The trouble with anti-populism: why the champions of civility keep losing

The trouble with anti-populism: why the champions of civility keep losing

(Clockwise from top left): Tony Blair, Pete Buttiegeg, Donald Trump, Victor Orban Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, Emanuel Macron and Hillary Clinton.

With rightwing demagogues gaining power and public debate getting nastier, many are calling for a return to a more sensible politics. But this approach has its own fatal flaws. By

Main image: (Clockwise from top left): Tony Blair, Pete Buttiegeg, Donald Trump, Victor Orban Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, Emanuel Macron and Hillary Clinton.

You*ve probably heard some version of it in recent years. Maybe you*ve even said or thought it yourself. ※Politicians are always fighting!§ ※Politics has become totally irrational!§ ※Why can*t politicians just compromise, find some consensus and solve our problems?§

For many people, these views have come to seem like basic common sense. In this era of extreme partisanship, the argument goes, what we need is more unity and moderation to bring us together. And if there is one group of politicians who have been blamed for the sorry state we find ourselves in, it is populists.

Since the twin shocks of 2016 每 the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump 每 a cottage industry of authors, pundits and organisations has emerged with the shared goal of fighting populism. Books with names such as The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How Save It, and Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy have been published on both sides of the Atlantic. Tony Blair has set up his Institute for Global Change to find ※an answer to the new populism of left and right which exploits the anger and drives the world apart§.

Elsewhere, two of the most prominent politicians defeated by populist competitors, Hillary Clinton and Matteo Renzi, have offered their tips about how to stop populists (too little, too late). And in a truly remarkable bit of chutzpah, populist extraordinaire Silvio Berlusconi has tried to reinvent himself as a pro-EU unifier, here to save Italy from populism. Even the pontiff has warned against populism, with Pope Francis stating that ※populism is evil and ends badly§.

What unites these self-styled defenders of democracy, ready to roll up their sleeves and take the apparent populist scourge head-on? It*s certainly not a clear ideology. Nor is it opposition to a particular variety of populism. It is something far more disparate than that. So how about we just call this phenomenon, simply, anti-populism?

While populism itself has received an enormous amount of media attention over the past several years, anti-populism has not. Yet this is somewhat curious, given that anti-populism 每 with its call for a more sensible, moderate politics 每 has become one of the most widely held views across the western political mainstream.

It*s not hard to see why anti-populist ideas are popular: they have intuitive appeal in a time when two-party politics seems to be breaking down in the US, UK and Australia; when genuinely dangerous rightwing populists are winning power across the world; and when politics and public debate seem increasingly divisive and volatile. In this context, the key values of anti-populism 每 civility, maturity, deliberation 每 sound rather nice.

Yet it is worth asking how we got to this point, and considering how opposing populism 每 a term that in some contexts, particularly in the US, until recently had positive connotations 每 became the supposedly sensible position to take. Crucially, it is also worth asking whether anti-populism is effective. If the aim is to defeat populists, do the solutions proposed by the anti-populists 每 running the gamut from borrowing some populist policies to refusing to negotiate with them at all 每 actually work? Or do they ultimately succumb to what the philosopher Slavoj ?i?ek has called ※the populist temptation§: where the self-declared opponents of populism end up becoming a watered-down version of the thing they were fighting against in the first place?


Unlike other ※isms§, anti-populism is not a clear ideological disposition or mode of governance, but rather an odd mix of ideological and strategic allies pulled together in a temporary coalition. Anti-populism can draw together politicians from all over the left-right spectrum. They don*t have a shared view of the role of the state, military intervention, fiscal regulation and so on 每 but what they do share is a broader vision of how politics should be ※done§.

Although populists on the left and right clearly have very different stances, there are a number of things that tend to unite them 每 and mobilise anti-populists* concerns.

First, while populists appeal to ※the people§ against ※the elite§, anti-populists see this as a crude and patently false way to divide society. The political theorist Jan-Werner M邦ller argues that populists* ※idea of the single, homogenous, authentic people is a fantasy§. Instead, anti-populists argue that we should acknowledge that there are many overlapping, competing characterisations of ※the people§ in society, and that such collective identities are only ever made up by individuals anyway. This liberal individualism chafes against populism*s insistence on groups 每 the people and the elite 每 as the primary actors in political struggles.

An anti-Brexit march in London, during which protesters called for a second referendum to remain in the EU.
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An anti-Brexit march in London, during which protesters called for a second referendum to remain in the EU. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

Anti-populists also tend to object to the nationalist and even isolationist visions that that idea of ※the people§ implies. While populists of both the right and left tend to be critics of globalisation 每 variously blaming it for increasing migration, weakening national sovereignty or lowering wages 每 anti-populists tend to defend a world of free markets and free movement of peoples, as well as acknowledging the important role of transnational economic and political bodies in our globally interdependent era.

Second, populists tend to champion political mechanisms that allegedly give voice to the people (such as referendums, plebiscites and forms of direct democracy), whereas anti-populists see such mechanisms as rather crude and divisive, potentially leading to mob rule. For anti-populists, politics is a relatively rational activity in which politicians debate one another, hopefully finding consensus by convincing the other side with the strength of their arguments. For them, politics is not a battle of passions, but rather something of a puzzle to be solved. This is a supposedly rational view of politics 每 sober, mature and graceful 每 against the allegedly immature, kneejerk and sensational politics of populists.

This notion of rationality is central to anti-populism. Populists are cast as peddlers of lies, manipulating people*s emotions, playing on their basest fears and whipping up hysteria, while anti-populists see themselves as taking a clear-eyed view of the world. This is evident in the way ※fake news§ and ※post-truth§ have somehow become synonymous with populism: while populists are relativists who bend reality to their will, anti-populists see themselves as concerned with the capital-T Truth.

Anti-populists also share an opposition to the way that populists behave in the political sphere. While populists are often defined by their bad manners 每 think here of Donald Trump*s lack of respect for any modicum of decorum, or of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines calling Barack Obama a ※son of a whore§ 每 anti-populists find such breaches of the supposed rules of political conduct inexcusable. Furthermore, they are dismayed by populists* lack of respect for proceduralism 每 that is, populists* tendency to crash through the usual processes of checks and balances. Anti-populists have a more West Wing-esque vision of politics as full of people with (generally) good intentions, who might have different ideological views, but who above all respect the rules of the game.

Connected to all this, perhaps the most important tendency of anti-populism, is a valourisation of consensus in politics. For anti-populists, we are no longer living in ※ordinary times§ in which consensus rules. Characterising these good old days, the political scientist and journalist Yascha Mounk notes that for decades, ※developed democracies in North America, western Europe and beyond appeared to be remarkably stable. Moderate parties and politicians were dominant. Independent institutions were strong. A broad political consensus created a sense that the future was highly predictable.§ For anti-populists, a return to this consensus would represent a healthy return to ※normal§ politics.


Yet it is worth asking the question: when it comes to politics, what is normality anyway? Behind such calls for consensus and order, there are some significant problems with anti-populism. For one thing, there is little questioning of who this particular consensus actually worked for. Some would argue that the alleged consensus of post-cold war politics was actually the result of the capitulation of the centre-left to the right, rather than any real moderation.

The anti-populist call for consensus politics in many ways resembles the third way ※beyond left or right§ position offered by Blair and the British sociologist Anthony Giddens in the 90s, and adapted by parties and leaders across the world. One cannot help but feel a sense of deja vu 每 in 2002, in the face of populist Jean-Marie Le Pen*s progression to the second round of the French presidential elections, Giddens wrote that ※the renewed polarisation of politics on the left and right is plainly threatening to political stability§, and that ※the third way can beat the far right by modernising, liberalising and being tough on immigration§.

Fast-forward 16 years, and we find Blair singing from the same hymnbook, claiming that ※the political space for argument and debate has become very, very hard to curate and understand because everything is just sucked into this vortex of highly inflamed political rhetoric and exchanges of position without people trying to really reach much common ground§, and arguing that the way to fight the far right is by forcing migrants to integrate more. And it*s not only Blair and his coterie: the international enthusiasm for Emmanuel Macron*s ※not left, nor right§ politics in France is also evidence of an attempted rehabilitation of the third way, with Macron decrying the ※populist and nationalist leprosy§ of Europe.

Here, one starts to get the feeling that addressing the so-called populist threat is less about fighting actual populism, and more about rehabilitating and rebranding the third way for a new era. But it*s not clear that the third way*s vision of consensus politics is actually desirable in a democracy. As the late political scientist Peter Mair argued, a world in which major parties ideologically converge is one where party democracy becomes hollowed out and politicians become unresponsive to the demands of voters.

The second weakness of anti-populism is that it creates an atmosphere where any politician that deviates from the ※norm§ 每 that is, the centre-left or centre-right 每 risks being tarnished with the populism label. This can have sometimes end up delegitimising worthy challengers to the existing political consensus, which in turn means that we get stuck with more of the same.

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The populism label is also often used to bundle together very different figures or parties. It is true that anti-populists usually acknowledge, correctly, that the threat posed by radical right populists, with their often explicit threats against minorities, tends to be far greater than that posed by populists on the left, who focus their anger on the economic elite. To see just how dangerous rightwing populism can be, look to India, where the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has passed new laws that effectively make the country*s Muslim minority into second-class citizens, or the US, where Trump*s incendiary rhetoric has inspired a spate of violent attacks on minorities, journalists and opponents.

Yet that doesn*t stop some of the more fervent anti-populists drawing an equivalence between the populist left and right. Take, for example, the Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg*s comments, from 2019, about populist sentiment in the US: ※It just kind of turns you against the system in general, and then you*re more likely to want to vote to blow up the system. Which could lead you to somebody like Bernie, and it could lead you to somebody like Trump. That*s how we got where we are.§ The message here is that Trump and Sanders are the same in being expressions of democratic discontent: the subtext is that such anti-system sentiment is immature, destructive and dangerous.

Similarly, Mounk, who bills himself as ※one of the world*s leading experts on the crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism§, argues that there are good reasons to worry about the ※authoritarian tendencies§ of left-populists ※whether it*s the Chavistas in Venezuela or even Podemos in Spain§. This is because ※the populist logic ultimately works the same way on the left as it does on the right: once you*ve said that you alone speak for the whole of the people, any form of opposition to you immediately becomes illegitimate.§

While this may be the case in Venezuela, it is absurd to claim that the likes of Podemos, or more importantly, left populists who have actually held government 每 such as Syriza in Greece or Andr谷s Manuel L車pez Obrador in Mexico 每 pose as great a threat to democracy to someone like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Viktor Orb芍n in Hungary, who have well and truly set about dismantling liberal democracy in their respective countries.

A third weakness of anti-populism is that when it becomes a dominant frame in our thinking about liberal-democratic politics, it tends to reinforce the false opposition between liberalism (with its rule of law, freedom of speech and checks and balances) and democracy (with its popular sovereignty and majoritarianism) 每 a binary, ironically, that populists also tend to promote. On one side, populists tend to argue that within liberal democracies, we*ve gone too far towards the liberal side of things, with unelected bodies and elites undermining the voice of the people. On the other side, we have anti-populists seeking to fight populism tooth and nail, even if this means playing into arguably not-so-democratic solutions (such as attempting to rerun or ignore referendums that give the ※wrong§ result) or rigidly defending distant and not particularly representative or responsive institutions or bodies (such as the European troika in the battles over the Greek government debt crisis).

But this opposition is too simplistic. As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe has argued, the very strength of liberal democracy is that it is characterised by the productive tension between these two forces. If we go too far towards majoritarian-style democracy, we end up with mob rule; if we go too far towards liberalism, we end up with detached technocracy. Instead, we need liberalism and democracy to keep one another in line 每 pushing the other back when it oversteps its mark or is out of balance.


Setting aside these criticisms of anti-populism, there is a much simpler question that needs to be answered: does anti-populism actually work? Is it an effective way to stem the rise of populists? When it comes to opposing individual populist leaders, the answer often seems to be no. With Trump, for instance, the anti-populist approach favoured by Hillary Clinton in 2016 每 symbolised by her disastrous ※basket of deplorables§ comments 每 enhanced the feeling of ostracism and victimhood among his supporters, and burnished Trump*s claims that he is hated by the elite, which only added to his populist appeal.

Even when anti-populist leaders who claim to be beyond left or right have prevailed, such as Macron in France, the recipe has quickly soured. Macron*s politics have taken a rightward turn; his popularity has taken an enormous hit; he faced sustained protest from the gilets jaunes; and some have accused him of ※enabling the populism he was supposed to defeat§, as the standing of Marine Le Pen, the leader of National Rally, continues to rise.

On the level of party politics, the evidence of anti-populism*s efficacy is more mixed. On one hand, the most explicit form of anti-populism has come in the form of the cordon sanitaire, a French phrase that was originally used to describe the use of barriers to stop the spread of an infectious disease, but now means refusing to co-operate, negotiate or govern with the populist right. This worked in Belgium throughout the 1990s and 2000s, leading to the demise of the far-right Vlaams Blok and the poor showing of its successor party, Vlaams Belang. However, the same tactic has failed in Sweden, where a cordon sanitaire against the Sweden Democrats has played into their voters* sense of aggrievement. The party*s share of the vote increased from 12.9% in 2014 (when the cordon sanitaire began) to 17.5% in 2018.

A very different anti-populist tactic has been to try to beat populists, particularly rightwing populists, at their own game by co-opting their policies on immigration or multiculturalism 每 in the hope of stemming the ※demand§ for populist alternatives to mainstream parties. In the Netherlands* 2017 elections, centre-right Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte sought to stem the challenge from the populist radical right Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom by telling immigrants who did not integrate to his liking to ※behave normally or go away§, and defending racist traditions such as the Dutch Christmas character Black Pete (Zwarte Piet). When his party won the election, Rutte then claimed that his ※good populism§ had defeated the radical right*s ※bad populism§ (a tactic he has since abandoned as new right-populist challengers have emerged in the Netherlands). Similar debates are currently taking place in the Labour parties of the UK and Australia following their recent electoral defeats, where some are suggesting the left needs to move rightwards on immigration.

Demonstrators hold up flares during a gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protest in Paris against Emmanuel Macron*s government.
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Demonstrators hold up flares during a gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protest in Paris against Emmanuel Macron*s government. Photograph: Lo?c Venance/AFP via Getty

The problem with this tactic is that while it might sometimes work in the short term, it doesn*t defeat populism in the long term. In my native Australia, the centre-right Coalition shut down the political success of the populist radical right One Nation party in the late 90s by co-opting many of its policies. While One Nation itself suffered, its ideas were transferred into the political mainstream and legitimised, leading to a depressing race to the bottom by the major parties on issues of immigration and asylum seekers in Australia. The result is that Australia now has one of the most punitive asylum detention regimes in the western world 每 to the extent that Trump, in a leaked conversation with Australia*s prime minister in 2017, admiringly said of the system: ※That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.§ When you are attracting the praise and adulation of Trump, along with other radical right populists, this does not seem like a great anti-populist victory.

This is the great danger of co-opting populist policies: it is hard to avoid ending up actually doing many of the things that you criticise populists for. In the name of staving off the threat of National Rally in France, the centre-right Republicans party has adopted much of its platform; mandatory assimilation or integration classes have been put in place by several European governments, such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, that otherwise present themselves as active in the fight against populism; and while the leader of the European People*s party in the EU parliament, Manfred Weber, has presented himself as an anti-populist and defender of liberal democracy, he has in reality shielded arch-populist Orb芍n and his Fidesz party from any serious sanctions for years. The hypocrisy on show here is unavoidable.

The populist temptation is strong for a reason: the elite often deserve their unpopularity and disdain; the media landscape favours populist messaging; and we seem to be pinballing from crisis to crisis. All of this plays into the hands of those who can speak cannily in the name of the people against the elite.

Anti-populism, by contrast, struggles in this context. It is clear that we are not living in times conducive to consensus politics. Rather, it seems that populists and anti-populists alike are driven by a nostalgia for days gone by. Populists seek a simpler imagined time, where jobs were plentiful, national sovereignty was intact and borders were stronger. Anti-populists, too, are stuck in the past, imagining a time of consensus politics, a supposedly sane and rational period where consensus reigned, and representatives worked together to solve political problems for the greater good.

The reality is that we are no longer living in either of these situations. The question is which side will snap out of its daydream first 每 and in the long term, what the ultimate cost will be if we choose to stay asleep.

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