From Europe to America: the populist moment has arrived

On both sides of the Atlantic, the political class has become convinced that the people do not know what is best for them.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

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At first sight, opponents of the EU Constitution appear to have very little in common. In France, campaigners for ‘Non’ often sought to defend their system of welfare arrangements against an institution that they believe has come under Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal domination. British eurosceptics oppose the bureaucratic and regulatory ambitions of Brussels. In Holland, some ‘Nee’ campaigners feared the loss of their national identity and the entry of Turkey into the EU. Others used the referendum to simply have a pop at their political representatives.

The incoherence of the populist reaction against the EU has been seized upon by EU technocrats to call into question the validity of the referendums that rejected Brussels. From the perspective of the Brussels technocrat, the overwhelming rejection of the EU Constitution by the French and Dutch electorates is merely the confusing signal transmitted by a politically illiterate electorate. Along with sections of the media, pro-EU campaigners often represent this rebuff of the EU as both irrational and incoherent.

The movement against the EU has brought together old political foes from the left and right, far-left opponents of a ‘capitalist’ Europe and far-right nationalists who are suspicious of anything that is remotely foreign. Since the marriage of convenience between such disparate forces cannot last, some supporters of the EU feel entitled to minimise the significance of the rejection of the EU Constitution.

However, to interpret the outcome of the French and Dutch referendums as having little to do with popular attitudes towards the EU is an exercise in self-delusion. How human beings vote is never a simple, straightforward matter. People do not simply respond to a script handed down from above and vote in accordance with the instructions set out by the political classes; their voting behaviour is influenced by a variety of motives and emotions. Sometimes people cast a ballot to vote positively for something they desire, and sometimes their vote represents a negative act of thwarting their political masters.

Teaching ‘them’ a lesson has an honourable tradition for a democratic electorate, as even the likes of Winston Churchill discovered. Voting is not simply about saying yes or no; it is also about making a statement. It can represent a call to arms, or it can be a cry for help. All these complex and contradictory influences should not detract from the fact that when people voted ‘No’ to the EU Constitution they actually meant ‘No’, and were expressing their opposition to the treaty.

Supporters of the EU treaty should not draw comfort from the fact that their opponents are driven by a variety of different and contradictory motives. The fact that French communists and the French far right have very different attitudes on many issues does not necessarily diminish the significance of the populist reaction against the EU. It may actually mean that as we move into the twenty-first century, the traditional division between left and right has lost some of its significance.

It is worth noting that while campaigners against the EU Constitution promoted diverse issues, they all expressed a sense of estrangement from their political institutions. Today, this response is often motivated by a sense of disengagement and a mood of anti-politics. It also frequently expresses a revolt against the values upheld by the political class and its institutions. The lower classes embrace values that are essentially focused on their nation and community, while the elites are oriented towards a cosmopolitan and globalist perspective. In France, those who voted ‘No’ came predominantly from the lower classes, and the most enthusiastic supporters of the ‘Yes’ campaign were members of the French cultural, economic and political elites.

The referendum was as much a clash of values – what in the USA is called a Culture War – as a conflict over what constitutes legitimate authority. People are bemused by the managerial and instrumental language of EU technocrats. And importantly, they believe that the EU is not of their making. By their very existence, movements such as the Dutch ‘Nee’ campaign draw attention to the lack of legitimacy of the focus of their opposition. It is not surprising that the emotional and political distance that separates the public from their representatives has acquired a particularly intense character around the EU.

Those who are genuinely interested in European unity need to engage with the sense of disenchantment expressed by the French and Dutch electorates. Ensuring that people feel at home in Europe is far more important than cajoling people to accept another top-down diktat from Brussels. And this means, first of all, rejecting the anti-democratic assumptions and prejudices behind the political elite’s reaction to the ‘No’ vote.

Demonising the people

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the populist rejection of the EU treaty, the manner in which the ‘No’ campaign is disparaged by professional politicians betrays a powerful anti-democratic temper. It appears that professional politicians attempt to account for their isolation from the electorate by pointing their finger at the incompetence of the public. On both sides of the Atlantic, the political class has drawn the conclusion that the problem with the people is that they do not know what’s in their best interest. This sentiment is particularly widespread among liberal and left-wing activists and thinkers.

‘People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about’, notes Thomas Frank in his US bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Otherwise, Frank argues, how could they possibly vote for the Republicans? The belief that people are too stupid to understand the complexities of public life was also widely expressed during the heated exchanges that surrounded the recent referendums on the EU in France and Germany. Margot Wallstrom, vice president of the EU, commented on her blog that the Constitution is a ‘complex issue to vote on’, which can lead many citizens to ‘use a referendum to answer a question that was not put to them’.

According to this view, since the people cannot be trusted to understand the finer points of legal documents, important decisions need to be left to the professional politician. Andrew Duff, Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament (MEP), agrees that consulting the electorate is a distraction from getting on with the job. After the referendums in France and Holland, he stated that ‘the experience begs the question of whether it was ever appropriate to submit the EU Constitution to a lottery of uncoordinated national plebiscites’.

The people are not only regarded as politically illiterate. They are also depicted as simpletons who are likely to be swayed by demagogues. In the context of the Brussels bubble, a demagogue is anyone who is critical of the EU project. As far as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was concerned, his eurosceptic opponents have crossed the ‘border from democracy to demagoguery’. He claimed that a ‘populist trend’ is seeking to ‘undermine the Europe we are trying to build’ by ‘simplifying important and complex subjects’.

In the USA, this sentiment has been systematically articulated by Democratic Party activists, who cannot understand why many blue-collar workers vote for Republicans. According to George Lakoff, one of the most influential thinkers in the liberal wing of the Democrats, ‘people do not necessarily vote in their self interest’.

The belief that the public is too simplistic or too gullible has led some Democratic Party activists to blame the defeat of their presidential candidate in two successive elections on the stupidity of the people. One liberal activist, Michael Gronewalter, states that ‘civility and intelligent dialogue are useful tools among intelligent people’ but are inappropriate for engaging with the public. He argues:

‘I really think the problem is that we liberals are in general far more intelligent, well-reasoned and educated and will go to astonishingly great lengths to convince people of the integrity and validity of our fair and well thought-out arguments. The audience, in case anyone has been paying attention, isn’t always getting it! I suspect the problem is not the speaker – it is most of the audience.’

‘The audience’, which is another name for normal human beings, is implicitly blamed for not getting the incredibly sophisticated message articulated by very clever political activists. In recent times, this apparently hopeless mass of illiterate voters has been condemned for mindlessly embracing the politics of the so-called religious right.

In the USA, the left’s apprehension with the growing influence of the religious right is motivated by the suspicion that it finds it difficult to connect with the emotional and cultural life of ordinary folk. But instead of attempting to overcome this barrier, it prefers to dwell on the irrationalism of those who can be so easily swayed by the religious right. In a roundabout way, the left’s denunciation of the religious right represents a critique of the mental capacity of significant sections of the electorate.

According to one Democratic Party activist, the American public has become a sort of ‘fast food electorate’ and it is as if ‘Americans suffer collectively from a plague of Attention Deficit Disorder’. In the EU this recalcitrant public is dismissed as a bunch of backward-looking xenophobes. After the rejection of the EU treaty by the French and Dutch electorates, the Liberal Democratic MEP Andrew Duff’s characterisation of the opponents of the EU Constitution was neither liberal nor democratic. ‘The rejectionists are an odd bunch of racists, xenophobes, nationalists, communists, disappointed centre-left and the generally pissed-off’, he told Parliament Magazine.

Throughout history the political elites have tended to be anxious and sometimes hostile to public opinion. Most of the classical studies of public opinion, especially those written from a liberal perspective, tend to be negative about their subject matter. Often, it is the liberal disappointment with the inability of the people to do what is in their interest that shapes the discussion, in which public opinion is invariably treated as a ‘problem’. The American commentator Walter Lippman’s 1922 study, Public Opinion, provides the classic statement: he warns that the proportion of the electorate which is ‘absolutely illiterate’ is much larger than we suspect and that these people who are ‘mentally children or barbarians’ are natural targets of manipulators.

This view of public opinion has dominated the Anglo-American literature on the subject. Frequently it has conveyed the patronising assumption that the public does not know what is in its best interest. As Edward Pager, an American sociologist, argued in 1929, ‘public opinion is often very cruel to those who struggle most unselfishly for the public welfare’.

So the tendency to stigmatise populist politics as a symptom of psychological disorder and irrationalism has a long history. In his important study The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin notes that in the USA during the Cold War, populism became the ‘great fear of liberal intellectuals’. They blamed mass democracy and an ‘authoritarian’ and ‘irrational’ working class for the rise of McCarthyism. Indeed, their hostility to McCarthyism, like their antagonism to the religious right today, was underpinned by distrust and antipathy towards ‘the very kinds of white American-Catholic workers, military veterans, discontented families in the middle of the social structure – who had once been the foot soldiers in causes such as industrial unionism, the CIO and the Popular Front in the 1930s and 1940s’. A decade later, these people were perceived as the enemy of liberalism.

Whereas ‘formerly liberals had worried about the decline of popular participation in politics’, now ‘they began to wonder whether “apathy” might not be a blessing in disguise’ notes Christopher Lasch in The True And Only Heaven, his study of the populist revolt against the liberal elite.

Elite apprehensions towards populism were linked to the belief that the mental outlook of the ‘lower classes’ was distorted by their brutal upbringing. It was claimed that the emotional outlook of the working class created a propensity to adopt anti-democratic and authoritarian causes. The comments of the American political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, a leading voice on this subject during the Cold War, is paradigmatic in this respect: ‘to sum up, the lower-class individual is likely to have been exposed to punishment, lack of love, and a general atmosphere of tension and aggression since early childhood – all experiences which tend to produce deep-rooted hostilities expressed by ethnic prejudice, political authoritarianism, and chiliastic transvaluational religion.’

A contrast between the emotionally refined middle classes and the emotionally illiterate working classes was also forcefully drawn by Hans Eysenck, a well-known British psychologist. Eysenck claimed that ‘middle-class Conservatives are more tender-minded than working-class Conservatives; middle-class Liberals more tender-minded than working-class Liberals; middle-class Socialists more tender-minded than working-class Socialists, and even middle-class Communists more tender minded than working-class Communists’.

Lipset and Eysenck’s pathologisation of the political behaviour of the lower classes continues to influence leftist attitudes today. George Lakoff, whom Howard Dean has described as ‘one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement’, characterises Bush supporters as dominated by a ‘strict father morality’ which is hostile to ‘nurturance and care’. That’s another way of saying that they are morally inferior people. And they are certainly inferior to progressives, who apparently have a ‘nurturant family’ orientation’. In Eysenck’s vocabulary, progressives are more ‘tender-minded’ than those nasty brutes in Ohio who voted for Bush.

Through counterposing two different types of moral beings, Lakoff and his adherents can reconcile themselves to the fantasy that it was their moral superiority that lost them the election. In this way, they prove to be no less committed to playing the moral card then the target of their opprobrium – the religious right. The difference between the two is that Lakoff has seen the ‘psychological light’, whereas those with a ‘strict father morality’ have opted for the ‘religious light’.

The view that the public is too stupid to grasp the high-minded and sophisticated ideals of American liberals expresses a profound sense of contempt towards people. Furthermore, it uncritically transfers responsibility for the contemporary malaise of political life on to the simplistic and uneducated electorate. From this standpoint, it is not the inability of liberal politics to connect with significant sections of the public that accounts for John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, but the narrow-mindedness of the electorate.

This attitude is not confined to the USA. It was not so long ago that the ascendancy of the Thatcher era was blamed by British leftists on the influence of working-class authoritarianism. Left-wing and liberal academics characterised Thatcherism as a form of authoritarian populism that had somehow seduced sections of an easily misled working class. They argued that a heady mixture of nationalism, racism and appeal to self-interest created a powerful right-wing populist movement that provided Thatcher with grassroots support.

In those days, it was fashionable to poke fun at ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Essex Women’, supposedly the embodiment of the irrational but materialistic and selfish supporters of Thatcher who would not respond to the high-minded appeals of left-wing politicians. Today, a similar argument is used to account for the limited gains that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the British National Party (BNP) have made in working-class constituencies such as Barking.

Populism is here to stay

It is rare for leftists and liberal political thinkers and activists to make a direct denunciation of people’s mental capacities in a culture that professes to be anti-elitist. Such stereotyping would meet with condemnation if it were directed at minorities or another section of society. That is why contempt is usually transmitted through euphemisms, and nods and winks.

In the Sixties, critics of populism pointed the finger at ‘hard hats’ and ‘materialist’ working people. Today in the USA, such attitudes are expressed through terms like ‘Nascar Dads’, ‘Valley Girls, ‘Joe six-pack’ or ‘rednecks’. Lakoff claims that Bush’s popularity with the Nascar dads is due to their common identification with strict father values. The Old Cold War thesis of the ‘authoritarian working class’ has been recycled to helps liberals rationalise their sense of isolation from everyday society. The pathological roots of backward attitudes is to be found in the poor quality of parenting experienced by Lakoff’s stereotype conservative.

In the UK, Nascar dads have a different name. They are dismissed as ‘chavs’, ‘white van men’, ‘Worcester Women’ or ‘tabloid readers’. Since these are people who cannot be mobilised for progressive causes, the best course of action is to try to isolate them and minimise their influence upon society.

A stark example of the regard in which populist campaigners are held by those who pride themselves on being part of the liberal, cosmopolitan elite was provided recently by the Australian Eric Ellis, the southeast Asian correspondent for Fortune magazine, writing in the British Spectator about ‘the weeping, xenophobic hysteria in Australia over the conviction of Schapelle Corby for smuggling drugs into Indonesia’. ‘The demographer Bernard Salt says the Corby matter explodes what has always been the myth of Australian egalitarianism’, writes Ellis. ‘Salt has previously noted, controversially, that Australia, like most countries, has an educated minority, a cultural and cosmopolitan elite that directs its politics, its economy, its popular culture, with the majority functioning as essentially its market’. Ellis continues:

‘But the elite aren’t calling the shots on this one. There has been talk of a “redneck coup”. And the circus shows no sign of packing up. A new lawyer has just been appointed to handle Our Schapelle’s appeal. I met him last week, and he did not disappoint me. His name is Paris Hutapea, and he carries two sidearms (a Beretta and a Walther), sports shiny blue suits and an impressive mullet, and drives to work in a Humvee. His fingers drip with opal and diamond rings. He and [Schapelle’s] big sister Mercedes should hit it off.’

The tendency to treat supporters of populist campaigns as the enemy betrays a feeble attachment towards democratic politics. After all, supporters of populism constitute an important section of the people and they need to be taken no less seriously than those whose views appear more enlightened.

It is also important to note that populist movements are influenced by a variety of contradictory motives. Disenchantment with the political system and the elites can lead people to adopt a narrow-minded divisive attitude of them-and-us towards other groups. But populist movements are often influenced by an aspiration for social solidarity, and by an egalitarian impulse. It is worth recalling that historically many populist movements, such as the Chartists, were associated with the politics of the left. As Kazin observed, in the USA for over a century the language of populism was an inspiration to movements of the left. It was only in the 1940s that American populist political discourse began to migrate from the Left to the Right. In principle, there is no reason why the populist imagination should be monopolised by one single political voice.

Populist movements can be demonised or they can be regarded as a wake-up call that demands a genuine commitment to democratic engagement. That so many people adopted such strong views against the EU Constitution is no bad thing. It is certainly preferable to the scourge of voter apathy and political disengagement. And it certainly provides an opportunity for dialogue and democratic renewal. Unfortunately, the political class, which normally worries about the decline of voting in General Elections, takes the view that this phenomenon is preferable to losing a referendum over the EU Constitution. Such a technocratic response may help limit the damage, but it will not make populism go away.

One reason why the political class so dislikes populist movements is that it experiences them as a direct challenge to its values and worldview. This clash of values became evident during the recent referendums in Europe, where it was obvious that the ‘No’ campaigns were speaking a language that was morally and emotionally incomprehensible to the political class. The political class talked of subsidiarity, transparency, efficiency, human rights and protocols, while their opponents were discussing the problems of everyday life. By their very existence, the ‘No’ campaign calls into question the values of an increasingly technocratic and managerial oligarchy.

At present this is the one movement that it cannot handle or do business with. The contrast of the ‘No’ campaign with the so-called anti-capitalist or ‘Make Poverty History’ movements could not be more striking. These movements do not challenge the prevailing political culture; indeed, they reinforce it. That is why politicians are falling over themselves to praise the anti-poverty lobby. Leading British ministers are encouraging people to come and protest on the streets of Edinburgh during the G8 summit in July. The lobbyists and NGOS that participate in this movement are regarded as their own by the political elites.

By contrast, when confronted by a populist movement the political class feels vulnerable and exposed. Whatever their limitations, such movements remind the world that the political elites are more interested in insulating themselves from the pressures of everyday life than in engaging with the real world. They say that they are worried about the problem of political disengagement, but the last thing they want is a public that is genuinely happy to engage. That is why they will think twice about organising more referendums. We should thank the ‘No’ campaign for reminding us that democracy only exists when people are prepared to make their voices heard.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent, and author most recently of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). Visit his website here.

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