Populism isn’t all Bad or Ugly. Don’t settle for Fake Ideas.
By Philip Johnston
Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential elections, on Sunday, is a great opportunity to reflect on why words matter.
(1) There’s a tendency to play fast and loose with the term ‘populism,’ conflating it with xenophobic, right-wing movements. This is intellectually lazy when unintentional, and manipulative when intentional. By conflating populism with taboo ideologies, we make populism itself taboo, and cover up the fact that populist movements matter by virtue of the fact that we live in representative republics. Or, as French philosopher Vincent Coussedière puts it, “Populism as a pejorative concept tells us more about those who use it, than it does about those it describes.”
(2) Why do I care? Well, first off, maybe it’s healthy to make an effort to not hate or demonize half of your own country’s population. But to stick to our topic, the presidential elections in France show how a sloppy definition of populism led to illogical predictions, fear-mongering, and unnecessary anxiety.
(3) In the end, though, this isn’t just about popular opinion, predictions, or winning twitter arguments. Semantic and intellectual laziness with concepts like ‘populism’ also leads to misguided simplifications of the historical and cultural contexts within which political contests like the French elections take place. With time, such fake ideas can percolate into government and policy making, leading to inadequate, and occasionally disastrous, policy decisions. That’s where the real damage takes place.
(1) Fake Ideas: When words become dangerous
The tweet below illustrates how, ever since Brexit and Trump, the word 'populism' has become shorthand for a hodge-podge of complex political and social phenomena including nationalism, the alt-right, the far-right, and xenophobia.
The problem with this is that populism is different from nationalism or the far-right, and lumping them together breeds confusion and discourages critical thinking about one of the defining political challenges of our generation. This helps no one, except those who tend to favor obfuscation, rumors, and disinformation to gain or maintain influence (*cough* @realDonaldTrump *cough*).
The driving force behind #fakenews is fake ideas, half-baked terminology and concepts that confuse more than they elucidate.
Populism has no Party
How to define populism? I like the definition given by Vincent Coussedière, who describes it as
“pressure exerted by peoples, who are seeking to preserve their own existence, on partisan systems that are unable to protect them.”
Seen in this light, populism is not a vicious rabble or a heap of revolting, inhumane ideologies. Instead, populism should be understood as democracy in action: Populism is an attempt by groups who feel existentially threatened to pressure the status quo into changing. It’s a cry for help.
This reveals just how perverted our use of the term 'populism' has become, when we use it to ignore political movements on the basis of their association with concepts that we find distasteful. As Coussedière points out, “Populism as a pejorative concept tells us more about those who use it, than it does about those it describes.” Indeed, people and institutions in power will usually have a vested interest in not changing and in not taking the popular political demands of populist movements into consideration.
There is real danger with populism, of course, but it lies in the fact that the stakes are so high for the populations in question - so high, in fact, that they are literally existential, according to de Coussedière. The emotional and material vulnerability that underlies populist movements makes them particularly susceptible to being hijacked and twisted into something that is no longer focused on helping those who need help, but instead becomes about venting frustration onto some Other. Historical populist movements have often been accompanied by violence, xenophobia, and scapegoating. At their best, though, populist movements stay focused on fixing structural problems and remain civil and nonviolent.
It should also be pointed out that populism isn’t a person, it’s a movement that arises from popular sentiment. In that sense, even an establishment figure could harness populist sentiment by adopting the right rhetoric and running the right PR campaign. That explains why wealthy businessmen like Trump and Macron, as well as landed gentry like Le Pen, have been major populist players this year despite the fact that they are obviously the 1%.
So what’s the take-away? We must be careful not to use 'populism' pejoratively, and we ought to remember that populist movements are driven by vulnerability and the failure of political systems to represent and defend, broadly speaking, their electorate. The same point is argued here in fine academic jargon, and here in more entertaining, contemporary style.
(2) France and the perils of poor definitions
Misunderstandings of populism during the run-up to the French elections in late April and May resulted in short-circuiting of logic in predictions about the race and in a lot of generally avoidable anxiety about Marine Le Pen’s chances of winning the race.
If Marine Le Pen hadn’t been running in France, Macron would have been the most successful example of populism at work in French politics. The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon also fits the bill, but wasn’t a real contender until late in the game. Macron however was a political outsider - never elected to public office - calling for change on behalf of French people who knew the ‘system’ as they understood it wasn’t working for them. Macron was also a centrist, opposing by definition the traditional left-right partisanship, as underscored by the fact that he had founded his own political party in 2016, clearly sending the message that the political establishment was the 'Evil' to his En Marche movement’s 'Good' (Duality has long been a strong element in populist rhetoric).
Although it hasn’t been discussed in anything I’ve read, Macron’s call for renewed French leadership in Europe and the world - a central part of his political platform - also struck a strong populist chord by implicitly arguing that with him, the French would be in a regional position of strength, security, and control.
But nobody talked about Macron the 'populist.' This is because the word’s conflation with nationalism, xenophobia, and right-wing ideas caused everyone to focus instead on Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the Front National (FN) who fit those stereotyped associations perfectly. Then, once Le Pen had assumed the role of ‘populist’ in the presidential race, an insidious, misguided idea took root - that Macron couldn’t win in France, because he wasn’t the ‘populist,’ and 2017 of course is the year in which ‘populists’ win elections.
This is remarkably faulty reasoning, not least because there are so many reasons that Le Pen wasn’t going to win.
Polling: Supposedly, polls have been unreliable since everyone was surprised by the Trump and Brexit election results. But this was a mistake for two reasons. First, it overlooks the fact that the problem with the US and UK polls wasn’t so much an inaccuracy of measurement, but the consistent determination of the pundit class to explain away the trends they were showing. The polls hadn’t failed as we imagined. Further, Macron held a consistent 20-point lead on Le Pen in hypothetical second-round polls for months prior to the vote, a gulf that stands in stark contrast to the margin-of-error gaps that separated Trump and Clinton, and the Brexit Yes and No, on the eve of those elections. French polling, incidentally, also has a history of greater accuracy than its Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
Recent Elections: Trump won in the US, and before him the Brexit referendum won a surprising Yes in the UK, leading to a sense that this was populists’ year in the West. But right-wing ‘populists’ lost European elections in Austria and the Netherlands in the months preceding the French election, giving the lie to the idea that the right-wing was on some sort of inexorable streak. The Austrian and Dutch results, however, were conveniently ignored.
Previous Results by the Front National, Le Pen’s party: The last and only time the FN made it to the runoff in France’s presidential elections, in 2002, it was swept aside in a landslide (82.2% to 17.8%) by a coalition of the entire French political establishment - left, center, and right. Although the FN has improved its performance at the polls in elections since, the runoff system for the presidential elections poses a massive obstacle for this group whose views bring to mind Vichy France and Nazi Germany for a majority of French.
The primary argument for ignoring the wealth of information that pointed to a Le Pen loss was the fact that she was ‘the populist,’ a fact which somehow, nebulously, implied that all bets were off. But for those paying attention to what populism really is, it was clear that Le Pen didn’t have a monopoly on popular resentment, or a particularly good chance at upsetting the polls. Far from it.
(3) Context Matters
In closing, let’s reiterate that European politics aren’t like American politics. And French politics aren’t like European politics. And that History matters.
The American political scene is so polarized that we have trouble conceiving of Macron’s populism from the center. We are comfortable with Trump populism, and with left-wing Sanders populism, but we have no Moderate Populists whipping people into a frenzy over balanced economic and social policies. Macron isn’t doing exactly that, but he’s certainly a different animal - a marsupial to the mammals of the American politics.
Another aspect of the French context that Americans tend to misunderstand - and which underlies the rejection of Le Pen - is the prominence of the Second World War and of Europe’s fascist past in the French psyche. Growing up in France, my grade school teacher (Mme Meyer) would take 10 minutes after recess every day to teach us songs from the résistance (yes, the original résistance) which she remembered from her childhood. The French middle and high school curriculum devotes months and months to the ins and outs of 20th century continental politics, the origins and rise of european fascism, and WW2. French youth are steeped in this stuff. And that plays directly into perceptions of Marine Le Pen, whose father Jean-Marie Le Pen is notorious for anti-semitic remarks and holocaust-denying, and her chances at the polls.
I could go on. But the point is, words matter, contexts matter.
In conclusion, in this era of American public life in which politicians and journalists all have their feet comparatively close to the flame, it would behoove them as well as the rest of the us to choose our words and ideas carefully. Bandying about poorly defined terms like ‘populism’ as a means of writing off constituencies, perpetuating political divides, or dumbing-down complex domestic and international matters is not just poor style. It will eventually come back and bite us in the ass. I'm sure Glenn Beck would agree.
Philip Johnston is a Senior Research Officer at the Met Society, where he works on the Global Narratives Project. He'd love to hear from you (firstname.lastname@example.org & @pseudohistories).