Blog: Engagement as the “cure” for populism

 

Anna Silander, a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations reflects on REPRESENT’s recent conference. Anna’s research focuses on the evolution of right-wing populist parties in Europe.

 

On 26-27 April, I attended the first international conference, Political Parties in the Age of Populism, by the Research Centre for the Study of Parties and Democracy, REPRESENT, a collaboration between the University of Birmingham and the University of Nottingham. The two days in Birmingham with thought-provoking presentations, offered a PhD student working on right-wing populism, a prestigious chance to sit back and soak up the knowledge.

The conference that brought together academics, policy-makers and practitioners had a tone of optimism as we heard how populism can produce good. Danielle Resnick’s presentation on Africa showcased how populist leaders have succeeded in motivating voters and opposition parties, disturbing the traditional parties, and improving the lives of the poor. The last point was similarly mentioned by Nic Cheeseman and Susan Dodsworth who also highlighted how populist leaders can overcome ethnic and religious divisions in countries where that has thus far seemed hopeless.

Due to the increasing interest on populism and the lack of one commonly agreed definition, there is a danger that it, as an answer, is made to fit too many questions and problems on various fields. Although, the term is still somewhat debated, there are features of it that cannot be. When listening to Paul Taggart it was evident that one was listening to a scholar who has been publishing on the subject since 1995. He spoke about the dislike populism has towards politics, its unpolitical nature in a political world. And how the phenomenon views politics as war where winning the enemy must be absolute, resulting in their surrender. Paradoxically, defeat can also be a victory, depending how it is played to the audience.

According to Taggart, the virtuous and unified people, led by their messiah-like leaders, are the people of the heartland. This Tolkienish imagined community is sentimentally driven from the past, a place free of dirty, corrupting politics. Taggart’s description of populism and its people highlights the divisions in the society, since the people is not an all-encompassing term, and the entry to the heartland is not open for all. Those who are part of the in-group know who does and who does not belong, even if the criteria are blurred and difficult to put into words. It also stresses the troubles representative liberal democracy currently faces. How to challenge a perspective that embraces simple but exciting conspiracy theories with destabilising politics, portraying opposition as evil?

For most presenters the answer was engagement. Dan Lawes, from YouthPoliticsUK, and Professor Philippe C. Schmitter, from the European University Institute, who shared the win from Thursday evening’s public event where they had three minutes to pitch their solution to populism, both saw young people’s engagement in politics essential.

Populism forces liberal democracies to look in the mirror and engage in debates the established parties have avoided. It is not the illness but a symptom, asserted Fernando Casal Bértoa and José Rama Camaño. They stressed how populism has exposed there is something wrong with representative democracies, to which there are no quick-fix cures but the road to recovery is long and, possibly, unpleasant.

The features of populism further deepen the divisions already separating societies. Consequently, the cure cannot alienate or ridicule those in the electorate who feel their concerns are finally taken seriously, reinforcing the importance of engagement.

Photo: Audience members at REPRESENT’s conference, Political Parties in the Age of Populism, 26-27 April 2018.

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