Is populism inherently bad?

Updated: Dec 30, 2018

The question ‘Is populism bad?’ is not as straightforward as current affairs would suggest. The ideology, or political strategy, can be defined as the cause of appealing to the ordinary people, the common man.

It sees there are two halves in society: the ‘pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, pitted against each other. Populists seek to amend these two halves, by taking power away from the elite and returning it to the people: such individuals appear across the political spectrum, as shown in the 2016 U.S. presidential election where candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders conducted campaigns centering on anti-elitist and anti-establishment narratives. This election, along with Britain’s European Union (EU) referendum have shown the ideology to be malleable: it has been stretched and strained to vilify those in positions of power, by those who seek such positions and the advantage of a negative bias.

Populism is increasingly seen as a ‘bad’ ideology - a justified and exemplified view. However, in some settings, the attached negative connotations and policy implications of populism are not present. Two national scale examples can be used to evaluate this dichotomy, and hence the question ‘Is populism bad?’.

The 2008 financial crisis and the recent European refugee crisis, have led to the loss of a ‘grand narrative’ for Europe: this in turn has lead countries - especially post-communist countries who joined the EU recently, namely Hungary in 2004- to elect populist leaders. This can be viewed as negative, ‘bad populism’ as such politics threatens the current harmony between European nations (compared to the 20th century), and the EU’s existence. Emmanuel Macron, the recently elected French President, attributes the loss of a European narrative of values and identity to a lack of motivation from certain countries in the European project: instead, they turn to focus solely on the national scale. In Hungary, right wing populist movements have based their campaigns and politics around the nations ‘cultural purity’ and the need for preservation of their national identity. As a post-communist nation, Hungary is subject to a nationalistic narrative, with the impacts of an invading foreign power still present in living memory. Indeed, many campaigns even regard the European project as an invader: the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, and his party, Fidesz, have utilized the austerity present in the nation since the 2008 financial crash to vilify EU integration, stating that the blame for such hardships lies with the EU for ‘selling their national interests’ to immigrants and multinationals. Many claim this nationalistic political stance is diverging from the democratic values of the EU- this is evident in the Prime Ministers anti-migrant rhetoric. Since 2015, Orban has referred to the European Refugee Crisis as a ‘Muslim invasion’, referred to the migrants themselves as ‘poison’, and has even built physical barriers to prevent refugee’s entry into Hungary. The xenophobic language used is a clear divergence from EU values- despite being explained as an attempt to preserve Christian European Heritage.

The negative impact of this far-right wing, populist discourse is twofold. Not only can it be considered ‘bad’ for diverging with EU values, and causing tension between European nations, but it also contributes to the huge loss of life that has occurred in the European Refugee Crisis. The anti-migrant, populist discourse that is now dominant in Hungary, and other EU countries (it is increasingly seen in Poland and Britain, for example) has serious EU-scale policy implications: the number of legal entry channels to Europe for migrants and refugees has been drastically reduced- leading those in need to take drastic measures, such as crossing the Mediterranean in a crowded dinghy, to reach Europe and its safety. Already in 2018, a dinghy capsized roughly 40 miles off the coast from Libya - although 84 were rescued, the event was fatal.

However, in some geographical settings, populist movements are not associated with these ‘bad’ populist characteristics of strong, anti-EU nationalism or xenophobia. The populist Catalonia referendum left the region politically divided over the issue of independence, but united by shared, collective emotions of anger at the violence perpetrated by Spanish authorities during the campaigning and voting. They viewed such actions as the Spanish Prime minster, Mariano Rajoy’s lack of regard for the rights of individuals in the region, and their political autonomy as a whole. The result was that populism in the region grew- just as Hungary regarded the EU as a foreign invaded, Catalonia viewed the Spanish Government in Madrid in the same way: yet, this populism was based on anti-establishment values and the will for a right to choose independence legally and without violence - unlike in Hungary, a strong nationalist sentiment was only present for a few Catalans.

Aside from the negative moral implications of populism, such as the death of migrants entering Europe or violence against citizens peacefully exorcising a democratic right to vote in Catalan, the question ‘Is populism bad?’ cannot be answered from a partisan view. Populism occurs in many forms across the political spectrum, and an individual’s view on whether it is ‘bad’ or not is influenced by personal political stance. For example, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU in the summer of 2016 and Donald Trump’s presidential election victory emboldened populist movements and the rise of politicians such as Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage across Europe. Consequently, we are currently seeing a rise in right wing populism- but whether this is a good or bad event can only be answered when we consider our own political stance.

Charlotte Barke is a member of the European Horizons St Andrews chapter, originating from Newcastle. A third year Geography and Sustainable Development student, she is interested in politics from a local to global scale, with a specific interest in governance and refugees. Beyond European Horizons, she is also involved in the student’s arts festival, On the Rocks, as well as organizing the UNICEF St Andrews Symposium.

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