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The war on populism is the wrong war

Populism is haunting liberal democracies. Not poverty, unemployment, stagnant productivity, climate change, migration, Russia, China, but populism seems to be the what the mainstream political parties are mobilizing against. Fighting what we can’t even define is a mistake. However, the mainstream parties (MSP) are losing ground to new competitors. We should dismiss the shallow reasons like the economy and migration and address the deeper ones, both emotionally and rationally.

What is populism is unclear

There are three features attributed to populism: first, populism creates two antagonistic camps, typically people vs. elites. But two camps are also us vs. them, rich vs. poor, makers vs. takers, locals vs. foreigners.

Second, populism addresses problems emotionally and suggests there exist simple solutions. These solutions may even work on the short term, but not on the long term. Populisms speaks to emotions and addresses instincts.

Thirdly, if in power, populists would prefer efficiency over checks and balances, would be anti-pluralistic, create the personality cult and suppress views other than their own. They would be antidemocratic so as to prevent free and fair elections and suppress a free and pluralistic media.

Across all three features it is hard to draw a sharp line between populists and non-populists. Politics is about defining differences, short-termism is the recognized malaise of politics in general and, in the context of fighting fake news, the pluralistic media space is under attack by the anti-populists as well.

A sharp identification of populism is hard and, as Krastev wrote, in the end it is self-declared anti-populists that define who is populist and who is not.

The different meanings of populism

Despite its vague definition, the term is used a lot, because it effectively shames political opponents.

To the left, populism means fascism-light. The problem is that some try to push the idea that centre-right is a kind of populism-light. It would be dangerous to abandon centre-right values to avoid such accusations.

To the right, populists are the bad guys that have rude antidemocratic answers to problems the centre-right actually acknowledges.

To the technocrats, populists are those who can talk to people and rally voters that they can’t.

Mainstream parties are in trouble for other reasons

Some are deeper trends and some are superficial triggers. The latter are (1) Economic crisis and stagnation for the working and middle class. (2) Migration and other security issues. These two destroyed the output legitimacy of existing parties. And (3) due to general security and prosperity there are few incentives to vote rationally.

In my opinion, the real, deeper reasons for the decline of MSP and the rise of the so-called populists are the following:

First, the "nanny state" keeps promising free lunches. The scene for populism was set up, unfortunately, by exaggerated social policies. Pitting 99% vs. 1% was not called populism but social justice.

Promising to tax the few of the rich elite and give to the many who are needy is not considered populism either. Populists can out-promise the social democrats and no wonder the latter are hit the hardest by the rise of populism. The centre-right should recognise populism in socialist policies.

Second, the cultural crisis, globalization, creeping multiculturalism and a slow disappearance of family traditions: populists claim to be defenders of what conservatives used to defend. The centre-right should not give this topic up.

Third, the communication revolution, the internet and social media removed the traditional gatekeepers and quality checks from the information space: a grand coalition of “responsible” journalists and “rational” politicians used to keep “populist” ideas at bay. Not anymore.

Fourth, increasingly technocratic governing: there is a divide between the reason of the elites and the instincts of ordinary people. Hayek warned about an “intolerant and fierce rationalism” which is now pitting the liberal world order against instincts such as religion and patriotism. Politics is increasingly apolitical and technocratic. On the other hand, the “populist” parties excel at playing people’s instincts.

Fifth, increasingly technocratic MSPs: advancing to the top are not only people who inspire, who can rally voters, but increasingly people who are good at petty office battles, effective networking, elbowing and lacking people skills.

How to fight "populism"

Populists are very good at finding what people see as a problem. The centre-right needs to acknowledge that. The centre-right can be just as authentic and emotional in the demonstration that it cares about these issues and can be more trustworthy, reliable and rational with the solutions. This way, the contradiction between the emotional and the rational could be resolved.

The centre-right should break the dangerous association of populism with rightism. It is a trap set by the left and the progressives to make the conservatives and the true liberals abandon their policies and not to be “like populists”.

There are no politically incorrect problems, there are just undemocratic solutions. It is not the identification of problems that makes one a “populist”. Our solutions should be democratic, based on the rule of law and human rights. But they should nevertheless tackle problems such as migration or populism.

The centre-right should not shy away from calling leftist policies populist. Leftism has populism at its core. Socialists are therefore losing more to populists than centre-right. 

How not to fight "populism"

First, fighting populism should not be a priority. Most people do not care about populism, they care about jobs, healthcare, their standard of living. Second, the principle "no liberty for the enemies of liberty" is wrong.

Hoping that controlling speech on social media would curb “populism” is naïve. Finally, stick to subsidiarity: Jan-Werner Müller is wrong in suggesting that “it is a matter of urgency to think about the way in which supranational institutions such as the European Union should try to defend liberal democracy from populists”. This would only strengthen the “patriotic” movements against Brussels.

In conclusion

“Fighting populism” is an empty call-to-arms against the competition. Instead the centre-right should be addressing issues that people care about and populists made so obvious. By passionately listening and rationally looking for solutions, not compromising on democratic principles and conservative values.