Is there a culture war against populism?

Saturday 28 October, 10:0011:30, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

The unexpected triumphs of the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump have been widely interpreted as signs of a new ‘populism’ across the Western world. In contemporary political discussions, the concept is generally used in a negative way, associated implicitly or otherwise with notions of racism and xenophobia. Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seem to form a rogues’ gallery of demagogic politicians, criticised for promoting and benefiting from rising anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment throughout Europe and the US.

But populism has come in more left-wing forms, too, like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. What unites populist movements on both the left and right is their rejection of elite culture and values. Despite the attempt to represent different movements labelled as populist as a distinct political form, they seem to have little in common other than their hostility to the ideals and the political practices of technocratic governance.

However, more recently, there have been attempts to dig deeper, recognising that these movements are not simply a hostile reaction to political institutions such as the EU or the decay of the old politics, but also to the cultural values of out-of-touch elites. Beyond electoral politics, some commentators are noting deeper fault lines in society, suggesting that populist revolts are symptomatic of a conflict over values and identity that is beginning to eclipse the traditional divide over economic redistribution that used to define left and right.

David Goodhart’s recent book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, describes two different groups increasingly pitted against each other. On one side are the marginalised ‘people from Somewhere’ – rooted in a specific place or community, socially conservative, often less educated, with a roots-based conception of national identity and cherishing ways of life that have been lost or are under threat. Those who could come from ‘Anywhere’ are more likely to subscribe to a cosmopolitan identity and are well-travelled, footloose, often urban, metropolitan, liberal, socially mobile and university-educated. In Goodhart’s view, populism expresses the rebellion by those ‘Somewhere’ social groups, whose ‘decent’ concerns have been ignored and routinely pushed aside by a media and political elite that has become a ‘cheerleader for restless change’.

In his new book, Populism and the European Culture Wars, Frank Furedi explains that the hostility of the elites towards populism largely reflects the tension between values deemed acceptable by the political and cultural establishment and values that influence people’s everyday lives. In the wake of the exhaustion of the postwar political order, ideology and political principles have been displaced by expert-led, technocratic governance, that justifies itself on the basis of expertise and process rather than vision. For years, Furedi argues, these ‘experts’ have ridiculed ordinary people’s habits, customs and traditions, as if they had a right to dictate how people should lead their lives and behave towards each other. Consequently, many people, feeling patronised and demoralised about their capacity to conduct their everyday affairs in accordance with their own inclinations or belief systems, and are drawn towards movements that promise to take them more seriously.

Should we understand the rise of populism as a challenge to the elites’ top-down values or a desperate fight to cling on to traditional, backward attachments? Are populist movements merely ‘morbid symptoms’ of a dying political order, or the first signs of a democratic renewal? Is populism worth celebrating even if it unleashes uncomfortable sentiments?