Professors in the Pub convened Thursday 21st February to discuss the ascendence of populism in the West, including Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and the anti-EU governments of Hungary, Poland, and Italy. Leading the discussion was Pelin Ayan Musil, an AAU professor and researcher of political science specialising in political parties, democracy and its changes.

Musil urged the participants to reflect on populism as not a cause, but a consequence of the mistakes and failures of representative democracy in Europe and the United States. Surely, she explained, those who wish to combat populism should listen to the legitimate grievances of the masses, not deride them as “deplorables” as Hillary Clinton once did during her 2016 election campaign.

While many participants disagreed on the pros and cons of populism during the discussion, most appeared to be in agreement that the causes of populism are often different across continents. The material, ideological, and cultural factors that gave rise to the outburst of mostly right-wing parties are complex. However, Musil suggested that many people will be willing to vote for such parties if they feel the political class is simply not working for them – whether it be fear of the unknown or the corruption of and crisis of the political elite entrusted with the public good. The professor noted a report summarizing what a Trump-voting worker from Nebraska really wanted from the American president: A steady paycheck and a safe place to live. Professor George Hays asserted that populism cannot actually solve the problems of the masses, but merely prolong them. The power of populism then is determined by its ability to implement its program in reality, and not use issues like immigration as political fodder for its political opportunists.

Perhaps, with a critical ear, we should listen to the spokesmen of populism, like Steve Bannon. After all, their concerns now determine the future of democracy in many Western countries. Whether these outbursts of electoral change are caused by economics, xenophobia, distrust in the establishment or the unrelatability of politicians, the nuances of populism will be debated for a long time. 

By: Ben Goings

21/2/18

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Publication date: March 14, 2019