The populists are coming! In many European countries, so-called “populist” political parties are on the rise, disrupting the established political order and upstaging mainstream parties. Their opponents see them as demagogues who ignore the realities of power and the necessity of political compromise, while their supporters view them as plain-speaking underdogs who are willing to stand up for regular folk against the lazy, the incompetent, and the powerful.
Curious to know more about the rise of populism across Europe? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
We had a comment sent in from Eric arguing that what some commentators call populist, “most of the contributors on [Debating Europe] would call democracy and patriotism”. In other words, isn’t “populism” just democracy at work? What’s so bad about populism?
To get a response, we spoke to Cas Mudde, Associate Professor at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. How would he react?
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Paul Taggart, Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex European Institute. How would he respond to Eric?
I’m not sure we should apply labels such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to populism. I personally don’t think populism is inherently a bad thing. I think it attaches to different sets of ideas, some of which are very bad (in my opinion), but there’s nothing to stop populism attaching itself to ideas that I think are good.
What we tend to mean when we speak about ‘populism’ in the European context is populism of the Right or Far Right. But Latin American populism is often of the Left Wing… Populism pushes at the edges. It’s not revolutionary, but it advocates the idea of popular sovereignty above the sovereignty of institutions, and it tends to be opposed to ideas of civil or human rights, democratic institutions, and representatives of those institutions. Populists don’t tend to like politicians as a whole. In its extreme form, populism doesn’t like politics…
So, why do people vote for populist parties? We had a comment sent in from Costin, who wonders if the rise of populism might be a direct result of the recent economic crisis, adding that he’s “hopeful that once we can put the crisis behind us and we no longer need scapegoats for our economic misfortunes, some of these xenophobic attitudes will also dissipate.”
In other words: is it the economy, stupid? How would Cas Mudde respond?
And what would Paul Taggart say?
I’m a political scientist, I don’t think I should be telling people who or what they should be voting for… What I do believe, however, is that we should be dealing with the issues that populists raise. The problem with the reaction to populism so far is that we haven’t taken it very seriously. We tend to want to treat populism as something negative. We want to see it as abnormal. For me, politics is about contestation, debate, discussion. Populism is best addressed by answering the questions it asks…
And I think that the distrust that populism draws from is much deeper than a distrust about the functioning of the economy. It’s a distrust about the way that politics works, and I think really in my heart of hearts that we don’t fully understand the functioning of politics sometimes, and the expectations that people have of politics are sometimes too high…
Why is “populism” seen as a bad thing? Why do people vote for populist parties? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!