Populism in Western Democracies : A View from France

2019-03-13T18:19:18Z (GMT) by Bernard Boëne
This article first tries to characterize contemporary Western populist movements. It then details the key points of E. Laclau's penetrating analysis of populism, with a view to using it in a perspective other than its author's own. It hypothesizes that the center of gravity of the populism in the West resides in a reference to the demos, rather than ethnos or plebs. It goes on to probe the causes of growing citizen alienation, the main source of populism. It suggests that the social aspect, notably the destabilization of the lower-middle classes induced by the Neo-liberal order, does not exhaust the issue. Institutional demands soon emerge to remedy a perceived disenfranchisement of majorities generated over half-a-century by the rise of culturally-defined minority groups, resulting in a "tyranny of minorities". Further, citizens resent being treated as minors by a "framed democracy" in which their capacity for discernment is ignored, and their assent dispensed with, by ruling elites in the name of a presumed higher moral good, or directives from unelected faraway power centers. The root cause of the malaise is the ascent, from the 1960s onward, of individualism and the relaxation of citizenship norms, leading to a situation where authority and power are questioned or feared, and political leadership becomes weak. Now reduced to a managerial role, it takes to accommodating activists, and delegates policy-making to independent, nonpartisan authorities, experts, or international organizations, thus becoming unresponsive to the will of majorities. In that light, civic populism is a response to a deactivation of democracy. Representative democracy systems, put in place over two centuries when the masses were uneducated, are not aging well now that average education levels have considerably increased and majorities want to make themselves heard. Redefining the relationships between elites and grassroots, majority and minorities, is thus in order.