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Are you populist or democrat, Humpty or Dumpty?


The word ‘populist’ is getting plenty of airing these days. It’s part of the current political divide – democrat v. populist, but like all fashionable Newspeak, it’s not always clear what it means. Rather like the Humpty Dumpty Theory of Language, it means exactly what the speaker chooses it to mean.

Take Hillary Clinton: in an interview with the Guardian she opined that Europe must get a handle on immigration to combat a ‘growing threat from rightwing populists’. While praising the generosity shown by German chancellor Merkel, she suggests that immigration was ‘inflaming voters’, and had contributed to the election of Trump and the UK’s vote to leave the EU. So: populism = right-wing, anti-immigrant, and by association, xenophobic, racist, and probably according to Godwin’s Law, neo-nazi as well.

But when it boils down to precise definitions, as opposed to handy labels, it gets tricky. On the one hand, ‘democrat’ is defined as ‘believing in equality for all and rule by the majority’. This crops up frequently in the furore over the Brexit result with, for example, Julia Hartley-Brewer denouncing the May Deal as ‘not just the death of Brexit, but the death of democracy’. And Baroness Chakrabarti – that paragon of social equality (elevated to the peerage, serving in the Shadow Cabinet, and never elected by anybody) – stating in an interview with Andrew Marr quite justifiably, that by upholding the majority Brexit vote, ‘I don’t know about you, Andrew, but I’m a democrat’.

So that’s official. Democrat = upholding rule by the majority. This is further complicated when you define the universe entitled to vote. So while the SNP claim the Brexit vote was undemocratic because a majority of Scots voted to remain, they conveniently ignore that the referendum was UK-wide, and not limited to Scottish residents, as was their own, unsuccessful indie-ref bid.

The BBC have a strange understanding of the concept of a democratic vote, as seen in Emily Maitlis’s jaw-dropping interview with the Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto. The Orban government was elected to power with a two-thirds supermajority, but to Maitlis this falls far short of democracy and is, rather, evidence of pure xenophobia and a denial of EU values – tolerance (!) diversity, human rights – which takes us clearly into Clinton’s territory of dangerous populism.

Finding a clear definition of populism is not that easy either. The Guardian is running an investigative series exploring who the ‘new populists’ are, written by academics, notably Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist whose work focuses on ‘political extremism and populism’ in Europe and the US. In an interview with Al Jazeera he claimed that Europe’s far-right parties wanted to undermine ‘minority rights and the rule of law’. Do you detect a shift here? It’s now about the rule of law and minorities. Ah yes – the new democracy: liberal democracy which upholds the rule of law but affords equal rights to minorities. Complicated.

According to Mudde, populism frames politics as a battle between the virtuous ‘ordinary’ masses (the volonté générale) and a nefarious or corrupt elite, while demanding that the general will of the people must always triumph. This is often combined with a ‘host’ ideology, which can be either left or right. Fine; what remains unclear is why there is a fundamental gap between democracy and populism, since both believe in rule by the majority.

Mudde has studied the political scientists who focus on the idea of populism and, as Nadia Urbinati has argued, basically it cannot be defined. Ripe territory for Humpty Dumpty. But until the 2008 financial crash, populism had routinely been identified with the far right, such as the Front National or the Flemish Bloc. Post-crash saw the rise of Syriza and Podemos, both of which are pro-people and anti-elite, but clearly part of the radical left.

Academics now agree on the common core ideology of: people (= good) and elite (= bad); but in practice, post-Trump and -Brexit, this ‘populist phenomenon’ is almost always used about the radical right. It is ideologically determined by authoritarianism and nativism, says Mudde – quite a semantic leap. He defines nativism as a xenophobic form of nationalism, which has developed policies restricting the rights of ‘alien others’ – notably immigrants, Muslims and refugees – but not of ‘native’ elites. (Ah . . . now we can see where the BBC’s Maitlis was coming from.) Populists in the 21st century are therefore democratic but anti-liberal, and modern democracy (popular sovereignty and majority rule) is hegemonic rather than liberal. (I hope that makes it all as clear as Mudde.)

Like Baroness Shami, I have always thought of myself as a democrat. But just to be on the safe side, I did the Guardian quiz – ‘How populist are you?’ The questions were a bit of a giveaway, covering whether politicians should be close to the people and listen to them; whether governments were largely run by big business, using their power in the people’s interests; whether a person’s politics define them as good or bad (cf. John McDonnell – ‘I couldn’t be friends with a Tory’); whether the elite inhibit a country’s progress, and deliberately conceal information from the people. Finally, do you approve of patriotism, nationalism, the free market, free trade, renewable energy, pollution control, conservatism, church authority, left-wing people, socialism, gay marriage, and adoption by homosexuals?

My answers put me considerably to the right of Matteo Salvini (Lega), whom they describe as far right, strongly anti-immigrant, and often anti-EU. I am least aligned with Pablo Iglesias (Podemos) who is anti-corruption and anti-austerity, and supports a minority socialist government.

The questions are wildly simplistic and the answers leave no space for nuance – eg ‘Are left-wing people evil?’ But the nature of the quiz, including this problem with definitions, renders the whole thing fairly inconclusive and pointless – a bit like 21st century politics.

Does it have to be so complicated? Surely, given their commitment to the will of the virtuous ordinary masses, this volonté générale, by the political scientists and the parliamentarians, the mainstream media and certainly the commissioners of the EU, it could all be expressed in straightforward terms, easily accessible even to the volonté générale. Maybe something like this:

Democratic = a majority vote you agree with

Populist = a majority vote you disagree with.

It’s quite simple really.

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Janice Davis
Janice Davis
Janice Davis is a grandmother and former girls’ grammar school teacher

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