Many politicians in reaction on Trump’s victory claim that the lesson is that we have to listen to the people. It sounds good but what do you think should mainstream politicians do to counter this populist-extremist wave? Because it seems to me that their first instinct is that they will simply use more populistic rhetoric when talking to the people. Read few comments.
Kristian Steinnes, Professor, Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
I think you are right, the instinct largely is to use more populistic rhetoric in order to counter the populist-extremist wave, which eventually could or would end in a downward spiral. That would not solve any problem. Established politicians would never win the populist rhetoric battle against extremists. So your question is at the core of today’s big challenges – how to stop what is unfolding not only in the US (and UK – Brexit), but apparently in several European countries. France is especially challenging with Ms M. le Pen looming behind the scenes, clearly aiming at becoming president in France next year. (And if Mr Trump could win, then we cannot rule out anything.)
I think it will be difficult to stop the unpleasant populist wave unless the established political parties and politicians manage to narrow the gap between people. When the divide between individuals increase, and the richer becomes richer and the middle class and relatively less well off, loose out, populists/extremists have an audience. It is aggravated by the fact that many established politicians have privileges that ordinary people do not have. Counter this will be hard, and put the established politicians (and the establishment) to the test. Do they understand the potential far-reaching consequences of doing nothing? Here is no quick-fix, as far as I can see. Yet taking on this challenge probably will imply a range of systematic measurements from re-educating individuals put out of work due to competition from low-cost countries to structural changes to facilitates work and possibilities for a broader range of the work-force. I also believe that the establishment would have been wise to make some (symbolic) concessions in order to show that they live as they teach. Moreover, economic growth is certainly a key. If economic growth is close to zero it will make things even more challenging. So reforms or policies that could foster economic growth would also be part of the strategy (with the danger of sounding like a liberal free market advocate). Economic growth does not necessarily imply laissez faire economic policies. I also believe that the EU one way or another will have to listen to the people and put into action measures/policies that people recognise as drawn up for them – policies that affects ordinary people.
Simon Usherwood, Associate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey
Listening to the people sounds very simple, but it’s not. Firstly people think (and say) lots of different things, which may (or may not) be internally consistent: lots of people would like to have better public services, but also pay lower taxes, for example. Secondly, what people say and what politicians hear are two different things: politicians are people too and they will look for support for their ideas, which is rather different from reflecting what people say. Finally, politics isn’t only about majority opinions, it’s also about protecting minorities, who might not be able to speak from themselves.
The dangerous myth of populism is that there are simple answers to complicated problems. Voters need to recognise this, if they are not to be misused by politicians. Liberal politicians also need to recognise that this means supporting and encouraging public debate, to help work towards new policies that benefit everyone.
Pietro Castelli Gattinara, Post-Doctoral Researcher Scuola Normale Superior
It is undeniable that the (right-wing) populist wave finds its roots in the progressive detachment between mainstream parties and their constituencies, or “the people”. Parties have lost their connection with their grassroots, and have by now completely merged themselves with the bureaucratic and institutional, if not economic, establishment. Hillary Clinton represented this process at best. As long as this process was not accompanied by the emergence of populist challengers, mainstream left and right parties could alternate in power without many problems, since popular disaffection only fuelled abstention. Now, however, “the people” are given an alternative, and they almost systematically opt for it: they opt to sanction the establishment.
The political response that mainstream parties have given to these phenomena has been twofold. At times, they have either blamed the people, reproducing the same elitist logic that rallies populist voters (as it is now happening among US liberals). Alternatively, they have followed suit on the example of radical right populist challengers, playing the same nativist and nationalist cards (e.g. Sarkozy and Manuel Valls in France, among others). In other words, many mainstream parties have already started “speaking to the people”, but rather than addressing their needs and hopes, they have primarily fuelled their fears. In so doing, they have provided further legitimisation to populist logics. Hence, mainstream parties that are unwilling to put into question their own elite liberalism and its neoliberal economic paradigm will prove to be completely impotent against right-wing populism.
Charlie Beckett, Professor, Polis Director, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
The first step is listening to people. The second step is to talk to them about the things that concern them. The third step is come up with policies that are specifically linked to those concerns. Progressive parties often have addressed these concerns but don’t talk about it in the language that connects. So, for example, the Blair/Brown government did enact fiscal policies that helped reduce inequality but it was frightened of saying this because it did not want to appear ‘left-wing’. It did not find a new language to describe its redistributionist policies.
Hillary Clinton’s mistake was to criticise those people (such as middle income white college educated men who have seen their relative income slip) when they spoke about immigration, identity, generational hardship, nostalgia, patriotism and so on. She described them as ‘deplorables’ and spent too much time reaching out to ethnic minorities.
‘Popularism’ is inherently unstable, so it is vulnerable to a coherent campaign of progressive but popular policies. At the moment though, the Democrats are too detached in terms of their political culture and language.