Populism is a way of framing a specific type of politics. But increasingly, commentators are using it to mean "any popular thing I don't like"by Charlotte Lydia Riley / February 12, 2020 / Leave a comment
Populism is, in 2020, all around. It can be invoked to explain the Brexit vote; the election of Trump; the popularity of Modi; the rise of far-right parties across Europe. But it can also explain the rise of Corbyn, the fall of Corbyn, the election of Boris Johnson, and the renewed popularity of the Scottish independence movement. Only Liverpool’s 22-point lead at the top of the football league has not yet been explained by ‘populism’ (and that is, surely, only a matter of time).
Populism as a term has its uses, of course. As a political concept, it seeks to explain how political parties and leaders win power by making promises to “ordinary people,” purporting to address grievances that have previously been ignored by elite groups. Conceptually, it is a useful way of explaining how figures like Nigel Farage or Donald Trump can run on a ticket that seeks to kick against the establishment, despite their own elite economic and social status.
Boris Johnson, to use another example, was educated at Eton and Oxford, and self-consciously plays up to a stereotype of the bumbling, useless overeducated toff, even going so far as to drop some (bad) ancient greek during a television interview on the election campaign.
But he still mobilised the forces of ‘populism’, the argument goes, by emphasising that his leadership would ‘get Brexit done’—a demand that he positioned as having been made by ordinary people and frustrated by the political classes. It’s a neat trick, to explain how elites can appeal to the masses; it isn’t without its logic.
But populism is now being deployed as an explanation for all sorts of political moments and events and crises. Populism has become the thing most feared by the establishment, despite the fact that it is, at its heart, an establishment trick. When Sinn Féin outdid pre-election predictions to massively increase their vote-share and claim 37 seats in the Dáil, a historic result for the party, English commentators fell over themselves to decry this latest example of “populism.” The fact that the party did especially well among young voters, who have little desire to return to the violence before the Good Friday Agreement but have been hit hard by a housing crisis and austerity economics, was widely ignored.
Corbyn’s rise within the Labour Party was also seen by many as a result of a populist appeal among the party rank-and-file. The 2017 and 2019 elections were both, apparently, “populist” (although the former was, in the end, significantly more popular than the latter). There was a conceptual struggle to fit the chants of “ohhhh, Jeremy Corbyn” into the same box as the deranged shrieking at Trump rallies to “lock her up” or “build the wall.”
But not all singing is populist. And it is hard to explain how the rise of Corbyn and the rise of Johnson could both be populist moments, so close together, in the same country. Are “the people” so changeable? Do they really not know what they want?
Of course, it is possible to reframe this reading, to say that the Leave vote was the thing that really matters, and that British politics since then has been riding a wave of populism unleashed in June 2016. But I’m not even convinced that Brexit was “populist.” It wasn’t all disaffected working-class northern voters who voted to Leave, to give Westminster career politicians a good kicking. Another typical Leave voter was a middle-class Middle Englander, who owns a house, two cars, a wife and a Telegraph subscription. Those people weren’t kicking against the Establishment: they were the establishment. Not everybody who voted to leave the EU was doing so from a desire to lash out against the political class. Some people just… wanted to leave the EU.
And not every critique of the media or of politicians is de facto “populist.” The label can be a de-legitimating tactic, evoking voters who are manipulated by elites into voting against either their own interests, or against vulnerable groups. Similarly, the blurring of lines between“populism,” and racism and xenophobia, is always problematic—it rejects the existence of any legitimate desire for change and reform, and it stops any proper analysis of racism in politics or the rise of the far-right.
In truth, this desire to label everything “populist” is a desire to fit all politics into a rigid set of narrow rules and boundaries. Looking globally, it is tempting to try to find something that explains everything: one giant interpretative framework that can connect voters in Sydney and Sydenham, Delhi and Dagenham, Washington and Warrington.
The problem comes when commentators try to push frameworks into places that they do not fit. Worst is when the English demonstrate their historic monomania and interpret the entire world through red-white-and-blue tinted glasses. There is no empire anymore, but that doesn’t mean that Britain doesn’t rule the waves, a series of bad decisions radiating out from the centre of the world (SW1).
Ultimately the cry of ‘populism’ looks like an explanatory framework, but it does not really explain much at all. It doesn’t open up analysis or help us to draw comparisons between different areas: it shuts down debate and it stops us from understanding the nuanced and intricate ways that situations differ, and the different ways that politicians seek to gain support depending on what is going on around them. Still, at least we’ve briefly stopped blaming everything on the Russians.