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23 April 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 11:02am

To beat populists in the EU elections, progressives must learn from their tactics

By understanding what national populism offers people, progressives can begin to work out how to fight it.

By Damian Tambini

One striking aspect of the populist wave that threatens to engulf European politics is how much nationalists from different countries appear to like one another. Nationalist movements are building their own internationale: Marine Le Pen has cosied up to Hungary’s Viktor Orban and to the leadership of Italy’s League, which in turn recently congratulated the Finns on their recent electoral breakthrough, while Aaron Banks requested that League leader and Italian minister Matteo Salvini should block postponement of Brexit.

What is it that links together and explains the parallel rise of these movements? If progressive parties are to beat them back at the European elections in one month, they must understand the formula of their opponents.

Common to the national populist ideologies flourishing across Europe is not a shared enemy, but a shared method of constructing one. If progressive parties are to confront the rise of national populism at the European elections in one month, they must adopt the formula of their opponents in order to beat them back.

Another thing that links national populists is the high concentration of support they receive among regions and demographics most affected by deindustrialisation and economic stagnation. This is a long-term challenge for progressives, who attempt to provide real, institutional solutions to humans crushed by economic change.

Explanations of these new political movements must combine an understanding of the nativist, anti-immigration ideology with the economic conditions that help them flourish – but it is hard to draw the links. Economic stagnation since 2008 has fostered plenty of other attempts to package solutions into radical programmes for reform. “Left populism” which comes with its own stereotyped caste of enemies and conspiracies, has always struggled with the dialectic of nation versus class. Why, at this point in time, is nativist nationalism so rampant?

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Italy’s League Party is a fascinating case in point. When I first studied the movement in the 1990s it was a sort of sub-alpine Plaid Cymru, campaigning for the secession of the region of Lombardy, and then of northern Italy, from the corrupt “enemy” of Rome.  Since 2008 the party has ridden the wave of the Italian crisis to become the dominant populist force in southern Italy. This is an astonishing achievement given that the movement previously disparaged southerners. It achieved its southern stronghold by deploying crude anti-immigrant rhetoric and stirring hatred of government. As the Italian crisis engulfed Italy and its party system, so the League – like its populist partners the Five Star Movement, has become the party of the angry and disappointed.

I’ve interviewed many League activists. The career of a League supporter follows a familiar path. The movement offers what has been missing from the recruit’s life: meaning and direction, and above all, recognition and pride. It gives them an external target for life’s disappointments; the failed business, the disappointing career, the lack of social mobility. These find a convenient explanation – it’s their fault, not mine. Immigrants have taken jobs, subsidies, and public services; by a sleight of hand the corrupt Roman bureaucracy is replaced by the League with the corrupt ‘swamp’ of Brussels.

This is the common formula: national populism, by identifying the authentic people against a corrupt elite, offers a precious commodity: absolution to those who embody the collateral damage of capitalist readjustment. No wonder that liberal progressives all over Europe are on the ropes. They are trying to compete against this rich psychological elixir with the traditional response of the policy professional: “it’s complicated”.

But there is also a deeper reason that national populists can ride this phalanx of mobilised indignation into power. Nationalist enemy politics is very effective at mobilising mass movements. The Italian sociologist Alessandro Pizzorno, who recently passed away in Florence aged 95, offers a useful explanation for populism. As he wrote in 1983: “collective identity is the condition for the calculation of costs and benefits of collective action”. In other words: what all politics needs is an enemy – a sense of us and them. 

As with previous periods in which nativist ideologies flourished, desire for change is most widespread and most pronounced at points of economic crisis, which provide the tinder for a populist spark. For opportunistic political entrepreneurs, nativism the simplest and most effective political ideology to tap into.

Our current political moment has been described as the age of identity politics. What this usually means is that with the decline of the great 20th century ideologies, politics has folded back onto belonging and the complex expression of identities – ethnic, gender, sexuality – as the new frontiers of disputes and recognition. But the new national populism is also a form of identity politics.

The League supporter, or the dug-in former Ukip foot-soldier who attends rallies and marches and will now turn out for the Brexit Party, is also driven by identity. The identity of the dispossessed member of the national majority, driven by a profound sense that something has changed for the worse, and that this can be rectified by an ill-defined collective national project.

This is Pizzorno’s insight: the populists activate a dormant sense of belonging to the authentic, timeless “nation”, and so render each tiny contribution to the movement rational. By attending the rally, sharing the post, voting for and simply being part of the movement, the member is contributing to the life of a wider collective to which she feels profoundly attached. She, in her actions, is saving the only “us” that includes her grandparents and her grandchildren and their neighbours.

But “us” is a lie; the destinies of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage are not the same as their misled supporters. They are not in this together, and will not equally share the consequences. It is precisely the gloss of national populism, applied in sweeping strokes, that enables the populist leader to hide the extent of divergence from their followers.  

In the longer term, progressives will need to write their policy solutions into a popular narrative that appeals to a wide public. We do not have this yet, and nor will it be ready in time for the European elections. By understanding what national populism offers people, we can begin to work out how to fight it, and what a smart approach to defeating populism would entail.

  1. Call out the lies. Loudly. Politicians and journalists should not get caught up in the sport of the political chase. They should relentlessly shift the focus back onto what the long-term plan is, and the evidence that it will work. In recent years, governments have blundered when policymakers are bypassed or haven’t done their homework. The astonishing lack of foresight in the Brexit project is already showing. It has to be further exposed.
  2. Undermine the identify offer. The claim that Farage, Rees-Mogg and the ERG are somehow of a piece with Leave voters in Mansfield has to be exposed as a sham. We also have to offer them somewhere to go. Brexit populism is dug-in, and it will be hard to pull people out of the trenches. Class identity might be part of the offer, but the sensible centre also needs more symbols and clear demarcation.
  3. Offer an alternative identity and expose the populists themselves. They should be constructed as the liars, snake-oil salesmen and opportunists that they are. This is an achievable aim: pantomime villains Rees-Mogg and Farage are an easy target, and one that mainstream Tories and Labour can agree on. Who is the “us”? It is the real Britain: the mainstream of sensible, gradualist opinion that refuses to be duped.
  4. Offer absolution. In one sense, the populists are right. It is not the fault of the victims of globalisation and capitalist readjustment. It is the fault of a particular model of liberalised capitalism, and of the limitations of our economic model. By absolving the frustrated and disappointed, it has to be possible to recycle their anger into collective mobilisation for the good.
  5. They go low, we go low. Don’t be afraid to use the language and the postures that will break through. This does not mean a global conspiracy of large-nosed bankers. The erstwhile leader of the League became legendary by breaking the rules: once, searching for a metaphor in a speech on the coming elections, he came up with the infamous “the League has a hard-on”. Crude, but without labouring the metaphor, it was effective in breaking through the baroque political style that had long passed for debate in Italy.
  6. Work now to build the new ideology. Political identities built upon the opposition between capital and labour, and their expressions in the class conflict within nation states, have now broken. The current reconfiguration of the party system reflects this. After the elections, and Brexit, there will be a reconfiguration of political ideology. The work of ideological renewal will be difficult. There’s no better time than the present to begin this process.

The progressive centre does not have all, or even many of the answers to the challenges facing the country. But it must see off the potentially disastrous outcome if too many people believe the false prospectus of those who claim to have them all.

Damian Tambini is an associate professor at the London School of Economics. He tweets @damiantambini

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