Generation Brexit

A Rethinking of Populism as Pejorative

We have been asking why there is such a surge of populist movements and parties, and regard it as abnormal and morbid in a democracy. But we seldom ask what, for those who vote for populist parties, would be the alternative if not populist parties. And on top of that, many of them used to be loyal to traditional left-right parties, why the change? We often attribute it to the increasing socio-economic inequalities, and people have every reason to think this way as it’s obvious that the globalization has taking away the once decent livelihood of many workers, but this explanation is far from enough as it did not answer why the inequalities are not represented by the traditional left-right parties, but instead by the long time marginalized and demonized populist parties. Besides, why would we disdain the peoplehood in populism so much whereas the MPs are justifying their grounds  in the name of people all the time and still get respected as “honorable”?

The most fundamental characteristic of populism is that it claims to be based on the will of the people, so theoretically it’s coherent with the principle of popular sovereignty, upon which the modern democracy is founded. It’s not external to democracy, it lives within it. What it’s really against, is not democracy, but the traditional party politics, or the oft-cited “corrupted elites”, whose function to construct and represent social cleavages has been undermined by the interwoven processes of globalization and modernization. It raises dissent to the converging policies of traditional parties aiming at electoral politics, and provides alternative to those whose voices are no longer represented in this changing context where the representing patterns stays the same at large. What is really dangerous is not the rise of populism, but that we keep ignoring it, treat it as pathological and refuse to engage the disenfranchised voters in public debates. Under the globalization, these citizens’ sense of security is challenged because they’re losing their jobs due to immigration and outsourcing, and the welfare states that offer protection also retrenched (as many British citizens think that their PM had been bailing out the EU with their taxes instead of putting it into NHS while the workers from the EU are taking away their jobs). When these new problems arise, whereas the traditional parties do not seem a desirable choice, the phenomenon that some voters are turning to populist parties is not pathological, but quite normal. Of course I’m not suggesting that populist parties can better construct and represent people’s will, but simply that instead of continuing treating populist parties as morbid and abhorrent, maybe it’s time that we reflect about the failure of the traditional party politics so as to accommodate the changing social cleavages, develop better public policy and enhance citizens’ sense of security.

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