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Why populists are becoming more popular

By John Lloyd | March 20th 2018
[Photo: Courtesy]

Those who feel left behind by the enrichment of the minority and the stagnation of the many are choosing to be represented by political forces that cannot give them what they need, and will likely make their lives worse.

These political forces are embodied in very different parties and movements, but the reasons for their popularity are frequently based on popular perceptions of governments’ inability or unwillingness to address their problems. These perceptions, however, do not include a considered judgment on the viability of the programmes offered by the anti-establishment parties. They spring from seeing the highest rewards in a globalised world going to the highly educated and the well-connected, while working and middle classes are now fragmented, losing bargaining power and sometimes regarded with scorn for their “incorrect” views.

The most recent example: The success of the populist 5-Star Movement, which emerged as Italy’s largest single party – although not an outright majority winner – in the country’s March 4 elections. But long before Italians went to the polls to return a hung parliament, , similar trends were visible in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Fake news

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s unwise use of the word “deplorables” – in a campaign speech before the presidential election she lost – to describe “half” of Donald Trump’s supporters remains the classic emblem of supposed scorn for lower-class conservatives by upper-class progressives. It may have cost her more votes than Russian fake news.

In 2014, less consequentially but similarly illuminating, another left-of-center politician, Emily Thornberry, tweeted to her followers a photo of a small terraced house covered in English flags (the red cross of St George on a white background) with a white van parked in front of it. The caption was “Image from #Rochester” – a historic town some 30 miles from London, where Thornberry had been campaigning for the Labour Party.

In class-conscious Britain, the tweet from one who lives in an upscale town house in the upper middle-class London borough of Islington and is married to a High Court judge with a “Sir” before his name was taken as the contemptuous action of a snob pandering to British stereotypes about white van owners and the fact that the St. George’s Cross flag is associated with far-right groups. She was forced to resign temporarily from Labour’s shadow cabinet.

These two stories highlight a few words that carry a huge freight – especially in the case of Clinton. Her speech was to an LGBT gala organised to raise money for her campaign. In it she praised the gay and transgender community and described Trump supporters as racist and homophobic. In doing so, and in putting many millions of fellow Americans into a “basket of deplorables,” she gave ammunition to those who saw her, and the Democratic Party, as preferring minorities over the white working and middle class.

Thornberry was seen as condescending to the patriotic working class merely by tweeting a photograph of the house and identifying its location – creating a (perhaps correct) perception that she thought such enthusiastic patriotism a sign of chauvinism and limited intelligence.

Economic issues

Both women had fired unwise shots in the class war: both paid a political price. It is that resentment, aimed at “progressive” snobbery, which powers much of the revolt against the left. Similar resentments, in which education, access to jobs, accent, dress and even diet are all now involved, bubble through the politics of democratic countries, and assume greater importance than the purely economic issues which afflict those on low incomes, in precarious employment or unemployed.

The left, however self-described – liberals, social democrats, socialists – came into being in the 19th century with a claim to bring economic emancipation to working people. It is now dismissed by millions of working people as being the exclusive locality of the privileged, whose very efforts to “understand and empathise” excite contempt and whose attachment to “the left” is seen to be used as a marker of their claim of moral superiority, not of true belief.

The perception that the left can function as a sign of high-minded exclusivity rather than a commitment to a cause is often correct. But the tragedy of the rejection of an out-of-touch leftism is that the rejecters embrace something worse. The pre-election friends of lower-income voters quickly become post-election foes.

Case in point: Donald Trump’s tax bill, signed into law before he departed for a Christmas break at his Mar-a-Lago estate will overwhelmingly benefit America’s highest earners while providing far less significant help to the remaining 95 per cent.

In the UK, those who voted to leave the European Union were right in their perception that sovereignty must be clearly located in national governments - a view not – as some Remainers charge – rooted in racism, but in a wish to enforce democratic rule. Yet it becomes clearer – as the negotiations drag on – that the economic price for Brexit will be high and the losers will be many of those who voted for it.

In Italy this week, populist parties that included the 5- Star Movement and the Lega (Northern League,) took over 50 percent of the vote. Their supporters, especially the young among them, dislike the left’s ardent support for the European Union, seeing it as an elite set of institutions that did nothing to help Italy cope with waves of migrants. Especially in the impoverished south, voters saw the populists as better just because they were not the left establishment, which they viewed as uncaring and ineffectual.

The liberals and the left that have governed have been decisively rejected in the United States, in the UK, in France, in Germany and now in Italy.

The further left, which has not governed – Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and socialists like 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who continues to attack the vast earnings at the top of corporate America – proves popular. People grasp after what they have not had, disillusioned with what they have. Yet neither the populists nor the far-left have shown evidence they understand, or can govern in, a world as relentlessly globalizing as ours. Until a robust liberalism, shorn of pretension, can reconnect with knowledge and experience of working peoples’ lives, the populists will remain…popular.

Mr Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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