- Jeroen Spieker
Populism in the academic bubble
Few would disagree that the rise of populism – in particular right-wing populism – has been one of the most significant political developments of 21st century Europe. A lifetime could be spent reading the plethora of academic writing this development has sparked. A quick glimpse at the political science literature, the stated objectives of research projects on populism or the syllabi of university classes on contemporary politics reveals a common thread. Populism is often presented as a challenge or even a threat to liberal democracy, human rights or international cooperation. It is conceptualized as a problem to be solved or a development to be halted.
Populism often involves a critique of the concept of expertise and of the perceived power of the educated elite. As a consequence, the political scientists which study populism are among the subjects of populist agitation. Of course scientists strive for objectivity. However, discussions about the extent to which academic objectivity and neutrality exist, have become central to the philosophy of science. I would venture to say it is not far-fetched to consider that the rise of right-wing populism and its rejection of expertise might impact experts’ perspectives. It has been shown that on average university professors take more progressive political positions than the public and other professionals. There is an especially noteworthy contrast between the opposition to immigration of the populist right and European university professors, who profess more left-leaning beliefs than average above all on the topic of immigration. Naturally, academics aim towards objectivity and political neutrality. However, ideological leanings are expressed in more than outspoken opinions. Describing the rise of populism as a challenge or even a threat is not neutral language. This is not to say populist parties can not present a threat to democracy. There have been cases of democratic backsliding in populist-ruled countries; Hungary probably being the most notable example. Yet, this is not a universal experience. Right-wing populist parties have increasingly been part of or supported governments from Sweden and the Netherlands to Italy and Austria for decades now. The populist right has become a mainstay of the European political scene and continuing to present this as a challenge or a threat to the political system ignores this reality. Yet, more importantly, the dismissal of populism, either by intention or by implication, casts doubt on the possibility that the sentiments of populist voters should be taken seriously.
What do we know, then, about populist voters? Most importantly, we know they are not fundamentally different from other voters. The idea that the populist vote is a “protest vote” or motivated by material deprivation due to globalization does not offer sufficient explanation. Just as for any other voter, the ballot cast by the right-wing populist voter is most strongly informed by policy preferences. Additionally, a survey of populist voters in four European countries found that their views on liberal democracy, including minority rights and constitutional checks and balances, are not fundamentally different from those of other voters.
We should take the right-wing populist vote at face value; as an expression of discontent about the existing ideological spectrum and the policy status quo rather than the entire political system.
Political scientists and students of political science are not immune to “bubble-forming”. The rise of populism has implications for democratic politics. In particular cases this implication might indeed be problematic. Yet, above all the rise of right-wing populism is a signal; an attempt to re-politicize politics, in particular concerning the pro-multicultural consensus which appeared in late twentieth century Europe. Treating it as a threat to be averted or a challenge to be solved a priori only takes populism’s consequences for the political status quo seriously, but not its causes or ideological contents. Much has been written about the origins of the rise of populism in the depoliticized politics of the last few decades. By not treating the rhetoric surrounding populism with enough nuance and understanding, we might perpetuate exactly the kind of technocratic politics which gave rise to the populist “challenge”.