Jeremy Corbyn is a populist: that seems to be the emerging consensus across the political spectrum.
“Corbyn was the torchbearer of British populism,” writes Freddy Gray in the Tory-supporting Spectator, who goes on to liken the Labour leader to Donald Trump. Conservative MPs are reportedly thinking of swapping Theresa May with Boris Johnson on the grounds that “to beat a populist, you need a populist”.
Corbyn fans seem pretty comfortable with the idea of their leader as a populist too. His lieutenants are said to have embraced the concept last year. Corbyn has presented a “positive version of populism,” one of his supporters wrote for The Independent last week.
But it’s wrong. Which is to say, this is a terminology that’s, at best, empty of content and, at worst, dangerously misleading.
What theory of populism are those who describe Corbyn as a populist using? How would they define it? That populists enjoy mass support? Any successful politician has that. It’s the objective of democratic politics, after all, to win the most votes, to whip up the most enthusiasm. That populists are charismatic and inspire an unusual level of devotion? Again, this is what all politicians hope to achieve.
That populists pose as political outsiders and insurgents, decrying economic elites and the political establishment? Such rhetoric is the staple of many mainstream campaigns. US presidential candidates almost always promise to shake up Washington. And when was the last time any political party adopted a platform (rhetorically at least) of looking after the establishment?
Is it that populists pledge to divert money from the well-off to the common man? This doesn’t really work. Was New Labour, which performed considerable redistribution, a populist movement? Was the welfare state founder Clement Attlee a populist? Was the former French President François Hollande, who put up taxes for the highest earners, a populist?
That populists offer simplistic solutions to complex economic and social problems and make incredible promises that are bound to disappoint? The sad reality is that all politicians do this to some extent or other, particularly during election campaigns.
To get a serious, rigorous, theory of populism it’s necessary to consult an expert. Professor Jan-Werner Mueller of Princeton University, synthesising the consensus of political science, says modern populists have two essential characteristics.
First, they conceive of “the people” as a unified and morally pure whole – and claim for themselves the exclusive right to speak for this group. Second, they are intrinsically anti-pluralist, meaning that they don’t recognise opposition as legitimate and have little respect for democratic norms.
They act as if those who are not part of “the people”, as defined by them, are corrupt enemies to be vanquished rather than reasonable citizens to be persuaded. If they fail to prevail in elections it’s never because they have lost the people’s confidence but because they have been thwarted by nefarious elite conspiracies.
Neither characteristic is sufficient on its own. Stalinists and religiously inspired authoritarians don’t respect democratic norms or democratic opposition, but that doesn’t make them populists because they don’t claim to speak on behalf of a morally pure people.
And Corbyn doesn’t satisfy the latter condition. Yes, he inveighs against elites, complains about a “rigged system” and places a heavy emphasis on his own definition of an oppressed British majority. “For the many not the few”, as the party’s election slogan put it.
But he’s never threatened to lock up Theresa May. He doesn’t claim that it’s illegitimate for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, for instance, to challenge him. He doesn’t hint at armed revolt in the face of electoral setbacks. Indeed, Corbyn’s final Twitter message on election night was the benign observation: “Whatever the final result, our positive campaign has changed politics for the better”.
Boris Johnson, of course, isn’t a populist either by this rigorous definition. But someone like Nigel Farage, with his sinister talk of the “real people” of Britain, his intolerance towards any opposition to Brexit, his weakness for conspiracy theories and his dark allusions to impending popular violence can fairly be so described.
Farage’s friend Donald Trump is plainly a populist for all the same reasons. Think specifically of Trump’s pledge to prosecute Hillary Clinton if he won the presidential election and his refusal to say whether he would respect the result if he had lost. Contrast that behaviour with that of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic primary challenger to Hillary Clinton who, despite often being described as a populist, respected the result and even urged his supporters later to vote for Clinton.
This isn’t a left-right distinction. The left-wing Five Star Movement in Italy has the characteristics of a populist movement under its demagogic leader Beppe Grillo. The late Hugo Chavez, in Venezuela, was plainly a populist, consistently seeking to shut down opposition. The Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey is manifestly a populist, as is the secular Viktor Orban in Hungary and also Marine Le Pen in France.
The crucial point is that populism is a profoundly anti-liberal political style, not a specific economic or social programme. Populism is a description of how political actors conduct themselves, not the nature, or breadth, of their support base.
Depending on your judgement, one can legitimately call Corbyn an existential threat to the economy, a socialist saviour, or a bog-standard European-style social democrat who is likely to prove a crashing failure if he ever accedes to power. But populist isn’t right, because populism is a very specific category, a distinct threat.
Democracy provides a framework for peaceful power struggles between vigorously competing parties with divergent views of the good society. The values of pluralism and tolerance lie at the system’s heart. Disagreement over the appropriate distribution of economic resources is the normal substance of democratic political debate.
But populism is something different. It is a political virus that attacks the very core of the system. “A danger to democracy” is how Professor Mueller sums it up. Definitions matter. Open societies need to have an unclouded view of their true enemies.
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