A new dreaded word has entered into official Western media speak: “Populism”. Political parties and governments which are deemed to be illegitimate are invariably labeled with the prefix “populist”. There is a vague implication that “populist” parties are imbued with disreputable politics of xenophobia, racism, nationalism and even fascism.
But who is doing the “deeming” here? It is establishment political parties and politicians who have the advantage of establishment news media organizations conveying their words and terminology.
Take French President Emmanuel Macron. He may have coined a new political party, En Marche, but he is nevertheless a politician very much of the prevailing Western establishment. He is pro-European Union as it currently operates, albeit with reforming tweaks; he is pro-NATO, pro-Atlanticist; and pro-neoliberal economic policies.
Recently, Macron decried the rise of “populist” parties across Europe. He compared them to the spread of “leprosy” and claimed they were posing a morbid threat to the conventional order of politics. Macron was referring in particular to the new coalition government in Italy, comprising the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the League.
The French leader could also have been referring to any number of governments as seen in Austria, Hungary and other Central European states which, like the new Italian government, have challenged the EU’s official stance over irregular migration into the bloc.
In this context, the word “populist” as used by Macron and other establishment politicians has the connotation of “racist” or “inhumane” owing to the opposition towards the uncontrolled influx of people from outside Europe.
The “populist” prefix is often used alongside the term “far-right”. Again, the implication is that somehow the largely newcomer parties are something that should be abhorred because they are tarnished with alleged proclivities towards fascism and authoritarianism.
To reinforce that implied demonization, it is often cited by Western establishment politicians and media that the “populist” parties in Europe are aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, if not stealthily bankrolled by the Kremlin.
American President Donald Trump also qualifies as “populist” according to the US political and media establishment. Again, the word is loaded to infer a uniquely noxious quality in the Trump presidency and his supporters, in the same way that Democrat presidential rival Hillary Clinton once haughtily denigrated Trump and his voter base as “deplorable”. It’s a way of sanitizing the establishment from any past, and far greater, sins.
The P-word does not always mean “rightwing nationalism”. The recent elected Mexican President, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, has been described in Western media as a “leftwing populist”.
In Italy, the main ruling coalition party, the Five Star Movement, headed by Luigi Di Maio, is associated with leftwing social policy.
Parties and politicians deemed to be “populist” are eclectic and defy an easy categorization, as their detractors would perhaps like to assign them. Certainly, there is a strong common stance of being opposed to uncontrolled immigration. But it is too simplistic to explain such a stance as merely xenophobic or racist.
There are legitimate and reasonable concerns that the issue of large-scale immigration has been exploited by ruling establishments and their ideological backers as a way to undermine national sovereignty and workers’ rights, from the consequent lowering of wages and employment conditions.
There is also the legitimate concern in Europe that the migration phenomenon has been largely created by illegal wars pursued by the US and its European NATO allies. Why should European member states and ordinary taxpayers have to incur financial and cultural integration problems that have been largely manufactured by ruling elites who have never been held to account for their criminal wars?
So-called populist parties are also opposed to the seemingly slavish adherence by the European political establishment to neoliberal capitalism. There is a legitimate popular backlash to economic policies which are oppressive and destructive, and whose sole priority seems to be satisfying the profits of Big Business and transnational capital. Why should European governments be held in hock to fiscal rules and debt limitations set arbitrarily by institutions seemingly under the diktat of private banks?
There are several fundamental issues that form a groundswell of popular opposition towards the conventional ways of governance, both in Europe and the US. The failings of neoliberal capitalism and its rich-get-richer racket is surely top of the grievance list. So too is relentless, irrational militarism by Western governments, unleashing illegal wars and massive refugee problems, as well as stoking unnecessary hostility towards other powers like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
The conventional politics, that is, the ruling establishments and their dutiful news media, are increasingly seen as incompetent, if not bankrupt. The establishment across Western countries has lost legitimacy and “moral authority” in the eyes of masses of people. That dwindling authority of the ruling class in Western states is the real, morbid concern.
One factor for this is the growth of global communications and “alternative” media sources, which Western publics are availing of to inform themselves independently from the old information monopolies that served the established order. That is why the “problem” of alleged “Russian influence” has been invented. In a desperate gambit to distract the masses from noticing the real problem, which is the crumbling of legitimacy for the Western establishment and its obedient political parties.
The looming fear among the ruling order is the ever-growing dissent among the populace. It is a fear of their own inherent failing and impending doom in the face of democratic challenge to power.
It is not so much that Trump or the new Italian government or Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, and so on, represent a vanguard for renewed democracy. These changes are merely symptoms of a deeper popular opposition to the established way of conducting politics – the order that has prevailed for most of the seven-decade period following the Second World War.
There has always been a wariness among ruling elites on both sides of the Atlantic towards a genuine democratic order breaking out, as Noam Chomsky discusses in his book ‘Deterring Democracy’. Western elites have typically viewed the masses as “rabble rousers” who are deemed to be “incapable” of governing society in the “proper way” that benefits the elites, protects their profits and property, and safeguards their imperial war-making overseas.
This underlying tension about the control of political power in Western societies encapsulates the present historical juncture where the word “populist” is being increasingly deployed. It is a term of disparagement by a failing Western establishment. What the failed order is trying to do is divert genuine popular challenge by painting it as something uncouth, vulgar, noxious, or manipulated by foreign enemies like Russia.
As American political analyst Randy Martin notes: “Populism is a convenient term for those in power who seek to isolate those who would want to share, or worse, take that power.”
When you think of the original meaning of the word – “the people” – it is starkly revealing what is really at stake for those elites who wield the “populist” term as a disparagement.