From Europe to America: the populist moment has arrived
On both sides of the Atlantic, the political class has become convinced
that the people do not know what is best for them.
At first sight, opponents of the EU Constitution appear to have
very little in common. In France, campaigners for 'Non' often sought
to defend their system of welfare arrangements against an institution
that they believe has come under Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal domination.
British eurosceptics oppose the bureaucratic and regulatory ambitions
of Brussels. In Holland, some 'Nee' campaigners feared the loss
of their national identity and the entry of Turkey into the EU.
Others used the referendum to simply have a pop at their political
The incoherence of the populist reaction against the EU has been
seized upon by EU technocrats to call into question the validity
of the referendums that rejected Brussels. From the perspective
of the Brussels technocrat, the overwhelming rejection of the EU
Constitution by the French and Dutch electorates is merely the confusing
signal transmitted by a politically illiterate electorate. Along
with sections of the media, pro-EU campaigners often represent this
rebuff of the EU as both irrational and incoherent.
The movement against the EU has brought together old political foes
from the left and right, far-left opponents of a 'capitalist' Europe
and far-right nationalists who are suspicious of anything that is
remotely foreign. Since the marriage of convenience between such
disparate forces cannot last, some supporters of the EU feel entitled
to minimise the significance of the rejection of the EU Constitution.
However, to interpret the outcome of the French and Dutch referendums
as having little to do with popular attitudes towards the EU is
an exercise in self-delusion. How human beings vote is never a simple,
straightforward matter. People do not simply respond to a script
handed down from above and vote in accordance with the instructions
set out by the political classes; their voting behaviour is influenced
by a variety motives and emotions. Sometimes people cast a ballot
to vote positively for something they desire, and sometimes their
vote represents a negative act of thwarting their political masters.
Teaching 'them' a lesson has an honourable tradition for a democratic
electorate, as even the likes of Winston Churchill discovered. Voting
is not simply about saying yes or no; it is also about making a
statement. It can represent a call to arms, or it can be a cry for
help. All these complex and contradictory influences should not
detract from the fact that when people voted 'No' to the EU Constitution
they actually meant 'No', and were expressing their opposition to
Supporters of the EU treaty should not draw comfort from the fact
that their opponents are driven by a variety of different and contradictory
motives. The fact that French communists and the French far right
have very different attitudes on many issues does not necessarily
diminish the significance of the populist reaction against the EU.
It may actually mean that as we move into the twenty-first century,
the traditional division between left and right has lost some of
It is worth noting that while campaigners against the EU Constitution
promoted diverse issues, they all expressed a sense of estrangement
from their political institutions. Today, this response is often
motivated by a sense of disengagement and a mood of anti-politics.
It also frequently expresses a revolt against the values upheld
by the political class and its institutions. The lower classes embrace
values that are essentially focused on their nation and community,
while the elites are oriented towards a cosmopolitan and globalist
perspective. In France, those who voted 'No' came predominantly
from the lower classes, and the most enthusiastic supporters of
the 'Yes' campaign were members of the French cultural, economic
and political elites.
The referendum was as much a clash of values - what in the USA is
called a Culture War - as a conflict over what constitutes legitimate
authority. People are bemused by the managerial and instrumental
language of EU technocrats. And importantly, they believe that the
EU is not of their making. By their very existence, movements such
as the Dutch 'Nee' campaign draw attention to the lack of legitimacy
of the focus of their opposition. It is not surprising that the
emotional and political distance that separates the public from
their representatives has acquired a particularly intense character
around the EU.
Those who are genuinely interested in European unity need to engage
with the sense of disenchantment expressed by the French and Dutch
electorates. Ensuring that people feel at home in Europe is far
more important than cajoling people to accept another top-down diktat
from Brussels. And this means, first of all, rejecting the anti-democratic
assumptions and prejudices behind the political elite's reaction
to the 'No' vote.
Demonising the people
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the populist rejection of the
EU treaty, the manner in which the 'No' campaign is disparaged by
professional politicians betrays a powerful anti-democratic temper.
It appears that professional politicians attempt to account for
their isolation from the electorate by pointing their finger at
the incompetence of the public. On both sides of the Atlantic, the
political class has drawn the conclusion that the problem with the
people is that they do not know what's in their best interest. This
sentiment is particularly widespread among liberal and left-wing
activists and thinkers.
'People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American
political life is all about', notes Thomas Frank in his US bestseller
What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of
America. Otherwise, Frank argues, how could they possibly vote for
the Republicans? The belief that people are too stupid to understand
the complexities of public life was also widely expressed during
the heated exchanges that surrounded the recent referendums on the
EU in France and Germany. Margot Wallstrom, vice president of the
EU, commented on her blog that the Constitution is a 'complex issue
to vote on', which can lead many citizens to 'use a referendum to
answer a question that was not put to them'.
According to this view, since the people cannot be trusted to understand
the finer points of legal documents, important decisions need to
be left to the professional politician. Andrew Duff, Liberal Democrat
Member of the European Parliament (MEP), agrees that consulting
the electorate is a distraction from getting on with the job. After
the referendums in France and Holland, he stated that 'the experience
begs the question of whether it was ever appropriate to submit the
EU Constitution to a lottery of uncoordinated national plebiscites'.
The people are not only regarded as politically illiterate. They
are also depicted as simpletons who are likely to be swayed by demagogues.
In the context of the Brussels bubble, a demagogue is anyone who
is critical of the EU project. As far as European Commission President
Jose Manuel Barroso was concerned, his eurosceptic opponents have
crossed the 'border from democracy to demagoguery'. He claimed that
a 'populist trend' is seeking to 'undermine the Europe we are trying
to build' by 'simplifying important and complex subjects'.
In the USA, this sentiment has been systematically articulated by
Democratic Party activists, who cannot understand why many blue-collar
workers vote for Republicans. According to George Lakoff, one of
the most influential thinkers in the liberal wing of the Democrats,
'people do not necessarily vote in their self interest'.
The belief that the public is too simplistic or too gullible has
led some Democratic Party activists to blame the defeat of their
presidential candidate in two successive elections on the stupidity
of the people. One liberal activist, Michael Gronewalter, states
that 'civility and intelligent dialogue are useful tools among intelligent
people' but are inappropriate for engaging with the public. He argues:
'I really think the problem is that we liberals are in general far
more intelligent, well-reasoned and educated and will go to astonishingly
great lengths to convince people of the integrity and validity of
our fair and well thought-out arguments. The audience, in case anyone
has been paying attention, isn't always getting it! I suspect the
problem is not the speaker - it is most of the audience.'
'The audience', which is another name for normal human beings, is
implicitly blamed for not getting the incredibly sophisticated message
articulated by very clever political activists. In recent times,
this apparently hopeless mass of illiterate voters has been condemned
for mindlessly embracing the politics of the so-called religious
In the USA, the left's apprehension with the growing influence of
the religious right is motivated by the suspicion that it finds
it difficult to connect with the emotional and cultural life of
ordinary folk. But instead of attempting to overcome this barrier,
it prefers to dwell on the irrationalism of those who can be so
easily swayed by the religious right. In a roundabout way, the left's
denunciation of the religious right represents a critique of the
mental capacity of significant sections of the electorate.
According to one Democratic Party activist, the American public
has become a sort of 'fast food electorate' and it is as if 'Americans
suffer collectively from a plague of Attention Deficit Disorder'.
In the EU this recalcitrant public is dismissed as a bunch of backward-looking
xenophobes. After the rejection of the EU treaty by the French and
Dutch electorates, the Liberal Democratic MEP Andrew Duff's characterisation
of the opponents of the EU Constitution was neither liberal nor
democratic. 'The rejectionists are an odd bunch of racists, xenophobes,
nationalists, communists, disappointed centre-left and the generally
pissed-off', he told Parliament Magazine.
Throughout history the political elites have tended to be anxious
and sometimes hostile to public opinion. Most of the classical studies
of public opinion, especially those written from a liberal perspective,
tend to be negative about their subject matter. Often, it is the
liberal disappointment with the inability of the people to do what
is in their interest that shapes the discussion, in which public
opinion is invariably treated as a 'problem'. The American commentator
Walter Lippman's 1922 study, Public Opinion, provides the classic
statement: he warns that the proportion of the electorate which
is 'absolutely illiterate' is much larger than we suspect and that
these people who are 'mentally children or barbarians' are natural
targets of manipulators.
This view of public opinion has dominated the Anglo-American literature
on the subject. Frequently it has conveyed the patronising assumption
that the public does not know what is in its best interest. As Edward
Pager, an American sociologist, argued in 1929, 'public opinion
is often very cruel to those who struggle most unselfishly for the
So the tendency to stigmatise populist politics as a symptom of
psychological disorder and irrationalism has a long history. In
his important study The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin notes
that in the USA during the Cold War, populism became the 'great
fear of liberal intellectuals'. They blamed mass democracy and an
'authoritarian' and 'irrational' working class for the rise of McCarthyism.
Indeed, their hostility to McCarthyism, like their antagonism to
the religious right today, was underpinned by distrust and antipathy
towards 'the very kinds of white American-Catholic workers, military
veterans, discontented families in the middle of the social structure
- who had once been the foot soldiers in causes such as industrial
unionism, the CIO and the Popular Front in the 1930s and 1940s'.
A decade later, these people were perceived as the enemy of liberalism.
Whereas 'formerly liberals had worried about the decline of popular
participation in politics', now 'they began to wonder whether "apathy"
might not be a blessing in disguise' notes Christopher Lasch in
The True And Only Heaven, his study of the populist revolt against
the liberal elite.
Elite apprehensions towards populism were linked to the belief that
the mental outlook of the 'lower classes' was distorted by their
brutal upbringing. It was claimed that the emotional outlook of
the working class created a propensity to adopt anti-democratic
and authoritarian causes. The comments of the American political
scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, a leading voice on this subject
during the Cold War, is paradigmatic in this respect: 'to sum up,
the lower-class individual is likely to have been exposed to punishment,
lack of love, and a general atmosphere of tension and aggression
since early childhood - all experiences which tend to produce deep-rooted
hostilities expressed by ethnic prejudice, political authoritarianism,
and chiliastic transvaluational religion.'
A contrast between the emotionally refined middle classes and the
emotionally illiterate working classes was also forcefully drawn
by Hans Eysenck, a well-known British psychologist. Eysenck claimed
that 'middle-class Conservatives are more tender-minded than working-class
Conservatives; middle-class Liberals more tender-minded than working-class
Liberals; middle-class Socialists more tender-minded than working-class
Socialists, and even middle-class Communists more tender minded
than working-class Communists'.
Lipset and Eysenck's pathologisation of the political behaviour
of the lower classes continues to influence leftist attitudes today.
George Lakoff, whom Howard Dean has described as 'one of the most
influential political thinkers of the progressive movement', characterises
Bush supporters as dominated by a 'strict father morality' which
is hostile to 'nurturance and care'. That's another way of saying
that they are morally inferior people. And they are certainly inferior
to progressives, who apparently have a 'nurturant family' orientation'.
In Eysenck's vocabulary, progressives are more 'tender-minded' than
those nasty brutes in Ohio who voted for Bush.
Through counterposing two different types of moral beings, Lakoff
and his adherents can reconcile themselves to the fantasy that it
was their moral superiority that lost them the election. In this
way, they prove to be no less committed to playing the moral card
then the target of their opprobrium - the religious right. The difference
between the two is that Lakoff has seen the 'psychological light',
whereas those with a 'strict father morality' have opted for the
The view that the public is too stupid to grasp the high-minded
and sophisticated ideals of American liberals expresses a profound
sense of contempt towards people. Furthermore, it uncritically transfers
responsibility for the contemporary malaise of political life on
to the simplistic and uneducated electorate. From this standpoint,
it is not the inability of liberal politics to connect with significant
sections of the public that accounts for John Kerry's defeat in
2004, but the narrow-mindedness of the electorate.
This attitude is not confined to the USA. It was not so long ago
that the ascendancy of the Thatcher era was blamed by British leftists
on the influence of working-class authoritarianism. Left-wing and
liberal academics characterised Thatcherism as a form of authoritarian
populism that had somehow seduced sections of an easily misled working
class. They argued that a heady mixture of nationalism, racism and
appeal to self-interest created a powerful right-wing populist movement
that provided Thatcher with grassroots support.
In those days, it was fashionable to poke fun at 'Essex Man' and
'Essex Women', supposedly the embodiment of the irrational but materialistic
and selfish supporters of Thatcher who would not respond to the
high-minded appeals of left-wing politicians. Today, a similar argument
is used to account for the limited gains that the UK Independence
Party (UKIP) and the British National Party (BNP) have made in working-class
constituencies such as Barking.
Populism is here to stay
It is rare for leftists and liberal political thinkers and activists
to make a direct denunciation of people's mental capacities in a
culture that professes to be anti-elitist. Such stereotyping would
meet with condemnation if it were directed at minorities or another
section of society. That is why contempt is usually transmitted
through euphemisms, and nods and winks.
In the Sixties, critics of populism pointed the finger at 'hard
hats' and 'materialist' working people. Today in the USA, such attitudes
are expressed through terms like 'Nascar Dads', 'Valley Girls, 'Joe
six-pack' or 'rednecks'. Lakoff claims that Bush's popularity with
the Nascar dads is due to their common identification with strict
father values. The Old Cold War thesis of the 'authoritarian working
class' has been recycled to helps liberals rationalise their sense
of isolation from everyday society. The pathological roots of backward
attitudes is to be found in the poor quality of parenting experienced
by Lakoff's stereotype conservative.
In the UK, Nascar dads have a different name. They are dismissed
as 'chavs', 'white van men', 'Worcester Women' or 'tabloid readers'.
Since these are people who cannot be mobilised for progressive causes,
the best course of action is to try to isolate them and minimise
their influence upon society.
A stark example of the regard in which populist campaigners are
held by those who pride themselves on being part of the liberal,
cosmopolitan elite was provided recently by the Australian Eric
Ellis, the southeast Asian correspondent for Fortune magazine, writing
in the British Spectator about 'the weeping, xenophobic hysteria
in Australia over the conviction of Schapelle Corby for smuggling
drugs into Indonesia'. 'The demographer Bernard Salt says the Corby
matter explodes what has always been the myth of Australian egalitarianism',
writes Ellis. 'Salt has previously noted, controversially, that
Australia, like most countries, has an educated minority, a cultural
and cosmopolitan elite that directs its politics, its economy, its
popular culture, with the majority functioning as essentially its
market'. Ellis continues:
'But the elite aren't calling the shots on this one. There has been
talk of a "redneck coup". And the circus shows no sign
of packing up. A new lawyer has just been appointed to handle Our
Schapelle's appeal. I met him last week, and he did not disappoint
me. His name is Paris Hutapea, and he carries two sidearms (a Beretta
and a Walther), sports shiny blue suits and an impressive mullet,
and drives to work in a Humvee. His fingers drip with opal and diamond
rings. He and [Schapelle's] big sister Mercedes should hit it off.'
The tendency to treat supporters of populist campaigns as the enemy
betrays a feeble attachment towards democratic politics. After all,
supporters of populism constitute an important section of the people
and they need to be taken no less seriously than those whose views
appear more enlightened.
It is also important to note that populist movements are influenced
by a variety of contradictory motives. Disenchantment with the political
system and the elites can lead people to adopt a narrow-minded divisive
attitude of them-and-us towards other groups. But populist movements
are often influenced by an aspiration for social solidarity, and
by an egalitarian impulse. It is worth recalling that historically
many populist movements, such as the Chartists, were associated
with the politics of the left. As Kazin observed, in the USA for
over a century the language of populism was an inspiration to movements
of the left. It was only in the 1940s that American populist political
discourse began to migrate from the Left to the Right. In principle,
there is no reason why the populist imagination should be monopolised
by one single political voice.
Populist movements can be demonised or they can be regarded as a
wake-up call that demands a genuine commitment to democratic engagement.
That so many people adopted such strong views against the EU Constitution
is no bad thing. It is certainly preferable to the scourge of voter
apathy and political disengagement. And it certainly provides an
opportunity for dialogue and democratic renewal. Unfortunately,
the political class, which normally worries about the decline of
voting in General Elections, takes the view that this phenomenon
is preferable to losing a referendum over the EU Constitution. Such
a technocratic response may help limit the damage, but it will not
make populism go away.
One reason why the political class so dislikes populist movements
is that it experiences them as a direct challenge to its values
and worldview. This clash of values became evident during the recent
referendums in Europe, where it was obvious that the 'No' campaigns
were speaking a language that was morally and emotionally incomprehensible
to the political class. The political class talked of subsidiarity,
transparency, efficiency, human rights and protocols, while their
opponents were discussing the problems of everyday life. By their
very existence, the 'No' campaign calls into question the values
of an increasingly technocratic and managerial oligarchy.
At present this is the one movement that it cannot handle or do
business with. The contrast of the 'No' campaign with the so-called
anti-capitalist or 'Make Poverty History' movements could not be
more striking. These movements do not challenge the prevailing political
culture; indeed, they reinforce it. That is why politicians are
falling over themselves to praise the anti-poverty lobby. Leading
British ministers are encouraging people to come and protest on
the streets of Edinburgh during the G8 summit in July. The lobbyists
and NGOS that participate in this movement are regarded as their
own by the political elites.
By contrast, when confronted by a populist movement the political
class feels vulnerable and exposed. Whatever their limitations,
such movements remind the world that the political elites are more
interested in insulating themselves from the pressures of everyday
life than in engaging with the real world. They say that they are
worried about the problem of political disengagement, but the last
thing they want is a public that is genuinely happy to engage. That
is why they will think twice about organising more referendums.
We should thank the 'No' campaign for reminding us that democracy
only exists when people are prepared to make their voices heard.
published on Spiked, 13 June 2005