In this weeks long read, Alice Masoni contributes to the New Pretenders analysis of anti-populism. Masoni writes about anti-populist rhetoric and its capacity to reproduce the simplification of the political field in populist terms precisely by negating the core problematic that populism responds to, namely the perception of a cleavage between the people, the masses, and an elite which treats the claims of the masses with condescension and contempt. Masoni argues, that “As a consequence, and by triggering that cleavage, the more reactionary variants of populism – those which are really qualified to be considered dangerous – will reinforce their power and influence, and this should be the main concern of the progressive Left.”
Just a few days after the last Italian general elections, all national Italian media reported the news according to which an enormous wave of people would have assaulted the Centres for Fiscal Assistance in the South of the country, looking for the national income that the Five Star Movement included in its election manifesto.
The news (which later that day resulted to be greatly exaggerate) and the way in which it was reported by the media, gives us the opportunity to interrogate ourselves on how anti-populist rhetoric is being systematically used, both by traditional political actors and mainstream media – and specifically by centre – left parties and centre-left oriented media – to dismiss their opponents and those who support them.
Such anti-populist rhetoric is generally put into practice only by presenting political actors and parties as inherently dangerous and anti-democratic because of the fact that they are considered as populist, and not by investigating the actual contents of their claims. This turns out to be highly problematic, but not only because it denies a serious analysis of the reasons for their success. The actual danger, it will be proved, lies in the fact that it is exactly this rhetoric that reinforces the real or perceived cleavage between a progressive elite which acts as superior, and a mass of people who feels ridiculed by that elite.
As a consequence, and by triggering that cleavage, the more reactionary variants of populism – those which are really qualified to be considered dangerous – will reinforce their power and influence, and this should be the main concern of the progressive Left. Only with a deep evaluation of the reasons why these reactionary variants of populism are increasingly more successful, will it be also possible to offer a real democratic alternative which can include those people who are now feeling excluded by the current centre-leftist political plan.
Populist party equals dangerous party
‘Populism’ is most often presented as illustrating all that is abnormal: it is invariably seen as violating or transgressing a natural order of how politics is properly, rationally, and professionally done’. As a consequence, when parties or actors are labelled as populist, they are generally presented by using alarmist tones, which should warn us of their incapability to rule a country and – more worryingly – of the dangerous repercussions that their potential victory will have on the stability of the country itself.
The actual contents put forward by real or alleged populist actors are often not even investigated, since – as populists – they are automatically dismissed or criticized. This strategy is part of a comprehensive anti-populist rhetoric, that is mainly adopted by traditional political actors and parties to oppose their adversaries, but that can equally be found in media. As a result, anti-populist messages are by now so redundant, that also in public debate they seem to have become the yardstick used to evaluate whether a party or an actor is considered reliable or not. What is most striking, is that this rhetoric seems increasingly used not only to blame parties or political actors, but also to blame those who decide to vote for or support them.
The last Italian national elections, that will probably be remembered as – using The Financial Times’ impressive headline – those by which ‘Rome will open its gates to the modern barbarians’, seem to follow the same script. A minor local news story released just a few days after the elections, can perfectly prove the impact that such a rhetoric can have on the general perception of the people who sympathise or vote political parties or actors labelled as populist.
In less than half a day, dozens of newspapers reported about a giant wave of people, which allegedly invaded the Centres for Fiscal Assistance in the South of the country, by strongly insisting on their legitimate right to have what they voted for: the so-called reddito di cittadinanza (literally, ‘citizenship income’) that Five Star Movement benevolently promised to them during its electoral campaign. Both local and national mainstream (and generally centre-left wing oriented) newspapers, reported the news by speaking of dozens of public offices ‘under-siege’, that were literally ‘assaulted’ by citizens.
Following the same line, an opinion article published in La Stampa (one of the most famous, centre-left oriented newspapers in Italy), and written by Massimo Gramellini, a very well-known and influential Italian journalist, tells the story of several cities in the South of Italy, in which ‘the requests for the national income are blooming’. Such a gentle connotation must not mislead, though. Indeed, he concludes his article by saying that
‘probably, buying votes is not over at all, and this with the blessing of those who usually assess the value of consensus for a party, according to the party’s value itself. But since this hypothetical citizenship income would be financed also with my taxes, I would be glad if these new people’s tribunes would attach a short compendium of the Constitution to it, or at least, any TV-news edition.’
Despite the fact that after a while the news turned out to be fake (to use an adjective that so well seems to fit with populist outfits) or at least, not entirely true and definitely exaggerated; the narrative that was used in media, already tells us something: that the general framing of the Five Star Movement – these so-called new people’s tribunes – represents the party and its members as incapable of taking wise and responsible decisions. On the contrary, with their aim of persuading people no matter how – they are actually acting as a clientelist party, without thinking about the consequences of their actions. Even more alarmingly, this sense of thoughtlessness seems to be deeply internalised by the general perception of the party, and this is the reason why such news could have been immediately and undoubtedly taken for real.
Populist voters equals stupid voters
Now, this rhetoric does not only relate to the Five Star Movement, or even to Italy, and this should definitely make us think. As already mentioned, it is rather a more generalised attitude observed in the usual approach used by mainstream media as well as by ‘pro-establishment’ politicians when opposing populist parties. What is more relevant, is that this attitude in most cases allows to deliver anti-populist messages, without the need to explicitly explain the reason why anti-establishment parties or actors are blamed, but just by implying that, by being populist and anti-establishment, they are inherently dangerous. Using the label ‘populist’ automatically translates into giving to it a very specific meaning. This becomes synonym of
‘democratic malaise, (…) a virulent social disease threatening European democracy. It is supposed to invariably involve an irrational Manichean view of society that mesmerizes the ‘immature’ masses, releasing uncontrolled social passions and thereby threatening to tear society apart’ (Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2013).
Such a definition, as well as what happened with the fake news about the ‘explosion of citizenship income’s requests’, also allows us to notice a further – subtler but uglier – effect of anti-populist discourse. If the news is immediately taken for real and has immediately become viral, it is also due to how masses are perceived, and to how they are believed to be easily mesmerized by simplistic, but still highly persuasive populist claims.
In this case, the idea of a huge mass of people incapable of understanding that the (relative) electoral victory of the Five Star Movement could not automatically lead to the implementation of the national income, was shocking, but still credible. And this was all possible, essentially, because there is a large factual consensus on the image of people coming from the South of Italy, who because of their (again) alleged low level of education and laziness, can be considered, undoubtedly, that stupid.
The cliché of the uneducated, illiterate, lazy, stupid people from the South of Italy has long been part of the Italian (and not only the Italian) collective imaginary. What should prompt a reflection, is that this kind of allegation was so far mainly part of a regionalist and nativist rhetoric, which in the Italian context is especially embraced and strongly put forward by the Lega Nord. Although now the new Lega has (opportunistically) decided to drop its historical anti-southern sentiment with the aim of speaking to the whole Italian citizenship, the stereotype of the stupid and lazy terrone still resists strongly.
More correctly, this strongly-persistent but at the same time poor image seems to have been internalised as part of the aforementioned generalised anti-populist rhetoric, which is now (more or less implicitly) present in many traditional parties, and also among those which before – in the Italian context – used to accuse Lega Nord and its regionalist racism.
By adopting this rhetoric, traditional, ‘pro-establishment’ parties or actors, ‘interpellate and ‘grip’ subjects’ not only by blaming populist parties or actors for being ‘undemocratic, emotional, opportunistic or unrealistic’, but also by ‘criticizing or dismissing populist voters and sympathizers’. To be more specific, and following De Cleen et al., the appeal of such anti-populist rhetoric might exactly lie in
‘the often secretly self-aggrandizing gesture of identifying oneself as ‘reasonable’ and ‘realistic’, ‘enlightened’, ‘educated’ and ‘smart’, or indeed, as a member of ‘the elite’ against ‘the people’ or ‘the lower class’ (De Cleen, et al., 2018).
As a result, the populist vision of society, which by definition is divided between a pure people and a corrupted elite seems to be reversed, or rather, to be envisaged as an elitist vision of society, where the former is dangerous and vulgar, while the latter act as superior ‘not only in moral, but also in cultural and intellectual terms’.
Such an outcome looks highly problematic. Not only because taking advantage of people’s presumptuousness and their superiority complex is at least morally despicable, but also because such strategies might also be legitimately utilized to pursue the same opportunistic tactics which populist actors are blemished to use to ‘enchant’ their voters.
More or less implicitly, assuming that a part of society is so irrational, uneducated, lazy, or stupid, that they are easily captivated by populist slogans, and therefore dismissing that part of society as worthless, necessarily also means confirming what that part of society already feels. And that is the perception of being completely marginalised and ignored by an elite, which thinks itself superior to the rest.
The Italian journalist Federico Rampini – speaking about the United States – accurately mentions the so-called progressive intelligentsia, to refer to an existing centre-leftist elite – which is not only political but also intellectual – that in the US, and equally in Italy or in other Western European countries, seems to have forgotten those who it used to claim as part of its historical and traditional constituency, and that is, by definition, the poor and the outcasts. If, as Rampini also reminds us – in the United States the so-called rednecks living in the ‘flight-over-country’ decided to support Trump, the tycoon who promised to destroy the establishment, then in Italy the so-called terroni voted for Five Star Movement, and that is because both of them are feeling to be marginalised by the Left. And this marginalisation is not only economic but – also and more worryingly – cultural or values–related.
Ridiculing, dismissing or criticising populists’ supporters cannot have any other effect than reinforcing the sense of exclusion felt by this new minority. And that is what the progressive Left should think about, instead of simplistically blaming both populist and their captivating slogans, together with those who decide to trust them. Exactly this anti-populist rhetoric, which only condemns and does not investigate the profound reasons behind populists’ success, ‘indirectly allows authoritarian populist variants to present themselves as the only force able to ostensibly challenge an increasingly unequal, unjust, and disconnected status quo’. This, and not populism per se should raise our concern over what can be considered dangerous or antidemocratic.
The anti-populist effect of the progressive Left: a real concern for democracy
The news that Italian media reported about an allegedly huge wave of people assaulting the Centres of Fiscal Assistance in the South of Italy gives us the opportunity to look at how anti-populist rhetoric is used, especially by traditional centre-left politicians and centre-left oriented media to oppose those parties or political actors which are considered as populist.
The alarming tone through which the news has been presented perfectly managed to convey a simple, but highly effective message: The Five Star Movement is a populist party, and as such, takes advantage of its irrational, uneducated, illiterate, lazy and stupid supporters, without even thinking about the dramatic consequences of its actions.
As already mentioned, this message is part of a so-called anti-populist rhetoric, which is often used to criticise and dismiss populist parties and actors as such, rather than by investigating the contents of their claims. This rhetoric is even more dangerous than populist claims themselves, especially when it is operated to blame the people who decide to trust them. It is exactly by ridiculing or dismissing those people, that populist claims become more effective, and this dynamic ends up triggering a vicious cycle which is then hard to interrupt. The Italian journalist Francesco Mazza correctly highlights that
If there is a mass of people who – more or less legitimately – feels snubbed by an elite, and that elite ridicules and dismisses that mass of people on the basis of a prejudice (…), then the next time that mass of people will be even more determined to vehemently assert their rage.
If the progressive Left only answers to simplistic captivating slogans with equally simplistic captivating criticisms and by appealing to a certain part of society’s sense of superiority, then the authoritarian variants of populism will capitalise on the rage provoked by the implementation of this rhetoric, diminishing the room for implementing a real democratic and pluralistic alternative.
Following Stavrakakis, ‘populism is neither necessarily bad nor necessarily good’, and for this reason populism per se cannot be blamed as irrational, dangerous or antidemocratic. What is instead needed, and what the progressive Left should also understand, is that only by going beyond captivating slogans and by seriously investigating the contents of populist claims, is it possible to make a profound reflection upon the reasons of the success of those contents. ‘Why do an increasingly high number of people decide to support populist parties or actors?’; ‘And why among these populists, those most authoritarian seem to be also the most successful?’; ‘Why are we not able anymore to present a valid democratic alternative for the people?’ Only by answering these questions, will it be possible to prevent that ‘one (corrupt) elite will be replaced by another (heroic) elite, (which will) ultimately leave the very people once more marginalized from the decision-making process’.
Alice Masoni is a Master’s student at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels where she combines her passion for politics with journalism. She is also the speaker of Europhonica, a community radio based inside of the European Parliament.
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