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How to really not beat populism

25.08.2016 Josef Lentsch

Sometimes you read an article, the title sounds promising, it starts well, but then it somehow goes off track, and in the end, the conclusions leave you bewildered. This is what happened to me when I read „How to beat populism“ by the political scientist Cas Mudde on Politico.

Yes, the „perception of an urgent threat to their status“ has surely increased support among middle-class voters for right-wingers and populists of all sorts. Yes, presenting policies as TINA („There is no alternative“) has certainly been detrimental to getting citizens to regain trust in the reasoned judgment of their leaders.

But what should one think of final paragraphs like these: „…ideological alternatives [to the populists] should be modern; they cannot simply hark back to the policies of the mid-20th century. And they must be realistic, rooted in the structural constraints of today. Ideally, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats will offer competing alternatives, while emphasizing the shared support for the inviolable values of liberal democracy.“

Really? That’s your advice? Christian Democrats and Social Democrats offering modern and realistic competing alternatives?

Has it ever occurred to the author that the malaise of Western democracies goes back much further than the migration crisis and even the financial crisis from 2008? That the support for the cited FPÖ in Austria has already been above 20% twenty years ago? That a big part of that story is the standstill of much-needed reforms in Western democracies, due to the ossification and clientelism of aged political parties? And that identity politics, as described by the author, is not winnable by simply offering „competing ideological alternatives“?

Why is it that Christian Democrats and Social Democrats do not offer the competing alternatives Mudde calls for? Because of a “neoliberal consensus”? No – it is because they are afraid that they are the first ones to go out of business, so they clinch. They need to reinvent themselves to offer any viable alternative at all.

At the same time, new movements and political start-ups have started to disrupt the political market – Ciudadanos in Spain, Nowoczesna in Poland or NEOS in Austria are all part of that wave. All of them are representing participative, centrist, non-populist alternatives to what current politics has to offer. And there are many more. Western democracies have already entered an era of transition, and transitions can be bumpy, even painful, as Spain shows – but nonetheless, they are necessary and healthy.

This then is how we beat populism: by offering a viable alternative to the standstill-politics of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that is positive, participative and credible. By giving them real choice on the political menu. By implementing the much-needed reforms in our education, social and economic systems. Are we there yet? No, but we are working on it.

If political scientists want to make a worthwhile contribution to this transition, to rephrase Mudde, “they cannot simply hark back to the advice of the mid-20th century.“ Political scientists themselves need to arrive in the 21st century.