Is there a culture war against populism?

Is it a positive wave or a troubling pattern? In this age of anxiety over joblessness and immigration, populist leaders in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Sweden and the Philippines are tapping in. Is populism, as the 1960's American historian Richard Hofstadter called it, "a paranoid style of politics"? Or is it what others describe as "the essence of democratic politics"?
Protesters carry Polish flags during a rally, organised by far-right, nationalist groups, to mark the 99th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw, Poland November 11, 2017. (Agencja Gazeta/Adam Stepien via Reuters)
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Is it a positive wave or a troubling pattern? In this age of anxiety over joblessness and immigration, populist leaders in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Sweden and the Philippines are tapping in. Is populism, as the 1960's American historian Richard Hofstadter called it, "a paranoid style of politics"? Or is it what others describe as "the essence of democratic politics"? A debate among public intellectuals at London's Battle of Ideas, a festival held each autumn at the Barbican (and other locations) in London, England — to talk about the big questions we're facing today.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist and political scientist who has published fifteen books. 1:24

Marine Le Pen will call herself a… democrat. But that doesn't mean she is a democrat. You know Trump uses the phrase 'very fine people' to describe people who go to Charlottesville with supremacist ideas. That doesn't mean they're very fine people. – Elif Shafak

I think there's a silent cultural war against populism, it basically symbolizes the fact that for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the traditional establishment feels their basic values .....are being sort of challenged.
– Frank Furedi 

Globalization has given the political elites a sense of greater control… and it's given non-elites a sense of economic loss, and a sense of loss of sovereignty. – David Goodhart

Populism: the New Political Order

Some call it people power. Others call it a new political order: populism. They span the political spectrum. The late socialist president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. Or France's far-right nationalist leader, Marine Le Pen. But new populist leaders have emerged in many other places around the world, too.  

Turkish novelist and public intellectual Elif Shafak thinks it's understandable that in an age of anxiety, technology and joblessness are intensifying voters' fear. But she argues that political leaders should not let fear lead them. Shafak thinks we must challenge ideas within nationalism, tribalism or patriotism when xenophobic beliefs emerge.  Whether it's Poland hosting the largest nationalist rally in Europe. Or the increasingly common argument to monitor Muslims using electronic surveillance and arm-bands. 

Pro-Brexit demonstrators protest outside the Houses of Parliament on November 23, 2016 in London, England. ( Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The Power of Populism

While this new rise in populism worries many, sociologist Frank Furedi believes there are positive aspects to it. He says citizens are rejecting the control held by global elites and giving greater support to their own nations. Take Brexit. Furedi says people were told they weren't able to understand the complex issues, so they'd better stay within the EU. But no one likes being patronized and they pushed back. Furedi also thinks that ethnic or gender identities are now considered cool, but nationalism has become a dirty word. What's wrong with decent, nationalistic citizens, he asks?

"Somewheres" vs "Anywheres"

David Goodhart agrees. He's written a book called, The Road to Somewhere: the Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. He thinks the old left/right opposition is giving way to two groups pitted against each other: "somewheres" vs "anywheres". People he describes as "somewheres" live in more rooted communities, have less education, work in more traditional jobs, have more respect for cultural traditions and are more connected to their own nation. On the other hand, "anywheres" are more mobile, more educated, more cosmopolitan, wealthier and less attached to any group.

David Goodhart says populism has helped create this new political structure. He adds that we shouldn't worry — while there will always be about 5% of the population with authoritarian impulses, the vast majority of populist voters are decent people. Turkish writer Elif Shafak believes it's dangerous to romanticize "ordinary people" and downplay the dark side of nationalists — she points to her own nation as an example of what might happen elsewhere.           
 

  • Elif Shafak  is a Turkish novelist and political scientist who has published fifteen books. She is also a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations
  • Frank Furedi is a public intellectual, sociologist and the author of numerous books, including, Populism and the European Culture Wars: The Conflict Between Hungary and the EU.   
  • David Goodhart  is the author of The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics.


The Battle of Ideas Festival is presented by the Academy of Ideas at The Barbican in London.  Battle of Ideas 2018 will take place on 13 & 14 October. 

**This episode was produced by Mary O'Connell.

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