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Face it, you elitists, populism is here to stay


National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, by Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell; Pelican, 2018

Until comparatively recently – say, the last ten years or so – ‘populism’ was a relatively neutral descriptive term confined mainly to textbooks and dictionaries of political science.

Even my own copy of Scruton’s Dictionary of Political Thought (3rd edition, 2007) discusses it primarily in the context of the Russian Narodnik movement and the late 19th century US Populist Party, alluding only briefly to the early stages of its current pejorative usage. In the 1950s, it was applied most frequently to the French Poujadistes, the union of small shopkeepers and artisans which campaigned against most forms of large-scale development and industrial modernisation.

Since about 2013-2014, though, it’s been resurrected to be deployed in a different way by the ruling – not only political but also media, corporatist, academic and cultural – Establishment-Elites who see their continued hegemony threatened by it, especially when, as with Brexit and Trump, it produces electoral outcomes not to their liking.

‘Populism’ is now the anti-democratic, globalist, ‘Liberal-Progressive’ oligarchy’s preferred term of disparagement for the growing politics of pluralist mass democracy, based on self-governing nation-statehood which rejects rule by unelected and unaccountable supra-national technocracy.

It’s about this movement that political scientists and academics Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell have written in their book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, trying to explain its origins, its central tenets, and its prospects.

Contrary to the assumptions of its contemptuously dismissive opponents, the movement isn’t new. Goodwin and Eatwell show how its genesis pre-dates the 2007-08 financial crisis and the subsequent recession, although both events, and especially the globalist ‘Liberal-Progressive’ oligarchy’s policy-responses to them – hardship for those on low and middle incomes via austerity and greater job insecurity, but asset-value protection, even inflation, for the wealthy via ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing – generated an increase in inequality which enlarged the political space for the movement to fill.

Nor is it, as its detractors lazily claim, a movement composed solely of old white men. In the USA in 2016, not only did 53 per cent of white women voters vote for Trump, but 43 per cent of all women voters went for Trump. Between 1988 and 2017, the percentage of French female first-time voters who voted for one or other Le Pen nearly quadrupled from 9 per cent to 32 per cent. Greece’s anti-EU Golden Dawn party drew significant support from the young who felt their prospects were deteriorating. Clearly, something other than the Liberal-Progressive oligarchy’s lazy, clichéd, prejudices was, and is, at work.

Goodwin and Eatwell identify what they call the Four Ds – the historic shifts, the long-term trends which are a growing cause of concern for millions and are driving the movement and which, being structural, are unlikely to fade or dissipate, or be assuaged, in the near future.

First, Distrust – the way in which the elitist nature of Liberal-Progressive democracy, ever seeking to minimise the opportunities for meaningful participation by the masses, has promoted distrust of politicians and institutions by millions who feel they no longer have a voice in the national discussion.

Second, Destruction – particularly the perception that culturally ‘liberal’ politicians, unaccountable supranational bureaucracies and global corporates are eroding not only traditional communities, but also national identity and societal cohesion, especially via promoting mass immigration, while politically-correct agendas strive to silence any expression of opposition.

Third, Deprivation – the growing conviction of many, fuelled by rising inequalities of income and wealth, as well as the perception of cultural discrimination against them by the Liberal-Elites, that they are losing out relative to others, and that the future for themselves and their children is not only diminished, but actually bleak.

Fourth, De-alignment – the burgeoning gap, and therefore weakening bond, between rulers and ruled, between the traditional mainstream political parties and the people they purport (or no longer bother even to pretend) to represent: manifesting itself in a much more fragmented, volatile and unpredictable politics.

Goodwin and Eatwell also show that, again giving the lie to the dismissive prejudices of its critics, the populism movement is not anti-democratic. Rather, it opposes aspects of Liberal-Progressive democracy as it has evolved to date, and actually wants more democracy: more referendums and more-listening politicians who will devolve power to the people to be exercised democratically instead of vesting it in what too often are unelected and unaccountable, bureaucratic and technocratic, economic and political elites.

Goodwin and Eatwell demonstrate, too, that neither is populism ‘fascist’, as its belittlers and defamers claim, most notably near-hysterically in the aftermath of the Brexit and Trump victories and the strengthening electoral performance of anti-Establishment parties in Europe. The movement by and large does not seek to tear down failed institutions which turned anti-democratic and replace them with autocratic ones, but to repair them so that they once again serve the interests of those they are supposed to serve.

The authors argue, in my view correctly, that unless elitist Liberal-Progressivism acknowledges its shortcomings, it will fail to come to terms with the new populism, and so will struggle to contain it. Conversely, however, if it can bring itself to dilute its self-exalting smugness and intolerance, and broaden its appeal by meeting the legitimate concerns of voters who want radical action to roll back elite-driven agendas in areas such as welfare-universalism, mass immigration, rising inequality and civil liberties, it may yet accommodate itself to it.

The former will mean populism remaining outside the mainstream, but becoming ever more widespread while the Liberal-Progressive centrism shrinks. The latter will mean populism becoming the mainstream as more of the present mainstream adapts to meet it, signs of which are already visible. Either way, it’s here to stay, and isn’t going away any time soon.

I bought Goodwin and Eatwell’s book immediately on publication, but only over the holiday period has it been possible to go through it more slowly, in depth. I’d have no hesitation in recommending that you do, too.

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Michael St George
Michael St George
Michael St George is a freelance writer arguing for minimal-state, low-tax, free-markets minarchist-libertarianism. He tweets as @A_Liberty_Rebel. He is @LibertarianRebelon Parler.

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