In recent years, headlines like these have proliferated: “Can the EU Survive Populism?”, “Will 2017 be the year of populism?”, and “Explaining The Populist Revolt”. Such pieces rarely define what populism means, and almost all shed “populists” in a negative light. The tactic of pejoratively calling populist any person or movement questioning governing structures is not only unhelpful, it endangers progress.
So first, let’s define populism. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it “Support for the concerns of ordinary people”. So far so good. Merriam-Webster points first to America’s Populist Party of the 1890s, and second to a belief “in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people”. Not so bad sounding either. So why has the term become so negative?
In short, it’s because many in politics, academia and the media have no interest in the very real problems faced by a growing number of citizens. Rather than addressing these issues and those voicing them, it’s easier to dismiss them with a catch-all, throwaway label.
In an essay published last September, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that “’Populism’ is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like.” Fukuyama has been wrong in the past, but in this instance he is bang on. The run-up to the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership provides a good illustration of his point. Instead of directly encountering growing public unease over issues like immigration, health care, and the EU (British voters’ top three issues last June, according to Ipsos Mori) the campaign to remain in the EU—which included almost all major party leaders—trivialized such positions. By opting for scare tactics instead of presenting concrete steps towards addressing voter concerns, political leaders effectively ignored many of their constituents.
If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that ignoring major issues does not make them go away. Here too the referendum on Brexit provides an apt example. In the weeks before the vote, then-chancellor George Osborne said that Brexit would leave the UK “permanently poorer”, while former prime minister Tony Blair claimed that “If we were to leave, it would put a level of economic insecurity into the ordinary family household that I think most people would think is a foolish risk to take”. In both instances, rather than attempting to address the core grievances shared by many Britons, mainstream politicians sought to keep discussions within their sanctioned boundary—the economic suppositions of “experts”. Needless to say, this only served to fuel anger at a distant elite, seemingly uninterested in tackling issues they didn’t recognize or understand.
The UK’s vote to leave the EU should have given pause to such attitudes. And indeed, many in the political class now back Brexit. However others, like Tony Blair, remain unwilling to accept the referendum result, in his case spending millions of pounds to create an organisation aimed at fighting “populism”.
So what can be done to shed the populist label and get on with real debate?
For some, it’s a matter of reappropriating the term. Leading up to the 2013 Italian election, the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), Beppe Grillo, held a series of large rallies across Italy. In one, Grillo exclaimed that he had been called “populist”, “demagogue”, and “megalomaniac” by mainstream political leaders. He then invited the crowd to chant these titles back. “PO-PU-LIST-A”, they roared in response. By wearing the label with pride, Grillo found a way to diffuse its desired effect.
Other growing democratic movements across the continent can take note of Grillo’s approach. However, another way to fight cheap labeling is to challenge the shallow views of those using it. In comments, interviews, panels, and debates through various media or at home, these movements and their supporters need to interject whenever the populist label comes up. They should ask any accusing them of it whether they intend to discuss the concerns voiced by so many, or continue hiding behind petty name-calling.
Gradually, important matters like employment, porous borders, identity, the erosion of democratic institutions and sovereignty are making their way into the mainstream, spurring long-overdue debate. The democratic revolts that occurred last year, as well as those to come, have made it all but impossible to ignore these very real issues. Nor can the movements pushing them to the heart of public discourse remain pigeonholed as populist. Belittling people can’t work forever.
So, in response to the headline asking whether 2017 will be the year of populism, the answer is no. 2017 will be a year of progress, when governments and the public have no choice but to start tackling our time’s most pressing problems; we can no longer afford to sweep them under the rug.