27 January 2020
The slogan 'Yes to Europe' sits on a campaign banner for a Dutch political party ahead of the European Parliament elections in Brussels. Photo: Bloomberg
The slogan 'Yes to Europe' sits on a campaign banner for a Dutch political party ahead of the European Parliament elections in Brussels. Photo: Bloomberg

Populism and public opinion: where should we draw the line?

Member states of the European Union (EU) are set to hold the European Parliament elections between May 23 and 26.

Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist under President Donald Trump, recently predicted that the European Parliament elections will witness a populist landslide.

Yet some European political analysts have suggested otherwise, asserting that Bannon’s prediction isn’t going to materialize.

Bannon, to state a fact, spent a lot of time touring across Europe last year in a bid to influence the outcome of the upcoming European Parliament elections.

For example, he teamed up with some far-right activists in Belgium in a joint attempt to organize a “club” and launch a “movement” to mobilize right-wing populist parties across Europe.

According to Bannon’s anti-elite agenda, European countries should emphasize their national sovereignty, enhance their border separation, impose rigorous restrictions on immigrants and boycott foreign cultures.

The ideas which Bannon advocates are, in an objective sense, working against European integration.

Before that, Bannon had aligned himself with Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and co-founder of the Brexit Party.

Farage has been a leading Brexiteer in the United Kingdom. After the Brexit referendum in 2016, he publicly expressed his gratitude to Bannon and the company he founded, Cambridge Analytica.

As the New York Times has reported, Bannon claimed that “All I’m trying to be is the infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement.”

At the beginning of this year, Bannon and his European partners attempted to organize a populist summit in Brussels.

Although the meeting has been postponed over and over again, Bannon vowed that he would continue to strive for an annual “Davos of populists” in the long run.

Given Bannon’s aggressive and high-profile interference in the European Parliament elections, there are doubts among the European media as to whether the results of the upcoming elections, in the presence of so much manipulation, will reflect democracy or populism.

The term “populism” has continued to appear frequently in news reports in recent years. Nevertheless, there is yet to be a consensus on how to differentiate between “populism” and “public opinion”.

Nor is there a universal set of criteria for judging whether a policy initiative is of a populist nature or not.

But even so, many political commentators have attributed Brexit and the presidential election victory of Trump to the rise of populism, and regarded it as a prevailing global trend.

As the world has seen a tidal wave of mass social movements against financial gurus and austerity measures following the 2007-08 global financial crisis, there is a view that the word “populism” is used to describe a “left-wing phenomenon”.

Nonetheless, some have also argued that there is no “left” or “right” when it comes to populism, because it is basically just a strategy to mobilize the general public.

As such, populists actually don’t have any specific policy agenda or ideological framework of their own.

But, at the same time, some European studies have also suggested that “populism” does have its own set of political beliefs, with its ideological core being a conviction that there is a fundamental conflict between the “common people” and “elites” in society.

According to these studies, populists have claimed the “virtual” moral high ground of the masses in their fight against the elites of the establishment.

The conclusions reached in these studies are echoed by some political science academics, who believe that the rise of populism took place against the backdrop of the dysfunctional western post-industrial society, which has failed to provide a social model under which the majority public can have an equal share of the economic prosperity.

Moreover, under this failed social model, the traditional ethics and values embraced by the establishment have collapsed, with political leaders losing their authority.

And it is exactly within the gap of over-promising and under-delivering of western democracy that populism began to take root and flourish.

According to news reports, at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos back in January this year, guest speakers and luminaries spent a lot of time discussing the failures of western politics.

During the discussions, some business leaders said economic and political polarization had led to social instability, while some top executives of multinational corporations ridiculed western political leaders for lacking compassion for the common people.

The results of the local elections in the UK earlier this month might have proven them right: both the Tories and the Labor Party suffered huge setbacks, indicating that the British public could be highly resentful of the political establishment.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 20

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Former Secretary for Home Affairs