Increasingly, the political class has drawn the conclusion that the problem with the people is that they do not know what is in their best interests. This sentiment can be found on both sides of the Atlantic and it is particularly evident among liberal and left-wing activists and thinkers. "People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about," notes Thomas Frank in What's the Matter With Kansas?, his US bestseller. Otherwise, he asks, how could they possibly vote for the Republicans?
The same belief that people are too thick to understand the complexities of public life has been widely expressed during the arguments that have followed the referendums on the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands. Margot Wallstrom, vice-president of the European Commission, commented in her blog that the constitution is a "complex issue to vote on", which can confuse many citizens. In this confused state they may be led to "use a referendum to answer a question that was not put to them".
In the view of the EC president, Jose Manuel Barroso, his Eurosceptic opponents had crossed the "border from democracy to demagoguery". Barroso claimed that a "populist trend" was seeking to "undermine the Europe we are trying to build" by "simplifying important and complex subjects". After the French and Dutch votes, the Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff commented that "the experience begs the question of whether it was ever appropriate to submit the EU constitution to a lottery of uncoordinated national plebiscites". And there was nothing liberal or democratic about his characterisation of the constitution's opponents as he told Parliament Magazine: "The rejectionists are an odd bunch of racists, xenophobes, nationalists, communists, disappointed centre left and the gen-erally pissed-off."
At first sight this "generally pissed-off" mob may indeed appear to be both irrational and incoherent. The opponents of the constitution certainly do not seem to have much in common. French campaigners for Non often sought to defend their system of welfare arrangements against an institution that they believe has come under Anglo-Saxon neoliberal domination. In contrast, the British Eurosceptics fear not a laissez-faire Europe, but the perceived bureaucratic and regulatory ambitions of Brussels. It was said that some No campaigners in the Netherlands feared the loss of their national identity and the entry of Turkey into the EU. Others, however, simply used the referendum to have a pop at their political representatives.
So what is going on? Hostility towards the EU has assumed a variety of national forms, and within member countries sceptics have been inspired by different, even contradictory motives. Some Dutch people felt the constitution would encroach on their country's tolerant lifestyle, but others felt that it ought to have a stronger religious element. Surveys carried out after the referendum indicate that Dutch No voters did not match the xenophobic caricature drawn by their opponents - only 2 per cent, for example, stated that Turkey's EU entry attempt was an issue for them. In the Netherlands, as in France, No voters felt estranged from their political institutions, a mood reflected sometimes in a vague disengagement and sometimes in active anti-political attitudes - frequently expressed in the form of revolt against many of the values upheld by the political class and its institutions.
This is not exclusively a problem for the EU. The reactions of the French and Dutch electorates echo the views of the people who supported the North-East No campaign in Britain last November. In this referendum, 78 per cent of voters rejected John Prescott's plan for regional devolution. Not one of the 23 council areas involved in the referendum supported this scheme, dreamt up, voters clearly believed, by out-of-touch politicians far away in London.
Not surprisingly, however, the problems associated with the emotional and political distance separating the public from their representatives are particularly intense when it comes to the European Union. Ordinary people have rarely been involved in or consulted about the direction of this institution, so we should hardly be surprised if they do not share the technocrats' enthusiasm for it. When they give vent to their scepticism, however, they are dismissed as simple or naive, lacking the sophistication to grasp the complex issues of the day. Look back on the past three weeks and recall how often the No campaigners and voters have been characterised - by the cultural elite, business leaders and the media - as backward and short-sighted. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the EU constitution, this disparagement betrays a powerful anti-democratic trend. Politicians are simply reluctant to accept the verdict of the electorate. The reaction of the Greens in the European Parliament to the referendums, for example, was to issue a statement claiming that "it is evident that this No is not a real No against the constitution but a clear vote of protest against the internal policies of the national governments of France and the Netherlands". Apparently the Greens possess a privileged insight into the internal life of the voter and can tell when voting No actually means something different.
To say that the outcome of the French and Dutch referendums has little to do with popular attitudes towards the EU, as the political elites are saying, represents an exercise in self-delusion. Certainly it is true that the way human beings vote is never a simple, straightforward matter. People do not simply read a script handed down from above by the political classes and make a choice exclusively on those terms. No, their voting behaviour is influenced by a variety of motives and emotions. When they cast a ballot it may mean that they have voted positively for something they desire, or it may be a negative act meant to thwart their political masters. Teaching "them" a lesson has an honourable tradition for a democratic electorate: ask the many former representatives ousted in recent decades from positions they thought secure. So voting is not simply about saying "yes" or "no"; it is also about making a statement. It can represent a call to arms and at the same time it can be a cry for help.
But none of these complex and contradictory influences should detract from the simple fact that when people voted No they actually meant No; whatever else they may have been doing, they were also expressing their opposition to the constitution. Nor should supporters of the EU constitution draw comfort from the diversity of motives of their opponents. That French communists and the French far right both said No on 29 May, even though they have very differing attitudes on most other issues, may confirm that as we move into the 21st century the conventional divisions between left and right have lost significance; but it does not diminish the blunt significance of their verdicts. There is no getting around it: this is a populist reaction against the EU. More than that: however many issues were bound up in the No campaigns, a common thread was that sense of estrangement from political institutions. The "lower" classes, it seems, embrace values that are essentially focused on their nation and community, while the elites are often oriented towards a cosmopolitan and globalist perspective.
In France, those who voted No came predominantly from the working classes, while the most enthusiastic supporters of the Yes campaign were members of the French cultural, economic and political elites. The referendum was as much a clash of values - what in the United States is called a "culture war" - as a conflict over what constitutes legitimate authority. By their very existence, the populist No campaigns draw attention to the lack of legitimacy of the EU. Their supporters are bemused by the managerial and instrumental language of EU technocrats. And most important of all, they believe that the EU is not of their making. It would be folly, or worse, to ignore this. Those who are genuinely interested in European unity need to engage with the sense of disenchantment we now see expressed. Ensuring that people feel at home in Europe is far more important than cajoling people to accept another top-down diktat from Brussels.
To say or imply that the public is too stupid to grasp the high-minded and sophisticated ideals of the advocates of the EU is to express a profound sense of contempt towards ordinary people. Furthermore, this attitude uncritically transfers responsibility for the contemporary malaise of political life on to the supposedly simplistic and uneducated electorate. Those involved in liberal and left-wing politics, by implication, are not at fault for their failure to connect with significant sections of the public; it is the narrow-mindedness of the voters that is to blame. This will not do. When political elites complain about xenophobic populism, they merely distract attention from their own inability to engage with ordinary people in a conversation about Europe.
It was not so long since left-wing and liberal academics characterised Thatcherism as a form of authoritarian populism that had somehow seduced sections of an easily misled working class. They argued that a heady mixture of nationalism, racism and the appeal to self-interest had created a powerful right-wing populist movement that provided Thatcher with grass-roots support. In those days it was fashionable to poke fun at "Essex Man" and "Essex Woman", supposedly the embodiment of the irrational but materialistic and selfish Thatcher supporters who would not respond to the high-minded appeals of left-wing politicians. Today we see similar methods used to account for gains that Ukip and the British National Party have made in working-class constituencies such as Barking. As Margaret Hodge, the local MP, noted recently, the truth is her voters are alienated and feel that the issues which matter to them are ignored. This pattern, in which leftists and liberal political thinkers and activists belittle the mental capacities of ordinary people, is strange in a culture that professes to be anti-elitist. Stereotyping of this kind would meet with condemnation if it was directed at minorities. That may be why the contempt is often transmitted in euphemisms, nods and winks. In the Sixties, critics of populism pointed the finger at "hard hats" and "materialist" working people. Today in the US, the same attitudes find expression in terms such as "Nascar dads", "Valley girls", "Joe Six-pack" and the venerable "redneck". In Britain we have "chavs", "white van men", "Worcester Women" and "tabloid readers". The message is clear: these are people who cannot be mobilised for progressive causes, so the best course is to isolate them and minimise their influence.
All of this betrays a feeble attachment to democratic politics, not on the part of white van man but of his detractors. The supporters of populism are part of society and they need to be taken no less seriously than those whose views appear more enlightened. Remember that populist movements may be expressing a great variety of feelings. Disenchantment with the political system and the elites can lead people to adopt a narrow-minded, resentful, them-and-us attitude. But equally, populist movements can reflect an aspiration for social solidarity and even an egalitarian impulse. Historically, many populist movements - the Chartists, for example - were associated with the left.
Rather than demonising people whose views they do not like, liberals and the left need to show a genuine commitment to democratic engagement. That so many people adopted such strong views against the EU constitutional treaty is no bad thing. It is certainly preferable to the scourge of voter apathy and political disengagement. And it provides an opportunity for dialogue and democratic renewal. Unfortunately, it appears that the political class that wrings its hands over falling voter turnout would rather people were apathetic than that they voted against the EU constitution. That sort of response will not make populism go away.
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His book Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? is published by Continuum