Oh dear, it’s populism again

This is just a quick post to draw everyone’s attention to the Guardian‘s new series on European “populism”. You can read its opening salvo here, and you can follow the whole series here. You can even do the quiz to find out how much of a populist its experts think you are (I came out closest to Barack Obama).

For a while there, I thought people had stopped using “populist” as the label for the anti-democratic forces that many of us are concerned about, and were adopting more honest and precise terms like “far-right nationalist”, or just “Trumpist”. So I don’t know if the Guardian is just behind the curve, or if this is a new wave of confusion.

Nonetheless, some of their material on election results looks interesting; I’ll study it when I get the chance and report back. But my general view is that the sort of definition they’re using is of limited usefulness; as I said earlier this year, at best it “works as a term for a particular tendency or strategy within parties,” not as an analytic category in which to put different parties.

Here’s the explanation I gave a year ago, when discussing Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš:

Babiš is one of Czechia’s richest businesspeople, and ANO is basically his personal vehicle – he is a rather more successful version of Clive Palmer. Like Palmer, his politics are populist but not extremist, targeting the alleged corruption of “the system” but occupying a broadly centrist position.

Until a couple of years ago, one would have said that this was reasonably typical of “populist” movements in Europe, with other examples including Italy’s 5-Star Movement, Austria’s Team Stronach and Palikot’s Movement in Poland. They centred around a prominent (often wealthy) individual, demanded a shakeup of the establishment, and appeared and sometimes disappeared with unusual speed.

More recently, however, the term “populist” has been diverted to a different sort of party: the far-right, anti-European, anti-immigrant parties like UKIP, France’s National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party – not to mention the supporters of Donald Trump.

But I think the switch in usage is unfortunate and should be resisted. We already have a term for these parties – far right – and we shouldn’t be coy about using it. While they do share with the ANO-like parties a conspiracy-theory view of the world and a devotion to a strong leader, they also have an ideology, which provides for continuity and for co-ordination across national borders.

No doubt, the analysis of many different varieties of populism can be interesting and helpful. But we need to keep our eyes on the main game and where the real threat is coming from. I hope the Guardian’s efforts won’t detract from that.


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