Good populism, bad populism?

Wednesday 15 November, 19:3021:00, Flemish-Dutch House deBuren, Leopoldstraat 6, 1000 BrusselsBattle of Ideas Europe

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This debate is in English. Tickets are €5/€3 and available here. Or to reserve a place email [email protected]  

From Trump to Corbyn, Brexit to Macron, the past year has aroused several examples of unexpected outsiders riding the wave of populism and washing up on the shores of mainstream politics. The Oxford English Dictionary defines populism as ‘support for the concerns of ordinary people’. However, in the context frame of recent political events, it is often associated with pejorative connotations such as 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 National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.

But more recently, there seem to be new political shifts against such populist trends, but that less symbolize ‘politics as usual’ but rather a new set of political arrangements. When Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, beat the controversial far-right candidate Geert Wilders in the Dutch General Election in March this year, he declared: ‘The Netherlands said “no” to the wrong kind of populism’. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton tweeted ‘Victory for Macron, for France, the EU & the world’ after the second round of the French election in May. The international liberal media shared her delight and Emmanuel Macron has become the poster-boy for a ‘third way’ in contemporary politics, the antithesis of the ‘wrong kind’ of populism. Significantly, Macron’s En Marche! Movement’s victory was on the back of the almost complete destruction of the Ancien Régime of the left-leaning Socialist Party and centre-right Republicans who had dominated French politics since the 1980s. Even though July polls showed Macron’s approval rating plummeting by 10 percentage points, he is still seen as embodying a new France, one which rallied against the old, stuffy career politicians of before and promised a fresh economically centrist and socially progressive alternative to the wave of right-wing populism sweeping Europe.

Meanwhile, in the UK, while some interpreted the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn as a bloody nose for the Tories’ Brexit plans, it has become clear that many voted for the Labour leader as a ‘change’ candidate, less anti-Brexit (which Corbyn claims to support) and more as a break from the technocratic politics of centrism. The rise of left-wing populist movements and parties has seen a shift in the public debate, with leading intellectuals such as Chantal Mouffe arguing that populism is good for democracy; it is old liberalism that is the real problem.

Is there a new European anti-elite political realignment? Is there really such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ populism and do both streams equally represent and support the concerns of ordinary people? Or does one side exploit them, while the other does little to truly address them? Are both sides of the populism war guilty of perpetuating what Professor Cas Mudde, author of The Populist Radical Right: A Reader, describes as ‘an uncompromising stand which denies legitimacy to opposing views’? And are they simply an unnecessary reinvention of a partition within Western politics that has existed since the dawn of time: the left vs the right? Finally, is the debate about good and bad populism overly subjective, especially when one considers that for numerous British people, the Brexit vote signalled a ‘good’, if not fantastic, breed of populism for its courageous rejection of an unelected elite, neither left nor right?