Populism Opinion

We can learn from Populists

Dealing with a challenging phenomenon

© Katja-Julia Fischer

Hanno Burmester, DIALOGUE ON EUROPE Co-Facilitator and Das Progressive Zentrum Policy Fellow argues within the debate magazine Tagesspiegel Causa that established parties should learn from populist parties’ successes.

At the moment, populism is booming in Europe. But instead of demonising populists, the established parties should learn from their success. This is the only way they will be able to regain voters’ support.

It is the populists’ year in Europe. Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in Great Britain. Beppe Grillo in Italy. Norbert Hofer and Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria. Pablo Iglesias Turrión in Spain. In Germany, Frauke Petry and Alexander Gauland send their regards. In Central Europe, Viktor Orbán has been governing in Hungary for years, more recently accompanied by the Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło.

Unfortunately, this list of emerging powers from the far left and right could be continued. The almost exhaustive map of European populism is indeed worrying in many areas. It is especially concerning , when populist forces oppose the pluralist, liberal democracy. Political parties such as Fidesz, Front National, UKIP, FPÖ and AfD have declared war on liberal systems. They want to establish a dictatorship by the (supposed) majority. They neither support the protection of minorities, nor compassion and humanity towards those who need both the most urgently.


Not populism, but extremism is the real problem


It is crucial to talk about political extremism instead of getting lost in repetitive debates about populism. The essential issue is not populism, but the defence of liberal democracy. Who focuses on populists’ stylistic devices misses the true challenge of the upcoming culture war.

In other words: Populism is a quite useless term for the political debate. Who lumps together movements like Podemos and Front National compares apples and oranges. The Spanish Podemos has started as pluralistic grassroots movement. It is based on the unambiguous commitment to liberal democracy. The picture differs when looking at Front National or Fidesz. These extremist parties are centrally managed, led by authoritarian “Führer” figures. Pluralism is alien to them – they declare war on diversity. Their agenda is carried out at the expense of minorities, xenophobia is key.

This brief comparison is sufficient to show that we should stop talking about populism in a general way. The term sets the wrong frame by reducing political forces that are clearly divided by more aspects than they are united by, to a common denominator. It makes much more sense to distinguish pluralistic from anti-pluralistic (or extremist) forces. Both sides might use populist methods. But this is a stylistic device, not the key challenge.


We can learn from populists


Moreover: Who only rejects or condemns populists, misses learning from them. This is foolish. After all, the success of both pluralistic and anti-pluralistic populists has a reason: the result of the policies pursued by established European parties, especially since 2008. Growing economic inequalities, years of ongoing austerity policy at the expense of the poor and average earners, persistent lack of perspective in particular for members of minorities – the list of undone political tasks is not only long, but also depressing.

The more important it is for political parties to ask themselves critically: What are our competitors from the extreme right and left doing right?

I certainly do not mean that the established parties should emulate the new rivals. Who just runs after populists and extremists undermines his or her own credibility and dilutes the own brand. It is rather about the intelligent translation of factors of success, that have enabled extremists and populists to grow.


The established parties also have to debate on “unpleasant” topics


Some topics are out in the open – but no one takes them on. This is the opportunity for every populist force. After all, they subsist on the accusation that the established parties do not care about the people’s concerns and needs.

Therefore, it is all the more important that the established parties administer these sentiments and topics just the way they are. Even though they might be unpleasant. It is better to have real debates on topics like migration, integration, poverty or security, instead of shirking until others impose the debate on oneself. Charismatic leadership is not a daily business in German politics. For many leading politicians, politics is the art of waiting, manoeuvring and saying nothing. This leads to political debates being held only hesitantly or not at all. If they are held, these debates tend to mire in the technocratic political bubble and its very own diction.

This alienates, depoliticises and blurs the differences between parties – and makes politics seem unable to orientate itself. It is consequently even more important to dare to hold these debates, to occupy topics and to link them to one’s own personality. This way, the existing vacuum – which is used nowadays by charismatic figures from the far right and left – can be filled.

How come that in particular populist forces use a language understandable for everyone? Why do the established parties  fail to narrow down complex topics to simple claims? Actors of the political centre have to formulate their messages – yes, they do exist! – easily, clearly and radically, thought from a voter’s perspective. And they have to do so over and over again. Who repeats one’s claims will rather be successful than someone presenting a new ten point plan every two weeks.

This article has originally been published on Tagesspiegel Causa and can be read here.

This text has been created based on discussions of the DIALOGUE ON EUROPE Thinking Lab on Populism. Hanno Burmester is Policy Fellow at Das Progressive Zentrum and is Co-Facilitator of the Thinking Lab. Furthermore he works as a organisational consultant in Berlin and led a cross-party project on the reform of political parties.