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Left-wing politicians in Europe are co-opting “populism”—and there could be a price

Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
Many hands claim the banner.
By Aamna Mohdin
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There’s a battle being waged over who gets to own the term “populism.” In the wake of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, much has been made of a new movement sweeping the West, with right-wing politicians in Europe taking the lead in running under the banner.

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, when asked whether she would be elected on a wave like the one that swept in the US president, replied: “What’s populism? If it’s someone who wants to defend government for the people, of the people and by the people, then yes, I’m a populist.”

But the far-right version of populism is facing some competition.

On March 19, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, a staunch centrist seen as anti-populist, told Le JDD (link in French),“If being populist means speaking to the people in an understandable way without the aid of devices, I am willing to be populist.” He distinguished between populists and demagogues, saying demagogy “consists in flattering the people in what is lowest.”

“Do not call me a demagogue,” Macron said, “for I do not flatter the people.”

The center-right victor in the Dutch elections, prime minister Mark Rutte, ascribed the far right’s poor performance to pursuing “the wrong kind of populism.” His rival on the right, Geert Wilders, hit back, saying Rutte’s comments on “the wrong sort of populism” are “very worrying, as if populists are semi-Nazis.”

In Britain, the Labour party’s Jeremy Corbyn is thought to be rebranding himself as a left-leaning, anti-establishment populist.

“Any type of ideology could be populist,” says Lasse Thomassen, a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, who researches radical left-wing politics in Europe.

Thomassen traces the definition of populism to Ernesto Laclau, a Argentinean political theorist, who died in 2014. Laclau described populism as an us-versus-them mentality, in which the people are against the “other.” The personal political leanings determine whether one is supporting left- or right-wing populism.

Left-wing populists, such as the Podemos party in Spain and Syriza in Greece, typically rely on a more ”inclusive notion of the people,” Thomassen says, one that welcomes minority groups like women, the LGBT community, and immigrants. Right-wing populists often believe in restricting socio-economic benefits to an ”in” group, to the exclusion of immigrants and other minorities.

Some believe the left needs more populist rhetoric to win back disillusioned voters. They argue the rise of Front National in France and Podemos in Spain shows that centrist parties have failed to provide satisfactory answers to voters’ economic grievances.

But Thomassen warns there are limitations to adopting populist rhetoric. Aiming to represent and speak for all of the people can result in “empty, vacuous language,” he explains. That leaves many voters struggling to understand what a candidate actually is advocating—a criticism recently been levied against Corbyn. In January, six months after the Brexit result that pummeled Labour, voters still didn’t know where Corbyn and his party stood on immigration. Polling company YouGov notes that Corbyn’s attempt to satisfy everyone—both those for and against free movement—produced this confusion, adding: “the risk with trying to be all things to all people is that you can end up being nothing to anyone.”

The most recent polls bear this out. Despite a chaotic week for UK prime minister Theresa May—featuring an embarrassing government U-turn on the budget and calls for a second referendum on Scottish independence—her Conservative party still leads Labour party by 19 points.

In France, Macron appears to remain undeterred. With just over a month to go until the first round of presidential voting, Macron has pledged to clean up politics and bring back “morals,” echoing Trump’s populist appeal to “drain the swamp.”

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