Trendy electoral superheroes: from the Americas to Europe, the populists confront us

Populists are on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic – Donald Trump (right) has even been called ‘America’s Marine Le Pen’ (left). AAP/EPA

A bizarre breed of electoral superheroes is emerging across the political landscape: the populists. Win or lose, they are competing and advancing.

The populist breed is not a media invention or effect; they have been around for decades in Western politics. Although they sometimes rise, sometimes fade, and their antagonistic identity politics and appeal to the disenchanted are hardly new, they are becoming more refined and even trendy.

Populists represent today’s politics of anti-politics. To keep them at a safe distance from power, middle-ground players should learn more about them.

Rallying ‘the people’ through division

Enlightenment philosopher John Locke wrote that speech is “the great bond that holds society together”. Paradoxically, speech can also be a great divider, as each confronting us-and-them statement by, for example, Donald Trump, demonstrates.

No matter if populists are right or left, rich or poor, businessmen, academics or ex-military officers, they use speech to bond with the like-minded (“the people”, the disenchanted or excluded) and alienate the rest – usually the conventional, cosmopolitan or middle ground.

As populism is a political communication style, it can be confusing, fuzzy or volatile. This is why Republican presidential frontrunner Trump, a reactionary xenophobe, and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, a left-wing, anti-Wall Street activist, can be represented as two American populists in the same story. They share a divisive and dividing communication style.

Comparing them with middle-ground elite players such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, or Angela Merkel in Europe, makes clearer the essence of populism: it resents conventional elites, dislikes dialogue or consensus and has savvy ways to connect with the basic feelings and cravings of ordinary people. And it is informal: populism is an act of speech.

Populism can be defined then as a political communication style in the construction of power and identity. It thrives on the use of elements of:

  • culture (shared values, traditions, nationalism, patriotism)

  • all available media tools

  • non-mediatic (grassroots, community-orientated) tactics and tools

  • alternative compelling vision and polarising emotional speech.

How populism and its dangers are normalised

Populism is now naturalised, normalised, as an everyday happening in electoral processes around the world. Populists are not only competing within democracy but gaining positions of power.

Instead of slipping into the gaps between the “pragmatic” and “redemptive” faces of democracy, various populists seem to be incarnating the “redemptive” face. They position themselves as the “saviours” of ordinary people against the often “pragmatic”, aloof, socially disconnected political elites.

One of the dangers of this lies in the populist style’s un-pluralistic, intolerant nature and tendency to develop a personality cult. The construction of “the people” is not based on respect for “the other” and plurality of ideas and debate. Instead, it relies on antagonistic views aimed at connecting with the like-minded and shunning the rest.

By challenging establishment politics, Nigel Farage’s UKIP finished with the third-biggest vote tally in the 2015 UK elections. AAP/Howard Jones

The late Bolivarian populist Hugo Chávez and the libertarian British populist Nigel Farage have demonstrated traits of intolerance and autocracy. Chávez repeatedly demanded “absolute loyalty” because he incarnated “a people”. Farage’s fellow UKIP MEP Patrick O'Flynn accusing his leader of making the party look “like an absolutist monarchy”.

Despite their outrageous style and antagonistic speech, populists have become the new normal. This is a result of their success in “injecting populist themes and prejudices” into the political agenda, and of traditional politicians adopting populist messages and tactics.

Australia’s John Howard, for instance, appropriated some of Pauline Hanson’s topics in the 1990s. Chávez helped change the conversation in the Americas by challenging US power in the region and prioritising social issues and empowerment of “the people”.

Leftist populists rise and fall in Latin America

The end of 2015 was eventful for the league of populists. Left-wing populists lost ground in formerly populist-dominated South America.

In Venezuela, after 14 years of Chávez’s rule followed by three years of Nicolas Maduro, the united opposition parties won 65% of the seats in parliamentary elections in early December. A tired Chavismo was hit by lower oil prices, hyperinflation, shortages, crime, general mismanagement and accusations of corruption.

In Argentina, after 12 years of left-wing Peronist Kirchnerism, Cristina Kirchner’s candidate, Daniel Scioli, narrowly lost the November presidential elections to the centre-right’s Mauricio Macri.

Chavistas and Kirchneristas have found it difficult to accept defeat. Kirchner “snubbed Macri’s inauguration”. In Venezuela, significant tensions have arisen between the new legislature, the executive and Supreme Court.

In record time, the Chavista-controlled court declared void the acts of the National Assembly due to the obscure suspension of three newly elected parliamentarians. Telesur, the continental network that Chávez created and financed as a counter to “imperialist” media, is denouncing the first deeds of the “right-wingers” in Venezuela and Argentina. Macri is accused of censoring Kirchnerist journalists, while Kirchner maintains a fierce attack via Twitter.

Three years after his death, the influence of Hugo Chávez’s 14-year rule still runs deep in Venezuela and Latin America. Reuters/Christian Veron

So, has left-wing populism reached its limits in South America? A region beset by inflation, poverty, exclusion and crime will always have a place for redemptive superheroes.

On the rise across Europe

In Europe, populist players of right and left are on the rise.

Some are in government, like socialist Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. In 2015, his anti-austerity, anti-Europe party, Syriza, won two elections in less than nine months with 35% of the vote.

In some Nordic countries, such as Norway and Finland, ultra-conservative anti-immigration populists are in governing coalitions.

Other populist players are advancing to positions of power. In the weeks since Spain’s general election, it has been poised between minority government, uneasy coalitions and fresh elections. Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias has become a decisive voice amid political fragmentation and sick bipartisanship.

The traditional pendulum between Spain’s centre-right (Partido Popular, which won 29% of the votes and 123 seats) and centre-left (PSOE, 22% and 90 seats) was broken. The left-wing Podemos won an impressive 20.66% and 69 seats, while liberal populists Ciudadanos gained 13.93% and 40 seats. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of Partido Popular, is trying to form government in a very fragmented, very difficult environment.

The first agreement to select the president and directive of the Congress left out Podemos. Iglesias has denounced a secretive “bunker” coalition between the right, socialists and Ciudadanos against Podemos. Via Twitter, he is holding PSOE responsible for thwarting a progressive alternative to Rajoy.

Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party is leading opinion polls in the Netherlands. AAP/Richard Wainwright

In the Netherlands, right-wing populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party have soared into the lead in opinion polls. He and other European populists are thriving in the context of mass immigration, terrorism, economic problems and corruption in politics. They include the extreme right Swedish Democrats and Danish People’s Party.

Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigration, ultra-conservative leader of France’s Front National (FN) is, along with Trump (who has been dubbed “America’s Marine Le Pen”), probably the most celebritised of the populists today. Her party won 6.8 million votes in second-round regional elections in December. The FN’s vote (27%) situates Le Pen closer to challenging former president Nicolas Sarkozy and the incumbent Francois Hollande in the 2017 election.

The FN “swept 55% of the working-class vote stealing the socialist base”. Like UKIP in the May 2015 UK elections, no firsts but many seconds position them for future wins. Le Pen is framing the presidential debate in typically populist binary terms, between traditional or mainstream “globalists” and FN “patriots”.

Other populist leaders or groups focus on specific issues. Since leading UKIP to become the third-most-popular party in the UK, Farage is championing a Brexit. Some argue that his divisive rhetoric might harm the vote to leave Europe, but who knows?

In Italy, populist comedian Beppe Grillo and his strong “Five Star Movement” are leading a campaign for online “direct democracy”, in which ordinary people become legislators.

What now?

The record of populists in the Americas and Europe shows they should not be underestimated.

Trump’s strong polling figures suggest populism will be a force throughout the presidential primaries this year.

What do the vicissitudes and naturalisation of the bizarre populist superheroes signal? Perhaps that middle-ground, cosmopolitan politicians should learn to connect more effectively with their constituents, their grievances and aspirations. To meet the political challenges of this time, they need to engage in a robust and meaningful conversation not only with the like-minded but also with those who are not.