Good populism, bad populism?

Tuesday 14 November, 19.0020.30, Free Thinking Zone, Skoufa 64 Str & Grivaion, 10680 AthensBattle of Ideas Europe


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From Trump to Brexit, Corbyn to Macron, there have been several examples in the past year of unexpected outsiders riding the wave of populism and washing up on the shores of mainstream politics. In the Oxford English Dictionary, populism is defined as the ‘support for or representation of ordinary people or their views’. In the context of recent political events, however, populism has accrued more pejorative, threatening associations, and been closely identified with the recent surges in racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration allied to the movements that elected Trump, influenced Britain’s vote to leave the EU, and swelled the support for France’s National Front candidate Marine Le Pen and the AfD in Germany. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently come under fire for allegedly ‘bowing down to populism’ with her immigration plans. In an apparent counter-movement, new political shifts and arrangements have also manifested against such populist trends. When the young independent Emmanuel Macron defeated his far-right opponent, Hillary Clinton tweeted ‘Victory for Macron, for France, the EU & the world’. The liberal international media shared her delight, and Macron has become the poster-boy for a new ‘third way’ in contemporary politics – an antidote to the ‘wrong kind’ of populism.

In spite of its recent manifestations, however, surely it is wrong to brand populism as inherently right wing. The rise of left populist movements, shows a shift in the public debate, with leading European intellectuals like Chantal Mouffe arguing that populism is in the end good for democracy, and that it’s old liberalism that is the problem. ‘The main good is that populism brings to the fore issues that large parts of the population care about, but that the political elites want to avoid discussing,’ contends expert Cas Mudde, author of The Populist Radical Right. While the political right combine populism with nativism and immigration, those on the left join populism to socialism. In the UK, many voted for Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘change’ candidate, a break from the technocratic politics of centrism. But what happens when populist movements come into power? In Greece left and right populists have shifted from being radical anti-establishment in opposition to upholding austerity. Populist governments, as Cas Mudde has suggested, run the risk of either bowing to ‘business as usual’ politics, or on the flipside, undermining the checks and balances of liberal democracy by seeking to serve, impossibly, the interests of everyone.

Can we divide populism into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ camps, and if so, do both camps equally represent and support the ordinary people? Does one side hypocritically exploit them, while the other authentically addresses their concerns? Is populism just another word for democracy? Or is it the opposite?