In the past two years, we have witnessed the rise of numerous parties all over the world that are identified as far-right populist. AfD in Germany, FN in France and PVV in the Netherlands performed remarkably well in recent elections and polls. The election of Donald Trump is the epitome of the success of right-wing populism. In response to that, it is often said that the left should “re-invent itself” and go in search of new electoral successes. Left-wing parties increasingly deliberate whether they should also adopt a more populist course. Several influential thinkers and writers, such as political theorist Chantal Mouffe, endorse such a strategy. However, there are many reasons why this strategy might not benefit society.
In order to answer the question whether alternative forms of populism are a proper way for the left to counter right-wing populism, one has to first address the issue of what populism means. This issue preoccupies an increasing amount of philosophers and political scientists. Cas Mudde has argued that one of the salient features of populism is the juxtaposition of the “real” (or even “pure”) people and the corrupt elite. Paul Taggart identifies the opposition against representative politics as essential to the populist perspective.
Populism and kitsch
It should be emphasized that populism is not a matter of right wing versus left wing; the populist stance can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. The reason for that is that more than being a matter of viewpoints, populism is a matter of rhetoric and style. A populist can best be identified, not on the basis of his opinions, but on how he expresses them. Populism is to politics what kitsch is to art: noisy, unsophisticated, often obtrusive and offensive. Three features seem to be the trademark of populist rhetoric: exaggeration, simplification and provocation.
An impending catastrophe
Populists tend to exaggerate the gravity of certain social issues, just as much as they tend to simplify the way to solve them. Two ingredients are indispensable to the populist perspective: the impending catastrophe and the astonishingly simple way to avert it. This results in all sorts of big promises that are easy to make, but as good as impossible to keep. To contain allegedly tremendous dangers, you just build a wall around it or ban it, and that is that.
Lack of trust
If politicians make all sorts of promises that are hard to keep, they will not do the democratic political process a favour. One of the main reasons behind the recent successes of populist parties is the lack of trust between citizens and the political establishment. Populists cash in on the anti-establishment sentiment in society and feelings of distrust. Restoring this trust should be a top-priority, and whether a politics of prodigious promises is a better way to do so than a moderate Realpolitik is highly questionable.
Facts and truth
Perhaps the most salient feature of populism is the provocative manner in which populists express their views. Being more provocative often means being less accurate and nuanced, and facts are deemed less important than the way they are interpreted. It is no co-incidence that the rise of populism entailed the growing popularity of concepts such as fact-free thinking and post-truth politics. Once more, there is reason to doubt that a political strategy in which nuance is lost and “alternative facts” (to use Trump counsellor Kellyanne Conway’s term) are as true as real facts, will prove to be very effective. This may further exacerbate the distrust between those who govern and those who are governed.
Bother about the other
Another problem with rhetoric that thrives on provocations is that it makes political co-operation very difficult. In a democracy, you have to work together with people whose views are different than yours. Once in office, you don’t merely defend the interests of those who voted for you, but also of those who didn’t. This requires dialogue and co-operation. But populism is the rhetoric of clenched fists (quite literally in the case of the far left, to whom the clenched fist salute is the standard gesture), and you cannot have a proper dialogue with people who always seem ready to attack. The attitude by which any dialogue begins is that of a hand reaching out to the other. A peculiar paradox is inherent to populism: it exploits the anti-establishment feelings among citizens who feel excluded from the political decision-making process, while at the same time populists propagate a politics of exclusion. Populists recruit a following to whom they make promises, specifically to them, and don’t really bother about the others. As a result, those others will increasingly feel excluded and displeased because their interests are disregarded.
Lead by example
Saying that in order to counter populism you need alternative forms of populism, seems like saying you should extinguish a fire by adding more inflammable material to it. The answer to populism is not more populism. If you want to counter something you deem undesirable, you do so by applying the opposite treatment, not by imitating it. You must indeed take the growing anti-establishment sentiment in society very seriously. It undermines the entire political process and the political establishment must be held to account. But it seems to me that the people’s lack of confidence and trust in their political representatives can only be restored by a moderate Realpolitik that is proposed by people who first and foremost lead by example; individuals whose ambitions and dreams are matched by their sense of reality. Whether those exemplary people, who lead by example, can be found among those who wrap their views in the provocative rhetoric of proliferating promises and thrive on controversy is very unlikely. As always, time will tell, I’m afraid.