In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Against Populism

Populism is not a new phenomenon. (Edited: Digital First)

Populism is not a new phenomenon. (Edited: Digital First)

Standing up for the people, the honest and hard-working voters, against the corrupt and maleficent elites is the universal cry of populists.

“Liberal metropolitan elite”

On the eve of the 2015 general election, UKIP leader Nigel Farage hoped “there are members of the liberal metropolitan elite who wake up with a huge hangover because of what UKIP has done” [1].

In 2010 [2], Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham said: “A sense has built over time of a political elite with no real connection to the reality of most people’s lives.” In 2015 [3], Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham said: “Labour looks like an elitist Westminster think tank talking in language that people don’t understand.” The year has changed, the message has not.

The website Conservative Women heralds in its mission [4]:

We lean to the political Right and advance the cause and values of the decent people outside London’s metropolitan and often narcissistic elite.

The Green Party [5] wanted “the people of Scotland” to have power redistributed away from “an increasingly out-of-touch, Westminster elite”, urging “the leaders of the three big Westminster parties” to “make a genuine commitment to democracy”.

In the United States [6], presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are attracting wild crowds.

“Virtuous and homogeneous people”

In their book Twenty-First Century Populism [7], academics Dr Daniele Albertazzi and Dr Duncan McDonnell define populism as:

an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.

The populist narrative in a democratic country is plain: the democracy has been distorted away from the will of the people, by an elite which is wholly to blame, and the people must be reinstated power and the nation restored to its natural order via the populists. For that reason, populists often highlight their commonality, opposed to a perfected sculpture of the elitist politician.

Voters are not a homogeneous group, and are not assured of their mutual virtue. In a political system with multiple parties proposing distinct policies and setting distinct visions, along with a panoply of reasons to vote for and against these parties, it cannot be asserted that voters have a collective mind and a uniform will.

When asked to self-identify, voters put themselves slightly to the left of centre overall. (Source: YouGov)

When asked to self-identify, voters put themselves slightly to the left of centre overall. (Source: YouGov)

Indeed, democracy is necessary to determine what path the government should follow, due to this conflict of visions.

Moreover, many politicians and political commentators often relish in portraying their opponents as morally deficient.

A process, not an outcome

Populism rests upon conspiracies: the elite are using covert means, such as media manipulation, to maintain their privileged position, and to deform the democracy. Catherine Fieschi [8] argued conspiracism, fused with typical scapegoating within populism, creates an embryonic form of fascism.

The identity and nature of this elite varies between proponents. For UKIP, it is the liberal metropolitan elite who ceaselessly prevent discussions on immigration. This claim is made despite immigration being a top political issue in Britain [9]. For the Greens, it is the neoliberal hegemony, the financial elite, who drain Britain.

We can't talk about it. (Source: YouGov)

We can’t talk about it. (Source: YouGov)

Democracies, in the contemporary sense, are not merely mobs with ballot boxes. There are limitations on state power, usually defined in constitutional documents, establishing individual rights. The standard response to critiques of populism is, as the vanguards of true democracy: to be opposed to populism is to be opposed to democracy.

Democracy is a process and a means, rather than an outcome or a particular arrangement of government policies. The long and considered debates, from first thoughts to formal policy, that frustrate the simplistic and swift solutions offered by populists are entirely the point of parliamentary democracy. Populism is the spectre that haunts democracy.

References

[1] Hope, C., 2015. Nigel Farage tells cheering supporters: Vote Ukip to get my country back. The Telegraph. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11588086/Nigel-Farage-tells-cheering-supporters-Vote-Ukip-to-get-my-country-back.html [Accessed: 26th September 2015]

[2] White, M., 2010. Andy Burnham launches blitz on ‘metropolitan elite’. The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/aug/23/andy-burnham-labour-metropolitan-elite [Accessed: 26th September 2015]

[3] Cowley, J., 2015. Andy Burnham thinks he is an outsider but he’s really just another member of the Guild. Available from: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/06/andy-burnham-thinks-he-outsider-he-s-really-just-another-member-guild [Accessed: 26th September 2015]

[4] Conservative Woman, 2014. Our mission. Available from: http://www.conservativewoman.co.uk/our-mission/ [Accessed: 26th September 2015]

[5] Green Party, 2014. Greens back call for People’s Constitutional Convention. Available from: https://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/2014/09/19/greens-back-calls-for-peoples-constitutional-convention/ [Accessed: 26th September 2015]

[6] Packer, G., 2015. The populists. The New Yorker. Available from: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/07/the-populists [Accessed: 26th September 2015]

[7] Albertazzi, D. and McDonnell, D., 2007. Twenty-First Populism. Palgrave MacMillan. Available from: http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/twentyfirst-century-populism-daniele-albertazzi/?sf1=barcode&st1=9780230013490 [Accessed: 26th September 2015]

[8] Fieschi, C., 2004. Fascism, Populism and the Fifth French Republic. Manchester University Press. Available from: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=yWOyLUZfRT0C&redir_esc=y [Accessed: 26th September 2015]

[9] Dahlgreen, W., 2014. Economy no longer the (only) number one issue. YouGov. Available from: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/05/14/economy-no-longer-number-one-issue/ [Accessed: 26th September 2015]

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