How to overcome populism?

Diana Galeeva
Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

In the last few months we’ve seen a series of events which indicate that populism is widespread in Europe. Populism has deep historical roots in Western society, but it is only recently that we have witnessed such strong support of the phenomenon.

Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen are well-known politicians, who are associated with the move from unification to the withdrawal from the EU. This article argues that the rising popularity of populism is related to charismatic leadership, and could be defeated by the emergence of new pro-EU politicians who are equally charismatic.

In order to support my argument, this article will, firstly, define and differentiate populism and ‘new’ populism. I will then draw on the historical development of these ideas to demonstrate their attraction as it has increased and decreased over time. Despite Macron’s victory in the recent French elections, we cannot conclude that populism will not resurface in other states or in the future.

In order to overcome it a ‘remedy’ must be identified for use by future generations of politicians, who will learn from the experience of Brexit/Frexit-era politicians. Examination of two contemporary politicians, Mr. Farage and Ms. Le Pen, will demonstrate which tools have been used by populists to attract voters, and finally, the paper will try to suggest a mechanism for how to overcome populism in the European Union.

What is populism/new populism?

It is important to consider the nature of Populism because it is not a new issue for Western politics, this phenomenon has long roots in the Western societies (agrarian radicalism, narodnichestvo, Peronism and the ideas of Social Credit) and the ideas of populists are still alive and supported by people. Scholars have described the differences between populism and new populism, as follows.

Shils (1956) concludes that populism ‘exists wherever there is an ideology of popular resentment against the order imposed on society by a long-established, differentiated ruling class which is believed to have a monopoly of power, property, breeding and culture’ (Shils, 1956: 100-1). Shils believed that populism is about relations between masses and elites. Di Tella (1965, 1997) considers populism a variation of the perception of the state by those who are poor and elites.

Canovan (1981) differentiated agrarian populism and political populism. Previously populism was considered to be the difference between elites and the masses (Shils, 1956), poor and elites (Di Tella, 1965), the mobilization of agrarian population against elites (Canovan, 1981) and political populism – the conflict between intolerant (reactionary, racist) masses against tolerant (progressive, liberal) elites.

Recently, populism has been understood as opposed to liberalism. In the US journal Telos another interpretation of populism appeared as an alternative to the hegemony of liberalism. These ideas emerged with ‘new’ populism. New populism rejects the harmony of the post-war environment, and tries to rebuild politics between ideas of immigration, taxation and regionalism/nationalism. For this reason ‘new’ populism is associated with ethical nationalism.

One of the distinctive characteristics of new populism is charismatic leadership. From William Aberhart in Alberta to Juan Peron in Argentina (Taggart, 2000), populists have relied not only on personalized leadership but also on charisma. According to Weber (1968:241-5), who differentiated charismatic authority from legal-rational and traditional forms, modern society viewed the increase of legal-rational authority as the form where we can trace the justice of leaders via institutions and law and, in democracy, via the agreement of the governance.

Charismatic authority, by contrast, is based on neither history nor structures, but the specific personal characteristics of leaders and assets ascribed to them by their supporters (Weber, 1968:244). Taggart (2000) believes that there are similarities between the concept of populism and charismatic authority.

The nature of charismatic leadership is to swap rules and institutions with the desires of a charismatic leader. Moreover, charismatic leadership might happen at times of hardship or distress. Populists occur while there are believers, often when there is moral collapse or a sense of crisis.

In order to overcome populism, and prevent its development in other states, strong/charismatic leadership should present a clear plan for the reformation of the EU, and should demonstrate that the strength of the Union depends on a mutual respect for the diversity of its members

Diana Galeeva

Charismatic populists: What can we learn from them?

Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen have become some of the most discussed populists within the European Union. Nigel’s enthusiasm about leaving the EU, which is based on his 20-years slogan campaign ‘I want my country back’, made him one of the most discussed politicians in the European Union. His personality raised different emotions from politicians and the public, from the very critical to very positive, but not neutral.

While opposing his comments about migrants’ use of the NHS for expensive HIV treatment, Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood told to Mr. Farage: ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself’; Russell Brand on Question Time in 2014 said: ‘This man is not a cartoon character, he isn’t Del Boy or Arthur Daley, he’s a pound shop Enoch Powell and we’re watching him’; Boris Johnson mentioned in 2013: ‘We Tories look at him, with his pint and cigar and sense of humour, and instinctively recognise someone fundamentally indistinguishable from us’.

Similarly, as the comments from Yougov 2017 show us, the general public’s attitude towards Mr. Farage is divided, ranging from the intensely critical; ‘bigoted’, ‘xenophobic’, ‘dangerous’, ‘racist’, to the positive; ‘in touch with ordinary people’, ‘good speaker’, ‘stands up for ordinary people’, ‘patriotic’ (Yougov, 2017). On June 28, 2016 after the Brexit vote at the plenary session at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Mr. Farage said: ‘Isn’t it funny – you know, when I came here 17 years ago and I said that I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union, you all laughed at me. Well I have to say, you’re not laughing now’ (POLITICO, 2016).

By broadcasting controversial ideas of immigration during the Leave campaign (for example, suggesting a Romanian crime wave in London and claiming that shortage of healthcare, school places and housing, jobs for young people because of migrants), invoking a negative attitude towards migrants with his huge poster ‘Breaking point: the EU has failed us all’, and by combining these ideas with his familiar ‘man in pub’ image, he attracted a lot of attention from the media and the public.

Marine Le Pen is the leader of Front National (FN) party, which was founded by her father - Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972. However, under Marine’s leadership and her reformation of the party, FN made clear breakthroughs. By 1984 the party had created a status for armed right-wing populism and an electorate of voters, which brought 11 per cent of the votes in the elections to the European Parliament. By 1997 the party had built itself as an essential part of the French party system and extended 15 per cent of the vote in parliamentary and presidential elections (Taggart, 2000).

When Jean-Marie was a leader of the party, they wanted to deport three million immigrants, but during Marine’s leadership, which started since 2011, the party started to distance itself from such controversial ideas (BBC, 2017). As a result, the party became more popular in France, gaining, in 2010, 18 percent of the vote, and about 24% today. Despite the loss at the Presidential elections, the first round’s results spread concerns about the future of France and the EU, Ms. Le Pen got 21.53 percent, which is very close to 23.75 percent Mr. Macron had (the Guardian, 2017).

‘Charismatic Le Pen, boring Macron […]’ was the title of one article about the French elections (Financial, Review, 2017), which basically characterises the candidates (from the author’s point of you) and clearly proves the idea that populist leaders have charisma (Taggart, 2000). Le Pen’s key issues of the Presidential campaign were the following: she promised to crush ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and hard-line against immigration.

Ms. Le Pen said to the supporters that ‘the EU will die’ and she wanted to exit the Schengen agreement, close French borders and leave the euro and return to the franc, promising Frexit within six months of taking power (The Guardian, 2017a). The key idea of Marine Le Pen’s campaign was the same as the main idea of the Front National since 1972: keeping France for the French.

During her campaign, similarly to Mr. Farage in the UK case, she made global media and international community speak about her, for example, she refused to wear headscarf while meeting with Lebanon’s Grand Sunni Muslim Mufti Sheikh Adbel –Latif Derian, meaning the encounter had to be cancelled in February 2017.

From these examples, we could conclude that, during their campaigns, the two leaders mostly discussed immigration within the EU, drawing differences between Eastern Europeans and Western Europeans. Secondly, Farage and Le Pen’s ‘images’, behaviour, and strategies helped them to attract their audiences.

The main themes of their speeches were directed at, and designed to appeal to, particular demographics. Thirdly, during their campaigns they tried to attract as much media-attention, domestic and international, as possible and they tried to be controversial (above mentioned: Farage’s poster ‘Breaking point’, Le Pen’s behaviour in Lebanon).

How to overcome populism?

Resolving populism could be achieved with the same strategy, but in the opposite direction. If populism mainly relies on charismatic leadership, overcoming populism should also be related to charismatic leadership, but with ideas of having a strong European Union with a prosperous future. Responding to the first lesson from populists, the European Union needs new charismatic leaders within the EU who will work together with other EU members, who will be interested in keeping institutions and rules within the institution, and who will work hard to enthusiastically promote ideas of institution, and implement them.

In order to overcome populism, and prevent its development in other states, strong/charismatic leadership should present a clear plan for the reformation of the European Union, and should demonstrate that the strength of the Union depends on a mutual respect for the diversity of its members. However, it seems that current EU politicians are behaving according to a populist scenario: demonstrating that there are only certain states in the EU, which are important.

For example, the inauguration of Emmanuel Macron was held on May, 14 2017 and he met with Angela Merkel the day after to discuss changes to the EU treaties and the reformation of the European Union. By excluding all the states for which an issue such as this would have consequences, these two leaders gave the impression that the future of the EU depends only on the future of their countries.

Pillars of liberalism

This attitude contradicts the main principles of the EU and the pillars of liberalism in general, which should preserve the equality and importance of all states. In addition, it is probably easy to deal with negative discourses, pointing out only the negative outcomes of current policies (as populists do), but it is perhaps more difficult to suggest peaceful ideas which will bring prosperity to the institution. It is, however, also extremely important for politicians to convince people of their beliefs and of the advantages of their political strategies.

New populists mainly focus on immigration, taxation and issues related to regionalism/nationalism, the examples of discourses suggested by Mr. Farage and Mrs. Le Pen demonstrate this as well.

In this regard, pro-EU charismatic leaders should simply find counter-arguments and deliver them with the same enthusiasm and strength of belief as populists do. Populists’ ideas are historically mainly the same, if they found the subjects that have divided societies, why cannot pro-EU politicians express strong clear statements about the advantages of particular issues, or by drawing attention to other problems.

For example, in response to the accusation against Romanians of criminality (as mentioned in the Brexit case), why not show the proportion of law-breaking Romanians as a percentage of the total number of Romanian immigrants, to highlight the vast majority of law-abiding citizens that this demographic comprises?

Finally, the two mentioned leaders concentrated on one class of society, for this reason it is essential for charismatic pro-EU leadership to learn to speak with all groups of society. They should know the discourses and interests of all people, taking into account their gender, class, age, and, while meeting with them, should communicate appropriately.

Simply, they should learn to promote the same policies with all people. It is hard work to find new political mechanisms which attract everyone, but if Farage could create the poster ‘Breaking Point’, I strongly believe that other pro-EU politicians will be able enthusiastically promote EU principles and ideas which bring prosperity for their organization.

Diana Galeeva is a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her PhD research focuses on theories of power, IR theory, small states, political islam and GCC politics. She was an intern at the the President of Tatarstan’s office - Department of corporation and Religious organizations (2012), Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan, legal department (2011), and the Ministry of justice (2010). Diana received her M.A. in International Relations from Exeter university in the UK, and earned a degree in Governmental Law from Kazan Federal University (KFU). She speaks English, Russian, Tatar and studies Arabic and Turkish. She can be contacted on [email protected] and @diana_galeeva.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending