The global rise of populism has evoked media scrutiny and public concern around the world. But is there anything truly new about contemporary populism, and do populists really speak for the people? Academic research by Queen Mary University of London considers the history of populism, the current landscape, and what it might mean for our future.
The Prototype: France’s Minitel System
"I’m not sure how these things really work, but I know that for us whether it is the Minitel or the web it is not just about giving information, it is about building a new relationship with our voters…"
France’s precursor to the internet, the national Minitel system, connected users to online shopping, banking, travel reservations, and even porn. It connected millions of households to information for free, and by the mid-1980s it also connected them to something else: France’s populist Front National party.
In one conversation in 1997 the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, described how the party saw online communication as a way of building a new relationship with voters, “I’m not sure how these things really work, but I know that for us whether it is the Minitel or the web it is not just about giving information, it is about building a new relationship with our voters … You dial us (or log in? or … anyways, you connect to us) and ‘zap’ we’re in your head, we know what you want, we know why you want it.”
Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016, the use around the world of social media and the internet by populist political parties to promote extreme opinions has come under scrutiny as they have risen to power from Brazil to Italy and the Philippines to Poland.
In her new book, Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism, Catherine Fieschi, director of the Queen Mary Global Policy Institute, views the formation in 1970s France of the Front National, or National Rally as it is now known, as the prototype, providing a bridge between the old extreme right and the new right-wing populism of the twenty-first century. But to effectively trace the history of populism, Fieschi argues, we must first define it.
“Populism responds to its times. In 19th-century Russia populism was a ruralist movement; in early 20th-century Argentina it was workerist.”
Stijn van Kessel, senior lecturer in European Politics at Queen Mary, defines three characteristics shared by populist parties in his book Populist Parties in Europe — Agents of Discontent? They portray ‘the people’ as virtuous and essentially homogeneous; they advocate popular sovereignty, as opposed to elitist rule; and they define themselves against the political establishment, which is alleged to act against the interest of ‘the people.’
Simon Reid-Henry, director of the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at Queen Mary University of London, says, “Populism responds to its times. In 19th-century Russia populism was a ruralist movement; in early 20th-century Argentina it was workerist.”
In his recent book Empire of Democracy: The Remaking of the West Since the Cold War, Reid-Henry also sheds new light on our understanding of populism. He explains: “There has been a convergence of economic and political inequality since the so-called Golden Age of post-war economic growth came to an end in the 1970s. Terms like populism and technocracy are, in that sense, a new language for discussing old problems that we have carried into the twenty-first century from the last one: they obscure as much as they reveal. Most of the problems we see today have emerged as democratic institutions designed for efficiency not equality show the strain of trying to manage chronically uneven societies.”
The central tenet of populism — representing and speaking for the people — is therefore problematic; first because, as Fieschi points out, “‘representing and speaking for the people’ is a hard proposition to disagree with: populism is not easy to dismiss as ‘undemocratic.’ In fact, it is a version of democracy, but populists only speak for a section of the population, and sometimes only a minority of heavily disgruntled voters.”
Research about party membership in the United Kingdom by Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, shows that those who join political parties are far from all ‘the people.’ Less than five per cent of British adults are members of a political party and members of the main parties are more likely to be male, more likely to be better off and more likely to be older than the average Briton. They are also more likely to be white.
The Real-World Impact
One impact of the populist phenomenon beyond the context of electoral politics is measles.
Measles is a highly infectious and potentially deadly disease, but it can be prevented with a cheap and easily administered vaccine that has been estimated to have saved more than 21 million lives since the turn of the 21st century. Yet this remarkable progress has gone into reverse. According to World Health Organization data, there have already been 90,000 measles cases in Europe in the first six months of this year, and the United States is experiencing its biggest outbreak in 27 years.
One explanation for this is that measles outbreaks are a consequence of falling vaccine coverage, which appears to result from increasingly widespread anxieties about vaccine safety, usually traced to debunked claims that there is a link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, and autism.
Jonathan Kennedy, senior lecturer in Global Health at Queen Mary, found that West European countries with the highest levels of electoral support for populist political parties, such as Greece, Italy, and France, also have the highest percentage of people who do not believe that vaccines are important, safe, or effective according to the Vaccine Confidence Project. In contrast, countries that have the lowest levels of populist votes, such as Portugal and Belgium, also have the lowest levels of vaccine hesitancy.
According to Kennedy, growing vaccine hesitancy indicates a broader breakdown in trust in elites and experts that is behind Brexit and other political crises. His work found a similar pattern throughout Europe: supporters of right-wing populist parties were much more likely to question the safety of vaccines.
His conclusion is reflected in recent research by van Kessel, Van Hauwaert, and Javier Sajuria, senior lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary. They found that while populist supporters are generally not less politically informed than other party supporters, political misinformation was associated with right-wing, but not left-wing, populist support. One possible explanation could be the greater tendency of right-wing populists to spread conspiracy theories.
Just as a prototype of social media empowered the Front National in France, fake news, and modern-day social media has played a key role in virally spreading the misinformation that fuels vaccine hesitancy.
Like measles, populism still might prove epidemic.
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