Two stories this month have touched on the vexed topic of “populism”. First there was the Tory leadership contest in Britain, in which I said that a victory for front-runner Liz Truss would mean a continuation of “the populist ascendancy that the Brexit referendum unleashed.” And second there was the Italian election campaign, where I characterised two key players, the Five-Star Movement and the League, as representing different senses of “populist”.
Now, in last Monday’s Crikey, we have Christopher Warren reporting a supposed swing away from populism and towards fascism, using Italy as one of his examples – although the other is Spain, not the UK. It’s a good example of how confused the whole concept has become.
There are serious academic definitions of “populism”; I’ve quoted before the one by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, which dates to 2008: “an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.”
But a populist party, as most people used the term a decade or so ago, wasn’t just one that used “populism”, in that sense; it was one that used it as a substitute for a more conventional political ideology. That’s what made such parties difficult to classify – they weren’t obviously “left” or “right”, and their policies were a grab-bag of different elements. The Five-Stars were a classic example; others included Team Stronach in Austria and Palikot’s Movement in Poland.
By about 2016, however, there was a big new trend in European politics, inspired by the Middle East refugee crisis and the rise of Donald Trump in America. Parties like the League (then called the Northern League), UKIP in Britain, Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom rose to prominence. They were populist in the sense of the academic definitions, but they were far from non-ideological: they clearly fitted into the far-right end of the spectrum.
But many in the media shied away from labelling them as “far right” or “neo-fascist”; instead they were called “right-wing populist”, often shortened to just “populist”. And established far-right parties, such as Austria’s Freedom Party and France’s National Front (now National Rally), got the same treatment. Add in a few “left-wing populist” parties, like Spain’s Podemos, and the confusion was complete.
So Warren should be applauded for making it clear that the League, Brothers of Italy and Vox in Spain are not amorphous “populists” but rather “movement-style parties which claim descent from their respective 20th century fascist regimes.” But while Vox was a late starter, in general the rise of such parties (and of such tendencies within existing right-of-centre parties) dates to the mid-2010s, not the last year or two.
Brothers of Italy and Vox are actually the exceptions (and the former has achieved success by moderating its outlook); in most of the continent, the recent trend for the far right has been downwards. Similarly, the loss in support for the older non-ideological populists is not a recent phenomenon.
Sometimes parties themselves shift ideologically. Australia can provide a good example in Clive Palmer’s UAP, formerly the Palmer United Party. On its first appearance in 2013 it fitted the then mould of populism – more right than left, but with no clear ideology. After a dormant period it resurfaced in 2019 as much more clearly right-wing, and by this year’s election it unmistakably belonged on the far right. A similar if less pronounced movement happened with UKIP and AfD.
Warren misses most of this because of his focus on Italy and Spain, and because he draws the populist net so widely in the first place, including not only Podemos but also Citizens (“Ciudadanos”). But although both used populist rhetoric, they occupied clear slots on the ideological spectrum, as far-left and liberal-centrist respectively.
On Warren’s account, the rise of populist or “anti-party” politics becomes merely a story about voters being dissatisfied with existing alternatives and turning to new or hitherto-neglected parties. That’s true and important, but if every challenge to the political establishment is to be labelled “populist” then it seems to me we have emptied the term of much of its usefulness.
For more on the subject, you can read some of my previous thoughts here: