two populisms


There is a problem with both the quality and the quantity of political activity in Western democracies: Neither is very high. The standard reaction to a percieved disappointment in political actors or the system is withdrawal, when the opposite should be the case. Laser focus on voter turnout does not adequately address this problem, as voting is the easiest, lowest-cost and lowest-information kind of political action, amounting to a blank cheque to the recipient of the vote. They are unable to tell whether they recieved it out of personal sympathy, as a reward for past performance, agreement with their political platform or protest against the opponent. For them to be able to differentiate between this range of potential motives and be responsive to demands, voters would have to get into close and regular contact with their representatives, preferably by joining their party and participating in meetings. Precisely this is happening less and less, with party membership at least in Germany on a steady decline since a peak in the 1970s. New formations like the Greens, Left, Pirates or Alternative have not reversed the trend. So there is a simulteanous erosion and atomisation of the landscape in terms of membership.

There is an expectation in people that they can vote once every four years and their will be done. Disappointment is inevitable. There is an obvious alternative: Especially since party membership is decreasing, they are becoming ever more susceptible to a hostile takeover. Trump and Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK are difficult to imagine otherwise. This is a detail that gets lost in the anti-populist discourse: Most European continental outfits challenge the entire political system from the outside through the formation of a new party, draining votes from all the others but also re-mobilising non-voters. The above three challenge the status quo, but do so by working within the confines of the system. If we exclude Trump — who went through a narrowly anti-Republican establishment first and then pivoted to a broader anti-political establishment stance upon being nominated, but include Syriza of Greece and Podemos of Spain, a different picture emerges. There is an appreciable difference between left- and right-wing populism. Right-wing populism is like a siege: There is an assault on the system in its entirety. Left-wing populism-as-entryism is like an infiltration: An attempt to change the functioning and output of the system while being a part of it.

It is not difficult to see why the former enjoys an edge over the latter. The Left takes over existing formations meant to govern, immediately provoking a backlash. The latter creates new formations and deliberately eschews playing the power-political game, in doing so enabling its adherents to project their hopes onto the party or its leader without those ever precluding any options. Trump may have taken over the Republicans from the right in terms of policy — or rather, presentation, seeing how he has little policy to offer — but the strategy he chose was a left-wing one. Sustaining a populist takeover from the inside requires a much larger support base. Nothing illustrates this better than the attacks that Corbyn, Sanders and their supporters have endured from the elites of Labour and the Democrats. This approach could however prove itself to be more sustainable in the long run. Experiences with right-wing populists in power are few: If Poland and Hungary are any indication, they want to wait until they can seize it on their terms. But in doing so, they merely reproduce the antebellum constellation: To the right of Poland’s PiS is Korwin-Mikke, to the right of Hungary’s Fidesz is Jobbik. Meanwhile in Finland, the Finns Party entered government as a junior partner and suffered a catastrophic loss in support in the polls as they found themselves forced to participate in the third Greek bailout.

So, word of advice to Europe’s centrist parties: The quickest way to disappear your populist challengers might just be to drag them into government at the earliest opportunity and watch them collapse under the weight of their internal contradictions.