Populism Analysis

Populism: Not Left, not Right, not an Alternative?

A symptom of a failing political culture

"left/right" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by na.harii 

For a few years now, Western liberal democracies have seen the rise in populist parties on the far left and on the far right of the political spectrum, while mainstream parties do not seem to convince dissatisfied voters any more. Is populism an alternative to traditional left and right wing political parties, as most of them pretend to be?

The Spanish popular movement “Indignados” went to the streets with the slogan: “We have a vote, but we don’t have a voice”. Increasingly, voters do not feel represented, neither by left nor right-wing governments. It is this powerlessness of large parts of the population in the Western World which can be considered as the root cause for the rise of populist parties. They pretend to offer an alternative to established Left and Right parties, as both sides support technocratic decision-making with little difference in the ideological outlook and values.

The Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe calls this state in which mainstream political parties do not offer a real alternative “post-politics”. It is closely related to the post-democratic state of our states, in which political institutions increasingly function as technocratic machines built on management structures. Due to this development, public policies are based on a pragmatic, economic-based approach. Whilst differences in national policies still exist and will continue to do so, the Greek sovereign debt crisis is such an example where economic realities are put first – interestingly enough, whilst framed by opponents in a populist narrative of “the Troika against the people”.

While this state of post-politics might be good news for the management of public affairs, it has a negative impact on the political culture, as it creates a void in opposing political ideologies, especially in election times. Voters realise that they do not have the power to influence political decisions, and that the electoral decision they make does not necessarily lead to the changes in policies they have voted for. The sovereign bond debt crisis in Greece, the refugee crisis and the debate around TTIP in Germany are all examples in which both left and right wing politicians supported the status quo, so that established parties didn’t offer political options to the voters. Mainstream parties have largely accepted this reality, whilst at the same time neglected the fact that a political culture needs discussions generating new ideas to move forward and adapt to new developments.

At the same time, institutions vital for the well-being of society – and used as reference points for parties to find their audiences – have been increasingly weakened: Trade unions, associations and corporations have disappeared as ways of organising people in civil society. French political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon speaks of an “untraceable people” – individualisation made it more difficult for parties to mobilise and to adapt their political communication to different groups in society. It has become harder to represent a people with the same values, interests and categories on which traditional parties relied in the past. The fragmentation of society and the lacking sense of community with many voters has led to difficulties for parties to reinvent themselves accordingly.

In this context, populist parties have found a breeding ground. Citizens feel that their voice is not heard, therefore they will vote for those parties pretending to be an “alternative”, those parties with scandalous messages. Populist parties achieve to mobilise those parts of the population which feel left aside and unheard in the political process.

Left parties have their share of responsibility in the rise of populism

But it is not only the “management approach” and the fragmentation of society which are responsible for the rise in populist parties. According to Chantal Mouffe, parties on the left of the political spectrum have a particular responsibility for the rise in populist parties, especially on the right of the political agenda: The socialist and social-democratic parties are the ones which managed the current affairs just like conservative governments, rather than propose solutions adapted to their ideological basis. Indeed, legislative choices and reforms conducted by Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair or even François Hollande have led to similarities in the policies of left and right wing governments, and thus left the space to populist parties to enter the realm of “opposition”. When there is no more difference between left and right in the daily management of politics, and the claimed differences in electoral campaigns soon are unmasked as inexistent, it becomes easy for populists to claim the “alternative” for themselves.

Due to this lack of real opposition to a large chunk of public policies, the Overton window phenomenon has taken hold of liberal democracies: Our sense of what is “acceptable” has shifted towards the right of the political spectrum in order to create new opposed views. Fascist, racist and scandalous comments we heard during the Brexit or the Trump campaign have become the “new normal”. Discourses have become “postfactual”, merely based on on emotions. What people feel suddenly becomes a factual reality, without questioning the veracity of the statements.


Is populism the only answer to a “mainstreamization” of party politics?

Populist parties speak to the people. Interestingly enough, everyone recognises the legitimacy of the sovereignty of the people when it comes to voting in a democracy, as universal suffrage is the reason why there is a “people” in the first place – someone needs to be represented. But no one recognises that populist parties speak exactly to this “constitutive people”. Mainstream parties seem to forget that it is this affective dimension of the “us” which is the ground rule for political mobilisation. This “agency” of the people, which is legitimate, needs to be canalised rather than undermined. So it is easy to criticise populists – but the phenomenon of populism is not a perversion of democracy – it is part of it. Mainstream parties claim they speak to their voters, but increasingly struggle to keep their voters away from protest parties and demagogues such as FN, AfD or UKIP.

Populism in itself is not a “Third Way”. It does not propose real answers to political issues; it does not provide an alternative. Instead, it is only a mean to gather masses for a political project. And there we have to look closer to differentiate between the left and the right: On the Right, there are no viable political projects, only illiberal suggestions such as building walls or fear mongering about refugees. There are no constructive and realistic propositions to improve the lives for its citizens. Most of them don’t have a clear agenda as to economy, pensions or taxes. There is solely a focus on a small number of key issues, with which those parties gather the entire media attention. On the Left, however, there are some policy proposals which are viable. And they can also prove constructive: Bernie Sanders successfully challenged Hillary Clinton during the election campaign. Podemos managed to provoke an upheaval in the Spanish political system. They challenge the mainstream parties, but in a way which does not promote hate speech and violence.

Instead of populism, we need to reinstate emotional politics in so-called mainstream parties. New instruments to reach out to people through new methods of political communication are already existing. The issue remains as how to reach those people with ideas that can be made understandable in messages, without reducing the quality of the political debate to the level of Trump or Farage. Rather than more polarisation, it is an open space for political debate that needs to be constructed, in which arguments, facts and ideas can be developed into visions and concepts. The old Left and Right have lost their meanings and do not represent the values of modern societies. So to fight populism, new ideas need to be developed to create new lines of demarcation about values, public policies and alternatives to what mainstream parties have sold as the “only rational option viable”.

Whereas there are no simple answers to Trumps and other political demagogues, there is a clear urgency for mainstream parties to rethink their political programmes, to have the courage to utter political differences and to stop pretending that their voters are too stupid to understand the complexity of political decisions. In a nutshell, mainstream political parties need to define what it means to be Left or Right wing in the 21st century, based on a clear set of values and on concrete policy proposals on topics such as digitalisation and cybersecurity, terrorism and foreign policy, or climate change and the environment. Those are the topics which will stay relevant for the identity of parties on the political spectrum.



“The winds are changing: a new left populism for Europe”LSE Blog | 16 February 2016 | Link to the article (English)

“Nach dem Tabu” | Zeit Online | 22 January 2016 | Link to the article (German)

“Das Zeitalter der Fakten ist vorbei” | Zeit Online | 02 June 2016 | Link to the article (German)

“Das ist kein Populismus mehr, das ist Ernst” | Tagesspiegel | 22 June 2016 | Link to the article (German)

“Taubira/Mouffe. Réarmer la gauche face au déclin démocratique” | Mediapart | 28 July 2016 | Link to the article (French)