“Populism is on the rise in Europe!” That is what the mainstream media and the politicians from the established parties tell us, and they consider it to be a very worrying development. “Populist parties offer easy solutions to difficult problems,” they also say. In other words: populist politicians seek to fool the people. “Their solutions are not real solutions at all. On the contrary, they will only aggravate our social and economic problems.” Such is the rhetoric one en-counters, with little or no variation, in all European countries where a growing portion of the electorate has been casting its vote for the new, anti-establishment parties.
Rhetoric is a very powerful weapon. It is also problematic since a proficient rhetorician can make the truth appear to be false, and the bad appear to be good. Hence, it is well-advised to be suspicious of rhetorical claims such as the ones above—and to ask oneself critically whether they should be accepted at face value. There may be something fishy going on.
For one thing, the rhetorical claim that the new political parties on the rise in Europe are populist presupposes that the established parties are not populist. Yet, the older political parties seem to be just as populist as the new parties—at least if populism means “presenting easy solutions to difficult problems.” In fact, it is obvious that most politicians have little idea what they are talking about most of the time, irrespective of their political background. They come up with “solutions” that are, at best, ineffective and, thus, not solutions at all.
The problem is that today most politicians across the political spectrum lack seriousness—or rather gravitas, an excellent Roman term meaning, literally, “heaviness” or “weight.” Today’s politicians are light-weights, not heavy-weights.
But perhaps populism needs to be defined differently? Perhaps it should be defined as a type of politics in which the will of the people is the ultimate criterion? In that case, a populist politician would be one who considers himself the executor of the people’s will. There is some truth in this definition. But it raises the question: How do the other politicians—those of the older parties—consider themselves? After all, as democratic politicians they, too, must surely consider themselves the executors of the people’s will.
The answer to this riddle appears to be as follows: The mainstream media and politicians claim to appeal to the higher will of the people—the reasonable and universal will—whereas populist parties are said to appeal to the lower and irrational will, to particularistic and immediate desires. In other words, the establishment parties claim to represent what is best in human nature, whereas their populist opponents are said to appeal to what is worst in human nature. The establishment parties claim to favour true, reason-able democracy; whereas the populists supposedly favour unreasonable mob rule.
This is a strong claim. If true, we should unconditionally support the establishment, since few things in politics are worse than mob-rule.
But is it true? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s nonsense. The so-called populist parties are neither more nor less populist than the establishment parties. Both are populist in the sense that they cater to the particularistic and immediate desires of their voters. The only difference between them is that they cater to the desires of different voters. They pay attention to different parts of the electorate.
The so-called populist parties also tend to be more nationalistic. Hence, they are sceptical of the European Union, the Council of Europe, and other international organizations. And they are also extremely distrustful of the rising numbers of Muslims in their countries. The establishment parties depict these “Eurosceptical” and “Islamophobic” views as reprehensible. This may or may not be the case. We have no way of finding out, since both the establishment politicians and the so-called populists are incapable of a serious discussion of these weighty issues. They remain stuck at the level of slogans. All of them really haven’t a clue what they are talking about when they say that European unification is good or bad, or that a Muslim presence in Europe is a harmless or dangerous development.
Populism really is a huge problem in Europe, much more so than most people are aware of, since the old, mainstream political parties are as populist as the new parties. The simple fact is that populism is always a bad idea: Every serious political thinker—from Plato to James Madison and beyond—can enlighten us on this.
What Europe needs is truly non-populist politicians, politician who represent what is best in human nature, leaders who are genuinely on the lookout for what is reasonable and universal. What Europe lacks today are people who think and act in the way Edmund Burke promised he would in his speech to the electors of Bristol.
I wonder if the present electorate would ever even vote for such a politician?