The new populism

Saturday 22 October, 10.00 - 11.30 , Cinema 1 Keynote Controversies

In Association With:

Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is the latest electoral event to be widely interpreted using the concept of populism. For many commentators, the unexpected triumph of the campaign for a Brexit was yet another manifestation of the sort of populist sentiment that has become increasingly familiar across the Western world. ‘Leave’ campaigners, such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, have taken their places in a rogues’ gallery of demagogic leaders of rising anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic movements throughout Europe and the US (in the form of Donald Trump). The declining appeal of traditional parties of both left and right has been apparent for a generation, and now seems to have reached a head, to the consternation of those who see the new populism as a rejection of common sense. At the height of the referendum campaign, the Guardian’s Martin Kettle articulated the exasperation of the political establishment at the evident disaffection of the masses when he described support for Brexit as ‘part bloody-mindedness, part frivolity, part panic, part bad temper, part prejudice’.

Indeed, the concept of populism is generally used in a pejorative way. It is often preceded by the implicitly disparaging adjective ‘right-wing’ and directly linked to notions such as racism, ‘xenophobia’ or ‘Islamophobia’. Yet in the past, populist movements have as commonly had a left-wing as a right-wing character. They have often expressed an inchoate animosity towards a corrupt elite. Such movements are inherently unstable and tend to evolve, according to circumstances, in either a radical or reactionary direction. Recent political phenomena such as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, and the successes of Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, show the complexity of the popular movements that have emerged to fill the vacuum left by the decay of the old politics.

Mainstream politicians and commentators fear the polarisation resulting from the rise of populist movements, but seem unable to engage the public through open debate. Others argue that the upsurge of popular discontent with the stagnant political order points the way towards the revival of democratic politics, and is worth celebrating even if it unleashes uncomfortable sentiments. Are populist movements merely ‘morbid symptoms’ of a decadent political order, or harbingers of a democratic renewal?

Listen to Ian Dunt discuss populism on the Battle Cry Podcast