In today’s Irish Times, the paper’s political correspondent Stephen Collins attributes the murder of Jo Cox to an ‘erosion of respect for democratic political values’. He decries the ‘wave of cynicism and bitterness’ that has ‘infected political debate right across the democratic world’, and relates this to the ‘growing appeal of populism of the left and right which seeks to simplify almost all issues to a clash between the interests of ordinary people and a “corrupt elite”.’
‘A fascinating study dealing with the challenge populism poses to the EU, published by the Carnegie Institute this week, said populism is essentially illiberal because it rejects democratic checks and balances and has a conception of the will of the people that leaves no room for pluralism or deliberation.’
The study Collins cites is an article by Heather Grabbe and Stefan Lehne. I don’t share the overall analytical framework of the article, and it contains some glaring contradictions, but it does have some interesting observations.
The article has very little to say about the populism of the left mentioned by Collins, but a great deal to say about the populism of the right. In fact, the populism of the left, however defined, appears as something of an afterthought.
While ‘new parties and movements are bringing fresh energy into politics that could benefit democracy and the EU with it’, the article says that ‘radical-right populists reject both what the EU stands for and how it works’. Moreover, the ‘xenophobic narratives of radical-right populists have very nasty effects in European societies by increasing social tensions and encouraging attacks on minorities’.
The article recommends that the union has to ‘engage citizens directly, refocus on their legitimate grievances, and strengthen the consensus around its values base’, which it defines as ‘human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights’.
Clearly there are questions to be asked about how such values are understood, and whether the overarching structure of the EU can in fact sustain them.
The authors claim that the ‘EU is a values-based project as well as an economic project’, but economic conditions shape values. The ECB is a spectacularly effective coercive instrument for imposing a particular set of values, but they are the antithesis of those in the value base defined by the authors.
This contradiction between the stated value base and the institutional architecture of the EU is noted indirectly, and apparently without irony, in the author’s observation that ‘once in office, Greece’s far-left Syriza party and the right-wing Finns Party dropped their more extreme positions and joined the mainstream on policy choices.’ ‘Choices’ indeed.
The authors highlight the breaking of the ‘long-standing taboo against allowing far-right parties into office’, and conclude that ‘radical-right populism threatens the health of the EU in ways that national democracy can resist.’ In response, they say that union also has to take seriously the legitimate grievances that underlie support for anti-establishment parties’. In particular, ‘on tax evasion, corruption, and inequality, the EU needs to show that it is on the side of citizens rather than of political elites and big business’.
Notably, the authors make no mention of migration as a ‘legitimate grievance’. And yet what we have seen in recent years, especially in Britain, is a refusal, on the part of political and media establishments to recognise grievances in relation to tax evasion, corruption, and especially inequality, as legitimate, but grievances about immigration -however ill-informed and unfounded- take shape in these quarters as a valid concern, even when they stem from a will to ignore values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and respect for human rights.
So essentially the report recommends that the EU ought to represent the interests of ordinary people rather than a corrupt elite. I don’t know about you, but it seems as if the authors of the article suggest there is some sort of genuine clash between the interests of ordinary people and a corrupt elite. These days, articulating this view in Ireland is enough to win you the label of ‘populist’.
And here is where the deliberate confusion, on the one hand, of movements that seek to realise values such as human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and respect for human rights, with, on the other, xenophobic far-right groupings, under the umbrella of ‘populism of the left and right’ is so pernicious. By pretending that the two are essentially the same, the role of the prevailing order in nurturing xenophobic and racist far-right activity is hidden from view, and the cause of the disease is made to appear as the cure.
If the likes of Stephen Collins were genuinely interested in respect for democracy, their focus would not be on the civility of discourse, but on the accumulation of power and wealth by individuals and entities that do not stand in elections. And if they really want to locate the source of the ‘erosion of respect for democratic political values’, they could make a start by taking a look in the mirror.