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‘The people’ and ‘the elite’: populist slogans as categories of social analysis

Date:21 February 2017
Author:Lodi Nauta
Crowd at Trump campaign
Crowd at Trump campaign

"The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves." Thus spoke Justin Trudeau on his visit to the White House, walking a fine line between criticizing Trump's ban on immigration and not jeopardizing the good relationship with an important economic partner. But who are ‘Canadians’? All Canadians? Perhaps not a few Canadians wouldn’t mind if Trudeau had been more direct. Whether that would have been wise for him to do is another matter.

Many politicians use such phrases as ‘the people’ to defend their opinions or sanction their actions. They claim to be speaking on behalf of the people. Populist politicians – to which Trudeau does not belong – go some steps further: they often talk about the elite versus the people, ignoring the fact that ‘the elite’ turns out to be sometimes half or even more of the population. In the Netherlands Geert Wilders often suggests that he speaks on behalf of ‘the people’, and indeed his party is on the rise in the polls and will probably get one fifth of the votes. But this doesn’t mean of course that the rest – a vast majority – cannot be considered as ‘the people’, let alone be characterized as the ‘elite’. In the UK just over half of the voters (51,9% versus 48,1%) voted for Brexit – an outcome that is not reflected by assertions such as that ‘the British people have spoken’. In the US Trump lost the popular vote; Clinton got 2,5 million more votes. Yet, his election is hailed by his American and European admirers as a victory for ‘the people’, soon to be followed, so they hope, by victories in their own countries with the upcoming elections.

It is of course part of populist rhetoric to call everybody who doesn’t vote for you the ‘elite’, including troublesome journalists and judges. Who is not for you is against you. But even political commentators or political scientists can’t sometimes resist the temptation to talk about ‘the elite’. In an analysis of the rise of Trump, Willem Schinkel, professor of social theory at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, recently spoke about the half-truth of Trump and other populist leaders (‘Trump liegt en spreekt de waarheid’, ‘Trump is lying and speaks the truth’, NRC Handelsblad, 11 Febr. 2017). Trump’s truth is that ‘a neoliberal elite has hijacked democracy’. But Trump is dishonest, Schinkel says, in his expressing this truth, for as ‘a neoliberal in its most cynical form’, he will only even more exploit the people of America. This is worse, Schinkel argues, than his blatant lies and fake news.

What is the elite according to Schinkel? The elite is represented by political parties (or simply ‘politics’) and ‘mainstream’ media, who have succeeded in conveying the impression that we live in post-ideological times: politics has been reduced to (quasi) value-free policy based on facts, technocratic analyses and calculations (like the analyses of the election manifestos of political parties by the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, CPB). And the media pretend to present facts and news in a coolly realistic way.

This image is false, Schinkel argues. Facts about the economy, or how to save Greece, or how to deal with immigration and integration or Brexit and so on are not facts but value-laden, subjective expressions of a dominant ideology: ‘Both BBP [gross domestic product] and integration are not just about facts but about dominant representations of society’. Newspapers who pretend to cover news in an objective way ‘are loaded with ideology’. Trump and populists have seen through this image, and people vote for them, not because they are presented with a clear alternative but because they want change. This is what we have to understand rather than complaining about fake news and blatant lies.

Who are the elite in Schinkel’s analysis? This is not so clear. First of all, it can’t be the large majorities of voters, politicians, policy makers and so on in what Schinkel calls, quoting the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck ‘the post war pact of neoliberal capitalism and democracy’. Think of the percentages mentioned above of those who voted against Brexit, against Trump, and so on. Moreover, the phrase ‘the neoliberal elite has hijacked the democracy’ seems to imply that populist movements are refused access to democracy. This is strange. Trump, Wilders and Le Pen are part of the democratic system that gives them all the opportunities to form parties, join elections, get media coverage and grow. Are the media the elite then? Mainstream media is hardly mainstream anymore. Trump and Wilders are using to great effect what the immense variety of the media landscape offers them, from the Washington Post to Breitbart News, from Geen Stijl to the NRC, and Twitter of course. To think that ‘the’ media are part of this neoliberal pact that would silence discussion of alternative views to the ‘dominant’ neoliberal capitalism looks only convincing if we severely limit the term to a few newspapers read by a tiny minority of intellectuals.

The opposition elite vs. the people is simplistic. And so is the suggestion that politics or this dominant paradigm presents itself as value-free policy based on facts. Viewed from space we might see a flat landscape but when we come closer we see that politics cannot be reduced to one dominant order. The differences between political parties are immense; e.g. the Dutch socialists of the Socialist Party have a completely different idea about the world than the conservatives of the VVD. We see economists, with Keynes, Hayek, Friedman, or Piketty in hand, differing considerably about economic and monetary policies, and such differences are often explicitly acknowledged and hotly debated in universities, think tanks, the government and public policy, institutions such as universities and even within the IMF and the European Bank.

Likewise, media don’t become a monolithic thing by putting a definitive article in front of it (‘the’ media). It is true that all news is coloured, as Schinkel argues, but it's only trivially true; if everything is coloured then the qualification doesn’t add or say anything. But people (alas, too few perhaps) are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the quality of different media. Not all colours have the same intensity. Does it all boil down to the same? I find that hard to believe and it belies my own experience in following the news. Over the last few years I’ve read many critical pieces in newspapers about fundamentally different ideas about e.g. the Greek debt crisis.

What is problematic about analyses such as Schinkel’s are the gross generalizations and the false dichotomies between the people and the elite. It is also strange to see Schinkel using the word ‘truth’ in an argument that seems to minimalize differences between fact, news, opinion, and interpretation. He is much too intelligent and wise to grant ‘alternative facts’ the same status as facts, though his argument that all news is coloured will be welcomed by anyone who makes up his own facts, ‘alternative facts’. But, then, Trump’s alternative facts are not the biggest problem, argues Schinkel. The biggest problem is that he will only worsen the situation for the people he says to stand for. But the two are equally bad, and what is more, they intrinsically belong to each other: the claim to speak up for ‘the people’ comes with lies and fake news and also with attacks on press and the court (‘fake judges’); we see the same phenomenon with all populists. Journalists, judges, politicians and in fact everyone who is against them are portrayed as part of a kind of conspiracy. Such analyses as Schinkel’s, while probably not intended to kindle the flame of populism, can easily be seen as support of the populist story that ‘the neoliberal elite has hijacked democracy’.

This is not to say that we should not try to understand the feelings of insecurity, fear and displeasure and anger among so many people in many countries. Of course, our democratic societies could be improved in various ways, e.g. the European Union, monetary policies, democratic procedures and so on. But it is not helpful and even dangerous to use populist sloganising as categories of analysis.


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