Could populists win the upcoming European elections? Might dissatisfaction with the EU on a raft of issues – from immigration to the economy – result in a surge of support for so-called populist parties? Italy’s Matteo Salvini certainly hopes that anti-establishment parties win big in the May vote, paving the way for a populist alliance to reform the EU and craft the institutions in their own image.
But what would that actually mean in practice? What would a “populist alliance” actually look like? Political analysts point out that, despite previous electoral success, European populists have struggled when it comes to unity of purpose or message. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nationalist political movements find international coordination with other nationalists a challenge, particularly when “populist” parties often hail from radically different ends of the political spectrum.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Yannick, who asks what exactly populism is, before going on to suggest it might just be an overly-broad label for ideas that aren’t part of the political mainstream. So, what is populism? And how can you tell if you’re a populist?
To get a response, we put Yannick’s comment to Matthijs Rooduijn, Political Sociologist at the University of Amsterdam. How would he respond?
Well, there is a whole debate about what populism is, of course, and there are many, many definitions out there. Some see it as something like a political style, some argue that it’s a form of organisation, some argue that it’s an ideology, and still, of course, many scholars disagree on what populism is.
Yet there is an increasing agreement about the idea that populism is a set of ideas, or a substantive message, that is about the relationship between the people on the one hand and the elite on the other hand. And it basically says that the good, virtuous people are exploited, betrayed, neglected, corrupted by an evil elite. So, it’s really about the antagonistic relationship between the two: the people and the elite.
Of course, what you often see is that parties that endorse such a message are parties that are not mainstream. So, parties that are radical to some extent, parties that are new, because they want to come up with arguments to attack the established political order. So, there is a relationship between populism and not being mainstream, but it’s not the same. Populism really is about this substantive message about the good people and the evil elite.
Next up, Simone sent us in a comment arguing that populism performs an important role in any democracy: “Populism is definitely not the solution, but, to an extent, I do agree that it has an important function in a democratic system. Populists are extremely good at [identifying] people’s discontents”.
Is she right? How would Matthijs Rooduijn from the University of Amsterdam respond?
I agree to quite some extent. I think that populism has both good and bad sides, and I agree with her that one of the strengths of populism that – of course we have some people who are discontent about things, about parties, about the way that democracy works, and populist parties are basically a vehicle that channels their discontent. And it’s important that there are parties that do so, because this way these people feel represented. And populists, also, are not fascists; they emphasise the virtuous people, they argue that the will of the people should be the point of departure for political decisions. So, they are not fascists or extremists in that sense, and it’s important to make that distinction.
On the other hand, it’s not the case that populism is only good for a democracy. We live in liberal democracies in which minority rights, checks and balances are really important. Populist parties often see these checks and balances, these minority rights, as liabilities. They don’t like them very much because they hamper the coming into existence of the will of the people, and therefore they are negative about these things. Therefore, populism is – on the one hand – really good for democracy because it channels discontent, but on the other hand it is to quite some extent dangerous to liberal democracy because it is not compatible with some of the ideas or foundations of liberal democracy.
How can you tell if you’re a populist? Does populism serve an important function in democracy? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!