Populist parties, typically on the far-right fringe of the political spectrum, are on the rise in Western democracies, and many liberals cannot believe their eyes. The media publish scandalous news stories about populist claims and policies, liberal protesters take to the streets, and traditional party politicians refuse to cooperate with the growing anti-liberal forces. But protest, judgement and omission might not be the best weapons in the fight against populists. These strategies might have an unintended, negative impact. Liberals might actually need to sit down and start listening.

Supporter of the Sweden Democrats party cheering for Jimmie Åkesson, the party’s leader. Photo by Johan Wessman © News Øresund


Sweden’s Moderate party leader, Anna Kinberg Batra, has received wide criticism for breaking a taboo in Swedish politics; she has said she would be willing to open doors for the anti-immigrant ‘Sweden Democrats’ party, and is ready to work with them ‘on some matters’. What these matters are has not been specified, though she has said forming a coalition is not an option. Sweden Democrats have been isolated ever since they won their first seats in parliament in 2010, as all parties have refused to cooperate with them. Even Kinberg Batra herself called the party racist last summer while appearing on Swedish television.

Working with a party like the Sweden Democrats is indeed a difficult choice. The party has its roots in the country’s neo-Nazi movement and has been campaigning with openly xenophobic posturing. Yet, its support has only grown, and in the 2014 elections it won 12.9 per cent of the vote; seven percentage points more than four years earlier.

And this momentum shows no signs of slowing. This January, a poll published in Aftonbladet suggested a massive 21.5 per cent support.

“We cannot pretend that one party elected to parliament does not exist. It has not worked”, Anna Kinberg Batra told the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat in mid-February.

“The Sweden Democrats is a party with Nazi roots in the white supremacy movement, and I do not share their values at all. But the isolation has led to a situation where no one has taken a stance on their politics. They have been able to use the dissatisfaction of people without anyone demanding them to offer alternative solutions”, Kinberg Batra continued.

Kinberg Batra has a point. It is in no way morally justifiable to legitimize a party whose rhetoric is strongly based on fear, belligerence and racism. In the case of the Sweden Democrats, it is especially difficult as their roots are directly linked to neo-Nazism. But, at the same time, isolating the party from political decision-making seems to only strengthen its position. Some voters may feel that a party silenced by the ‘business-as-usual’ politicians, are offering an alternative view, one that the mainstream parties are not ready to hear.

“We, the people”

In her book The People, the English political theorist, Margaret Canovan, argues that contemporary far-right populists claim to represent ‘the people’, the rightful source of legitimate power, whose interests and wishes have been ignored by a corrupt elite. Populist political actors present themselves as the real democrats, juxtaposing themselves with an unresponsive ‘establishment’.

Reference to ‘the people’ offers two powerful concepts. The first is that of democratic rightfulness – that all power should be in the hands of the people. According to Canovan, the idea that ‘the people’ are the ultimate source of all legitimate power began to rise into English mainstream political thought as early as in the 15th century. Later, famous theorists such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed their ideas of a ‘social contract’ – that even monarchs were in debt to the sovereign and all-powerful people. But it was not until the American and French Revolutions that the ideals of popular rule were implemented as actual political projects.

The other concept revolves around the promise of unity, coherence and oneness. Populists talk of ‘the people’ as if it was a natural, homogeneous entity; a corporate body with a continuous existence over time, capable of having common interests and a common will. According to this narrative, the boundaries of this body are undebatable – the concept is de-contested and politically very useful, at least as long as no one dares to question it. The perception of ‘one people’ offers security during times of uncertainty and division, something that liberalism — with its focus on individualism and diversity — can never truly provide. What is more, it simplifies the complex and irrational structures in which we live, and includes a promise of inherent ‘belonging’.

Grouping and the construction of social bonds are essential features of democracy. Representative democracy is founded on the basis of party mobilisation and formation of united political groups. In order for a party to communicate its stance, it needs to highlight its differences from others, and thus, by doing so, it contributes to the building of an eternal state of combat. In democracy as we know it, there is a government and an opposition, and they both constantly question each other’s actions. Whereas traditional party politics have been based on the division between classes and the identities around them, populism constructs similar antagonisms by dividing the social reality into ‘the people’ and those opposed to it – mainly the elite and ‘special interests’ that do not coincide with the aspirations of the true body politic.

Similarly, populism’s hostility towards minorities derives from the threat that difference and diversity create to the narrative of a singular ‘people’. Reality in itself, is too heterogeneous and fractured, and consists of thousands of individual social actors. But highlighting this senselessness weakens the claim of speaking on behalf of the rightful body. So, in order to avoid detailed description of who belongs to that seemingly natural entity that no one can actually define, populists opt for another solution: directing their rhetoric towards those who can easily be excluded: immigrants, homosexuals and ethnic minorities among others.

President Donald J. Trump delivers his presidential inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2017.

An excerpt from Donald Trump’s inaugural address
(‘the people’ mentioned five times):

“Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.
Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth.
Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed.
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country
What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.
January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”


And the general democratic discourse does not in anyway lessen the power of the idea of unity. To say that ‘the people have decided’, or to emphasise the legitimate role of referenda in democratic decision-making – a tool in which the slightest majority of 50.1 % (of those who voted) can decide for the whole community – only strengthens populism’s claim that ‘the people’ have supreme power over everything else. Referenda, which reduce complex issues to a yes or no vote, are a simplification of the complexity intrinsic to all socio-political matters.

Also, just how imperative is the people’s will? What if the majority of society wants to throw a minority into an internment camp? Should it be respected because ‘the people’ have spoken? Or what if the majority elects a tyrant that promises to kill all others disagreeing with the new order? Are these to be respected in the name of democracy? Now you will say, “but no, there are laws”. But what if these laws could be changed according to the will of the people? How much faith can we actually invest in human beings’ rationality? Or do we need constitutional arrangements to save humanity from impulse and stupidity?

Democracy is much more than the ‘will of the people’

‘Democracy’, as we know it, is a very complicated phenomenon and goes far beyond the supremacy of ‘the people’. Independent judiciary, distribution of power and complicated constitutional amendments seek to keep power out of the hands of a solitary actor. These checks and balances are designed to prevent authoritarian appeals to popular democracy, where overtures to the ‘will of the people’ legitimises all possible action, placing popular sovereignty above the law. Complex bureaucratic procedures represent obstacles to the development of ‘a tyranny of the majority’.

Further obstacles were created in the aftermath of the Second World War and the trauma of the Holocaust, when the world recalled the harrowing consequences of emphasising the supremacy of a nation – i.e. putting ‘a people’ above individuals as human beings. Limiting the sovereign will was taken to a global level and several supranational checks and balances were built to protect the people from themselves. The United Nations, the European Union, the International Criminal Court, and the Human Rights agenda in general, were constructed to protect minorities from their governments and peoples from devastation.

Individual rights are a cornerstone of liberal democracies. Laws and constitutions protect minorities from persecution, individuals from discrimination and people from their state. This means that the legitimate representatives of the people mandated in elections, are under constant watch by non-elected actors: independent officials are appointed to supervise the decision-making of governments and courts have the last say in the interpretation of the law – even though it was not created by them. And constitutional amendments guarantee certain individual rights and freedoms that cannot be overruled. And any attempt to change the constitution means that a majority is not enough. The sacred status of the book applies to every single one – no exceptions made; not even if it was the elected president, as was demonstrated in the United States when Donald Trump’s travel ban was blocked by the courts. Until he tried another, slightly revised version, which was also blocked. And a subsequent third one!


But Rainer Knopff, a Canadian political scientist and professor at the University of Calgary, has argued that by placing rights and the law on a golden throne, we actually contribute to the same black and white, simplistic vision that is integral to populism’s vision of democracy. Knopff asserts that, by staging the world and the actions of people solely by pro- and anti- terms, by good and bad, the judicialized politics of rights creates the same illusion of oneness and purity as populism. Both perspectives offer a monistic view of the world, in which answers can be found in a God-like way of truth and falseness. Whereas the populist leader is the apolitical oracle and voice of the united will of ‘the people’, judges are equally oracles of constitutionally entrenched rights.

To protect the absolute role of rights, many laws and complex institutional structures have been created. To simplify, they exist to prevent bad action and punish the people when their will is wrong and not well presented. The oft-quoted belief that “this is a free country” is actually not so true. Freedom has its restrictions, and it applies even to democratically elected representatives.

But for some frustrated voters, the liberal order — where certain things cannot be said or done — is interpreted as limiting freedom of speech. Thus, court sentences that have found Geert Wilders guilty, or the recent moves where Marine Le Pen might be taken to court for tweeting gruesome pictures of the killings perpetrated by ISIS, might only strengthen the perception that ‘incorrect’ views cannot be tolerated. And for those already fed up with the liberal order and with the existence of only one truth, these actions can be cited as evidence of the system’s corruption. These people might feel that we live only in a ‘so-called’ democracy, where views are accepted only if they coincide with those of the liberal elite.

Chill out, liberals!

And the response? By attacking populist claims in the loudest possible manner, liberals are not changing the fact that people feel disenfranchised, unrepresented by the ’political elites’, fearful that they are losing or have lost a sense of identity and belonging. By constantly calling opposite views wrong, racist, misogynist or xenophobic, liberals attack the populists with the same black and white narrative. These actions on both sides further create a sense that society is dichotomous: divided into two vastly opposing camps. The current case of the United States is a clear example of an oversimplified manner of presentation, of a world that is divided into good and bad, friends and foes.

The partisan political order in the US has always been based on dualism. But now, when even the President himself actively contributes to the construction of right and wrong, true and false, the dualism has been taken to a new level. But whichever side is in question; half of the population cannot simply be wrong, racist, or elitist. At the very least, liberals could try to play their part and not fall into the trap of further strengthening the constructed dualism. So far, they have not been successful, as the case of Jeffrey Medford, an American who voted for Trump, demonstrates. Medford told the New York Times, that the way he sees it, liberals offer him the following option: “agree with us 100 percent or you are morally bankrupt. You’re an idiot if you support any part of Trump”.

Protesters at the Trump Tower in New York City the day after the elections. One protester carrying a sign saying “Make racists afraid again”. Picture by Jaakko Salonen

The media are not helping either. The focus on only the negative aspects of populists and their politics will not be well received by those who already believe that the mainstream media are merely mouthpieces for the liberal elite to disseminate its propaganda. The inevitable result is that only those already opposing populists will receive the stories told, and those who view issues differently, will rely on alternative information sources. When these two camps receive their information from opposing sources with different truths, the gap only widens. Especially in this social media age, where the distribution of information is highly dependent on clicks, and thus people will most likely be exposed to information that has been liked by their peers; people who already view the world in a similar manner. No one believes any other ‘truth’ than the one they hear through their own network. The post-truth era might be an accurate concept after all – but it includes both sides.

Going back to the case of Donald Trump, the Western media has almost explicitly focused on scandals, revelations and the inhumane nature of his executive orders. His politics may be inhumane and no one needs to agree with his doings, but his followers seem quite satisfied. Trump and his team do not forget to emphasise the fact that in many ways the president is doing exactly what he promised. He is trying to find ways to promote his favourite child, the wall, and has introduced travel bans, as well as made a few companies stay in the country and build their factories in the US rather than abroad. And the economy is booming. As Slavoj Žižek, the influential Slovenian philosopher has surmized: what if the populists elected to power actually deliver? “It is as if these left liberal commentators…don’t see that by mocking Trump in this way, they don’t really undermine him.”

By barking the loudest, these liberal commentators might actually be shooting themselves in the foot. Tolerance is so sacred for liberals, that they cannot tolerate intolerance.

“Tolerance is so sacred for liberals, that they cannot tolerate intolerance”


What we should and cannot dismiss is that there are true concerns and fears behind the massive support for nationalist populists. Whether it is a protest against those in power, or motivated simply by racism, there is always a reason behind someone’s decision in democratic politics. And in the case of Brexit or Donald Trump, those who opted for those choices were numerous. The more these people and their concerns are overlooked, the more we contribute to the victimised self-understanding of populists and their supporters; to the perception that the opinions of the ‘underdogs’ – or the ‘ordinary people’ – are not sacrosanct. And the desperate will always fight for their rights. Someone’s villain is usually somebody else’s freedom fighter.

Then, what should we do?

What no one should ever forget is that in politics, there are always options. Especially in a democracy. That is why no parties or political actors should ever stop justifying the steps they take and the choices they make. When a certain kind of political order becomes a self-explanatory status quo, and no one bothers to validate the system to the electorate, new forces will eventually rise to offer an alternative vision. There is always another way. In this light, populism is not necessarily anti-democratic per se, it can also work to refresh societal discussion on politics, which is a crucial facet of healthy democracies that must continue.

Instead of attacking populists and excluding them, what liberals should do is include them in the decision-making process. But this cannot mean buying back votes at all costs. Changing tones to satisfy voters on both ends of the political spectrum is not the solution. Many voters already feel that the rhetoric and policies of different parties are indistinguishable, so pandering to populists changes little. Consider briefly the actions of politicians in Britain and France. Some British Conservatives selling their ideals and preferred policies in order to pull voters back from UKIP, or, conversely, Marine Le Pen resigning from the lead of her party only days before the second round of the French Presidential elections, to appeal to moderates and prove that she is not part of a ultra-nationalist party, does not change reality.

Politicians and their parties should engage in real dialogue, stand up for what they represent and sell their views, politics and values to the democratic decision-makers. In representative democracy, parties should differ from each other and compete: honestly but fiercely. Entering into open debate and constructive dialogue on a large range of topics is especially important this year, with important elections coming up across Europe. As long as laws are respected, no taboos should be upheld. It is not the time to let any political actors win votes without the need to openly justify the politics for which they campaign. Shouting and fear mongering cannot be enough. It needs to be the content, stupid!

As Ernesto Laclau explained: “One of the main forms of this faintheartedness takes in our time is the replacement of analysis with ethical condemnation. There is nothing wrong, of course, in condemning the Holocaust. The problem begins when condemnation replaces explanation.”

In the case of European politics, condemnation cannot take the form of blame and shame. Rather, explanations, understanding and honest debate with widely shared premises are needed. Now more than ever before.


2 thoughts on “It is the content, stupid!

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