by Arne Langlet
While the article on “Populism in Europe” (published on this website some days ago) discusses in a useful way some features of the rise of new parties in Europe, it falls victim to a dangerous fallacy. It departs from the flawed (but very mainstream) assumption that new parties in Europe can and should be classified together under the name of populism. A more critical analysis of this phenomenon leads to a very different conclusion however.
It is true that those parties commonly referred to as ‘populist’ parties may have some similarities, such as oversimplifying the political matters, addressing the ‘common’ man (if he exists) and possibly recent voting success. However, these similarities are ‘surface’ similarities. They describe superficial characteristics but do not touch the core of the political ideas of these parties.
Is it not of incredible importance that we judge political parties by their political ideas or programs, and not simply by some superficial characteristics? If we include voting success as unifying characteristic then all currently winning parties in Europe would be populist?
Nationalism on the other hand, is certainly not a unifying theme between the recently emerged parties. If we look at the party programs, the recourse to nationalism is not similar to left-wing and right-wing parties.
In the program of Syriza they envision a “European Debt Conference” or a “European New Deal”. Also Podemos foresees a common European solution to economic problems and aims to change the “current governance of the Euro” with the other European countries (Interestingly, many of the proposals actually involve transferring more power and sovereignty to Europe, even over sensitive fiscal issues).
Hence, both (supposedly clear examples of “populist” parties) see their country deep within the EU and envision a common European solution to problems. Not much nationalist propaganda to discover.
In the meantime, the Front National propagates “anti-immigration” and “anti-government” positions. Furthermore it calls for economic protectionism and hostility to the European Union and the Euro. The AFD calls for the dissolution of the common currency and re-introduction of national currencies and foresees a Europe containing only the common market. These role model right-wing populist parties hence put forward nationalist solutions in open opposition to the European Union.
If we compare these parties on the surface we could find similarities but comparing the surface would be quite a ‘populist’ perspective, hence a very oversimplified analysis!
It makes more sense to distinguish the quality of their political ideas.
And here lies the most important difference. The quality of ideas that propagate economic equality is completely different to the quality of ideas that propagate discrimination and isolation against other nationalities.
Even if you characterize promoting quality as discrimination against “richer” people, there is still a difference. While wealthy people are usually enjoying a privileged position in society, immigrants rarely do. Adding to the fact that ethnicity is an attribute firmly connected to a person through birth, impossible to get rid of.
In many cases, people who come into a country as foreigners possess less (economic) resources than the nationals of the host country. In most cases they also have a lower social status.
Therefore these individuals should enjoy the same or greater protection through society. Right-wing parties however propagate discrimination against foreign individuals. Hence, they put the role of the scapegoat on the more vulnerable persons of society and subject them to discrimination.
Violence obviously is not mentioned in any of the party programs and it is a popular argument that both extremes (left and right) might lead to violent outbreaks. But burning a Porsche does not have the same quality as burning a house full of asylum seekers.
If we use the word “populism” in order to describe both sides, we put them rhetorically on an equal level. Yet, the quality of their ideologies is completely different. If we follow both extremes, we arrive at completely different scenarios. By highlighting the potential danger to democracy in general we mislead.
Democracy is normally associated to values such as “inclusion” and “social equality (to varying levels)”, while “hostility towards foreigners” and “distrust in state (or EU) institutions” are not part of our understanding of democracy.
Although this sentence is highly exaggerated you could make a strong argument that left-wing parties are more democratic than right-wing. They are per se more inclusive than right-wing parties. By putting them under the same umbrella we risk increasing the influence of potentially anti-democratic and violent groups to the public discourse of our society. So please never refer to left-wing and right-wing parties commonly under “populism”.
Image by William Murphy.