What are the factors behind the rise of populism in Europe and North America? On October 20, as part of the Conversation on Europe video-conference series, the University of Pittsburgh hosted a debate titled “An Uncertain Future: Elections in the US and Europe.” The regional emphasis of this discussion concentrated on Canada, the United States, Spain, Italy, Hungary, France, and the United Kingdom (UK). These countries are some examples of what appears to be a shared phenomenon in Euro-Atlantic politics.
The discussion was an outstanding source of food for thoughts. It contextualized the rise of populism in relation to political mechanisms (for example electoral system) permitting historical political minorities to gather stronger consensus and on current problems in Western societies such as immigration, refugees, and financial struggles.
At the end of the debate, I wondered about the meaning of the concept of populism. Populism can be understood as a double-faceted term. On the one hand, it is a reaction towards the political establishment, a disapproval of the elite composed of people detaining institutional and economic power. It is an expression – in its most extreme adaptation – of the concept of Democracy, after all. It is surprising how this interpretation of populism is possibly closer to the idea of Democracy than Democracy itself in the modern age. With the exception of referenda, the result of a public vote in modern democratic systems is to delegate power to a restricted group of individuals, a legitimization to rule over the community. The actual government resulting from today’s elections is arguably an oligarchy. Populism opposes this idea to benefit the community.
During the debate, Professor Larry LeDuc, from the University of Toronto, pointed out how minority populist parties, once elected at the government can either face a failure in their intents of reforming the system, or become the new establishment. I could not help myself thinking about the recent visit of the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to the US. In his remarks at the Presidential Dinner, President Obama addressed him as Il Rottamatore—“the Scrapper”—a nickname suggesting his ambition to reform the Italian political system. Yet, Renzi faces considerable criticism at home, where populist movements—such as the Five Star Movement or the Northern League—consider him a member of that establishment they are opposing with such a verve.
Speaking from Paris, Jan Rovny, Assistant Professor at Sciences Po, mentioned in the debate how ideology does not appear to be principal vector behind populism, as much as populism itself. Populism is not concentrated to parties and/or groups on the right of the political spectrum. One can think of extremely different stances in the political spectrum still labeled as populist (examples in the US are Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump).
I must recognize how, on the other hand, populism represents the expression of a demagogic approach to politics; it gathers consent where discontent is stronger, acting as a catch-all movement regardless of values, but leveraging on few key ideas shared among supporters. In line with the Italian case, I reflect on the opposition by the Italian Prime Minister against the “establishment” in the EU institutions pushing for looser controls on national budget, how he is incessantly asking for an intervention of the EU on the issue of migration, shifting the complaint from the national to a supranational level, where the electorate and national opposition agree.
It is the game of politics, or what Putnam defined in his 1988 book a “two-level game.” It is a dialogue on two different, yet intertwined levels—national and supranational—balancing the results of two negotiation tables to maximize the results. This could still be a healthy form of (modern) democracy, as long as the electorate is adequately represented.
However, once detaining power, keeping a promise made during the political campaign is always a difficult task to follow through. The political realities, once at the helm of power, affect the maneuvering and implementation of ‘radical’ policies promised on the campaign trail. The risk of failure is high, and few goals are not the foundation of a political agenda (let’s think about what happened to UKIP in the Brexit vote’s aftermath). Populism itself—as an expression of Democracy—could play a positive role in the institutional landscape. The voters, however, must evaluate very carefully the promises they receive, as the expectation-reality gap tends to be undermined.
The video roundtable can be viewed below or on Youtube.