10. Januar 2017

All Politicians are Populists, Aren’t They? (Part 2)

New political parties have emerged in civilised societies that breathe populist rhetoric to influence voters. In his article, David Ehl addresses the effects of populist politics and what the media, politicians and the people can do to counter it. Here is my response.

A Comment by Francisca Schmidt


“We are dealing with fascism”, David Ehl quotes Jakob Augstein in his article For the people, against Populism, touching on an important but frequently unaddressed aspect in the debate surrounding populism. Are the populist politics that we see in established democracies today (i.e. U.S.A., Germany, Great Britain) even really populist? Or are they better described as downright fascist? Amidst this confounded nomenclature, the word populism needs to be discussed and reframed.


What is Populism And Who is a Populist?

David Ehl provides a definition for populism, citing the German Federal Agency for Civic Education. “Populism describes a policy that claims to be close to the people, playing on their emotions, prejudices and fears, and giving alleged easy and clear answers to complex political problems.However, he also notes that to a certain extent all politicians are populists. Why? Populism does not refer to political content or ideas. It is in fact an instrument that is used to express the content. How productive these ideas are is another matter, but rhetoric is often quite effective as 2016 has shown.


Populism as a Rhetorical Measure

David Ehl describes three consequences that populist rhetoric can accomplish: altering the discourse, emotionalizing issues and distorting topics. If populism is in fact a communicative, rhetorical measure employed by politicians of various parties to address an issue or to shed light on another topic entirely, it might not be correct to define an entire political party or person as populist. Behind the populist rhetoric, real issues are being addressed. This may be the reason why so-called populist parties or individuals have been gaining in the polls across Europe and the U.S.A.

The German journalist notes that the only responses to populist rhetoric are either that the opposing parties retreat or that they fight back (either with similar tactics or by attempting to reframe the issue themselves). While this may be true, populist rhetoric is often simply ignored: because of the oversimplification, emotionalisation and dramatisation of political and societal issues, that which is said in a populist manner is deemed as unworthy of a response by other parties (i.e. how many times could or should Hillary Clinton have reacted when Donald Trump called to “Drain the Swamp”?). While silence can be used in a strategic manner, the lack of response to issues that are addressed can also backfire if groups of people feel they are not being heard or if – perhaps even worse – no one disagrees with what the populist parties have said.


How to Combat Populist Rhetoric

In his article, David Ehl refers to the political scientist Peter Filzmaier who believes that the best strategies against populism are long-term and include strong content-oriented politics that can be objectively discussed. The problem with populist rhetoric is that it is often not factual or reasonable. In post-factual times, does it make sense to fight arguments or statements that border the irrational with solid, fact-based arguments? Is populism best addressed by answering the question it asks as Paul Taggart, Director of the Sussex European Institute, believes?

In his closing paragraphs, David Ehl offers advice on how the media, politicians and citizens can oppose populism. Ehl suggests that the media should be more transparent with its sources. Politicians should also check their sources and decide for themselves if they will use populism as an instrument to convey their ideas and beliefs. Agenda setting (and not just addressing pre-set topics) is also a way to control the narrative and give voters confidence that the issues they care about are being seriously deliberated. Citizens are called to double check politicians’ and parties’ comments: is the information true? Does everyone really feel this way? Is the answer to the problem really this easy, this black-and-white?

While Ehl provides sound advice, countering populist rhetoric is not so simple – too many people fail to check the facts. Just this week, the Chief Economist of the Bank of England admitted that the economic models concerning the aftermath of a Brexit vote failed to account for “irrational voting behaviour”. Brian Caplan speaks of the “Myth of the Rational Voter”. Given the complexity of the issues the world faces today, perhaps it is impossible to filter out the populist rhetoric. If all politicians are populists, do we stand a chance?


This article is part of our blog series with the aim at analysing the nature of populism in Europe. The series will be followed by an event on January 11th, 2017 in Berlin.

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180. Image source: „Pollice Verso„, Jean-Léon Gérôme, http://bit.ly/2iWpAqJ, lizensiert unter phxart.org : Gallery.


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