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How to understand the language of political populism

Le Pen chooses her words carefully. EPA/Ian Langsdon

In a TV debate to mark the official start of the French presidential election campaign, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was accused of “twisting the truth” by her centrist opponent Emmanuel Macron. She had been arguing that “Islamist fundamentalism” is on the rise in France and using that claim to justify a call to “put an end to immigration”. Her position was the latest in a long line of statements by far-right leaders that have mainstream politicians worried.

When seeking to understand Le Pen’s appeal, people often rightly point to the obvious: three major terrorist attacks in 18 months, disquiet about immigration, and economic gloom. While these are essential factors, the current paradigm shift in European politics is also being helped along by the divisive language of populism. The leaders of these populist movements aren’t just saying divisive things. They are shifting the meaning of key concepts in Western democracy.

Populist rhetoric transforms the facts of social issues into divisive metaphors and symbols. When the US banned visitors from certain Muslim majority countries from entering its borders, Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders responded by saying “Islam and freedom are not compatible”.

Wilders used the word Islam symbolically to stand in for something that is the opposite of freedom: oppression or occupation. Marine Le Pen has come out and said as much by comparing Muslim’s praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of Paris. For many, Wilder’s use of the word “freedom” and Le Pen’s use of the word “occupation” fly in the face of the meaning of those words in a Western democracy.

The European Convention on Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and while there are important exceptions, European legislation has traditionally guaranteed equal treatment of people of different religions. The European Union has also stated that it has a “legal and moral obligation” to care for those “fleeing from war and terror”. To suggest that the public presence of the religion of those fleeing war and terror is akin to wartime occupation by a totalitarian regime, is a radical shift in how the concept of freedom is understood in Europe.

When meaning shifts

To understand the cognitive disconnect between mainstream politics and populist rhetoric, it’s helpful to look at the way language affects the way cultures think. In 1960, the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg published a study of the metaphors that have oriented key philosophical ideas in Western culture.

An abstract concept like truth, Blumenberg suggested, was difficult to describe without a metaphor. When one looks at the history of the ways truth has been described in Western culture, it has often been linked to the image of light. In the Christian tradition, for example, Christ is called the “light of the world” but as God, he is also the ultimate truth. In everyday language, when we say that a detective like Poirot or Sherlock Holmes “sheds light” on a mystery, we mean they are revealing the truth. We can picture light shining in a dark area and suddenly illuminating what is really there.

However, paradigms can shift. A paradigm shift in language is when words swiftly take on a new meaning and the metaphors and symbols we take for granted suddenly do not mean what we thought they did. Such is the case with the language of populism.

Le Pen and Wilders are using the old concepts next to new metaphors. As a result, voters are thinking about the concepts differently. In a similar way to Le Pen’s and Wilders’ symbolic use of immigration and Islam, economic freedom is also considered to be under threat by the common market. The free movement of capital, helped along by the common currency, is meant to open up the possibilities of European financial markets. But Le Pen has called the euro a “knife in the ribs” that ensures the “submission of the French people.”

Le Pen’s metaphor isn’t just extreme, it changes the meaning of economic freedom and through her metaphor, voters buy into the idea that their freedom is being compromised by mainstream politicians.

Geert Wilders. EPA/Remko De Waal

Mainstream politicians needs to get out of denial. In this season of European elections, they gain less and less by accusing populist leaders of “twisting the truth”. It only seems to galvanise Le Pen and Wilders when those in power challenge their use of these words because more and more people don’t believe the traditional meanings of those words.

While the emerging meaning of words like freedom may seem abhorrent to many, mainstream politics will gain more by finding new ways to address the shifting concepts rather than holding on to an illusion of a fixed meaning. They risk some of the most cherished ideas in Western democracy slipping through their fingers.

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