Three Lessons From Contemporary Populism

2015 seemed like the perfect year for populist actors. All over the world more or less populist discourses were spread among the public opinion. In 2016 the diffusion of populism reached new and unexpected peaks. What changed in the diffusion and perception of populism? Essentially, there are three lessons we can learn.

1) Populism is mainstream. It is no longer a niche ideology for flamboyant and bizarre guys trying to play the card of populism to get a few votes and exploit the popular disenchantment vis à vis the political system. As Cas Mudde argues, also mainstream parties adopt populist discourses, and this tendency has been there for over a decade. Now more than ever the results are visible. Take Theresa May: the British Prime Minister can publicly say in Birmingham, at a party convention, that the Conservatives are now “the party of the workers, the party of public servants, the party of the NHS”. Of course, like in every good populist story, if ‘the people’ is the collective hero, the villain must be identified. Nothing easier for the British Prime Minister: “So if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff, an international company that treats tax laws as an optional extra, a household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism, a director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust: I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on any more”.


Bucharest (Romania) – Summer 2016

All of this in a post-Brexit context, in which Boris Johnson became Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs: just to repeat how mainstream populism has gone. Once again, May portrayed the referendum as the redemption of the people, who “were not prepared to be ignored anymore”, and of course the Conservatives are here to restore the popular sovereignty. To the nitty gritty of the matter, anyway, the reason behind every decent right-wing populist discourse, even behind Brexit and May’s speech, is always the same: autochthonous population fining itself out of work “because of low-skilled immigration”.


Athens January 2016 – Poster for the Referendum

2) Referenda matter. Populism and referenda are intertwined since they represent the best and more direct way to hear the will of the people. In the last months, referenda played a crucial role in populist discourses. Among the most representative cases:

  • in July 2015 took place the Greek bailout referendum, in which the people decided not to accept the conditions of the Troika (the economic and financial elites considered responsible for most of the bad conditions in which Greek people have to leave);
  • in June 2016 the British people decided to withdraw from the European Union, and once again it has been framed as a battle between the will of the people and the oppressing elites embodied in this cases by all the European institutions;
  • in October 2016 Hungary voted to reject a European Union refugee resettlement plan, and once again the citizens were supposed to go against the arrogant elites which do not respect national sovereignty and the widespread anti-immigrant feelings (in this case the quorum was not reached, but Orban framed it as a victory and declared: “Can a democratic community [the EU] force its will to a member where 92% [of the voters] is against it? I promise I will do everything so this can never ever happen”);
  • the Italian constitutional referendum is scheduled for December 2016, it concerns the reform of a third of the articles of the constitution and it has been proposed by a Prime Minister who has not been elected but only appointed, and by a government which has been chosen through an unconstitutional electoral law (it is always good to remember it). What would be the aim? To make the Italian political system more efficient and governable while giving a disproportionate power to the Prime Minister at the expenses of checks and balances (a key feature of liberal democracies always criticized by populist actors).

3) Small is beautiful. What we knew so far was that populist parties scored particularly well in European elections: in 2014 UKIP, Jobbik, PVV, FPÖ and many others have filled the seats of the EP as never before. What is unprecedented is the success of populism in local elections. After the success of the Front National in 2015 (with over 22% of the votes), this year AfD in Germany and the Five Star Movement in Italy obtained relevant successes. AfD scored exceptionally well in the regions of Baden-Württemberg (over 15%), Saxony-Anhalt (over 24%), Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (almost 21%) and Berlin (14%). Interestingly, for the first time in German history a party associated with Nazism (here and here) obtains this kind success. Meanwhile, in Italy the Five Star Movement won the local elections in Rome and Turin, thus controlling the capital of the country and another key city (and former capital). However, the incredible series of scandals in Rome in just three months show that criticizing the established parties and performing better than them are not equally easy. By the way, the Five Star Movement mayor Virginia Raggi first proposed a referendum about the Olympic Games in Rome in 2024, but eventually followed the decision of Beppe Grillo and took a position (against) without consulting the people. Strange, in a referendum-dominated era.

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