraham Lincoln once spoke of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, today’s neoliberal establishment considers democracy to be government of, by and for itself, so that if the people oppose its power then that is “undemocratic” and is “Populist”.
That is how it came about that the violent and unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government in Ukraine in 2014 by a faction the Western neoliberal establishment supported is called in the West “democratic”.
The fact the Western neoliberal establishment is starting to use the term “Populist” to describe politicians in the West who oppose it like Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump shows that this dangerous and profoundly anti-democratic attitude is now being imported home. Given that that is so, one can only wonder how long it will take before the first coup in the West takes place.