Pot, kettle, black: the political left is just as populist as the right

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There is a misconception that the rise of the extreme Right is a global issue stemmed solely through Right-wing populism. Though there is truth that populism flourished alt-Right politics, it is negligent to say that this is purely at the fault of the Right. The Left is just as responsible, and politically, just as populist. Populism is a staple in our global political language, but is a word often used in ignorance.

At a basic level, populism is defined as supporting the rights of the general population against the privileged elite. It is not bound by ideologies such as the desire to be stateless or the perceived hierarchical efficiency of authoritarianism. Populism cannot be placed on a political scale as it is a tactic, a device used by politicians to gain support. And it works. Due to populist politicians and their use of rhetoric, Europe, for example, is becoming more radically Right. Be that as it may, being populist does not negate to being extremist, and as the Right grow further alternative in the political spectrum due to populism, the Left too follows suit. Corbyn, The Five Stars Movement, Syrizia, are all populist and Left wing, and they too have helped further the alternative Right’s political agenda through rhetoric and persuasion. It is through populist rhetoric that narratives are made to entice we the masses and gather the support of the common man. But that’s the thing about narrative: it’s easy to manipulate.

Populist political rhetoric is used to further the politician’s pilgrimage to power. We are bombarded with alternative facts to suit a party’s attempt to gather support, often through fear. How many Nigel Farages, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pens have we been warned of as the Dons of Populist Rhetoric, constantly accused of scapegoating minorities and classes by filtering them all as the evil elite – be they immigrants, those on benefits, Muslims or everyone else in between? Though the intentions of alternative Right-wing populists are hardly saintly, they too are used as divisive tools by the populist Left. Leftist populists also use rhetoric in the same way to persuade the dissatisfied to see these pariahs as the proverbial political anti-Christs, and those of the Left believe them. Teams chosen, we preach for either the Left or the Right, and it is through this use of blind, ineffective, action that we have become divided and stagnant.

According to philosopher and prolific leftist Slavoj Žižek, our current political and capitalistic climate is a direct response to the disintegration of the Centre-Left, particularly over the past decade. The rise of the radical Right is the secondary countering phenomenon that followed the Centre-Left’s inability to adapt, and consequentially relate, to the needs of the ordinary person. Since the basis of populism is to better the general population, it is easy to connect the rise of the populist Right with the disengagement of the Left. Centre-Leftists were not resonating with the people, and, with the help of Leftist populist rhetoric, the people went against them, growing further Leftist themselves.

When taking into account the aftershock of the 2016 US elections and Brexit, two global catalysts that shifted modern international politics, fueled this migration away from the Centre-Left. Bernie Sanders’ political brand of social democracy and Jeremy Corbyn’s success in 2017 over the Tories in the snap election, are clear testaments of Leftist populism capturing the resolve of today’s young people –an overlooked demographic still feeling the repercussions of a devastating global recession. Sanders and Corbyn spoke to these young left-leaners, the future everyday man and woman, while Farage and Trump spoke to the older, working class, politically right-wing leaning. They listened and divides between the Left and Right deepened and widened.

Social divides work in favour of those in power, because it is easier to entice action against a common enemy. The catastrophe of post-Brexit Britain is a testament to this. For the likes of Brexiter politicians like Boris Johnson, the UK is a nation divided for political gain, all at the hefty cost of crippling an entire nation’s quality of life. 60% of people in the UK believe important domestic issues are being ignored due to the government’s failing dedication to Brexit. Since the referendum, police forces in both England and Wales reported that religious hate crimes rose to 80%, and racially motivated hate crimes to 55%. The economy is tanking, with a recent and damning visit by the UN finding that austerity has furthered poverty in the UK to embarrassing degrees. We do not hear of this over the media’s obsession with platforming politicians dedicated to keeping both their power and this divide strong. This is then made worse by our own individual crusades to preach our populist fueled beliefs to others about each other, and this obsession with hating the other side is getting worse.

Catagorising people into us and them is a dated form of common enemy politics. It plays to our archaic sense of tribalism, an evolutionary aspect of our humanity we’ve used to protect ourselves from our problems. It is why we stand with those with similar opinions to our own, why we are so ready to fight against those who threaten our own values. It helps to perpetuate socio-political divides, as it does not allow for perspective. Populism has modernised our human instinct and given it a politically current platform, but the truth is positive change through populism is possible. When petitioning the right for gay marriage in the United States in 2015, social activists used common humanity identity politics to highlight similarities over crucifying differences, and social reform happened. It wasn’t about alienating Left or Right-wingers, traditionalists or progressives, it was about inclusion to spear positive social change, and it worked.

Reform is possible through inclusion. By setting ourselves further into our political pigeon holes we strip ourselves of perspective. This has consequences. By siding with leftist populists we have stereotyped right-winged populists as the dreaded and ignorant ‘elites’. It no longer matters that ordinary men and women living and facing the same socio-economic problems disagree with each other. We have polarised ourselves into believing that anyone different from us is an ‘elitist’ themselves. By pitting ourselves against one another, the nature of elitism changes to simply mean ‘advantage’, be that a demographic, economic, class, race, gender or religion.

Both the Left and the Right utilise populism and populist rhetoric, to further social divides and political gains.  However, populism by itself is a thin-skinned political device. It needs power, direction and opposition to build momentum and create change. If we continue to divide and isolate ourselves, we run the risk of turning into something we cannot control. That future is not one we are unfamiliar with. We have forgotten the horror of the great populists: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. These men were lifted into power by the unhappy people they united through division. We must accept our roles in our current political minefield, not only the Right, but the Left too, so not to follow the footsteps towards a twisted authoritarian neo-fascist regime. Politics aside, we are people.

People, first and foremost.

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Julie-Ann Robertson

Julie-Ann Robertson is a mixed race Arab-South African writer, poet and video producer, who has written articles, essays, poetry, fiction and autobiographical pieces for several magazines and online platforms including The Squeeze, Head Talks, No Majesty and Dardishi Zine. You can examples of her work on her Instagram @jar8694