27. April 2020

Progressives versus populists: the divided society

In his 1992 essay The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argues that liberal democracy is the most flawless and therefore final form of national government. As we know today, history did not end in the 1990s and things took a turn for the worse.

A Comment by Luisa Kern and Lukas Hochscheidt


In recent years, liberal democracies have been under threat, even in the US and the European Union. The Covid19 pandemic has shaken things up: so far, it is not possible to properly evaluate or even foresee all the long-term socio-economic and political consequences that this unprecedented crisis will bring.

Given the momentum populist movements enjoyed in the years before Corona, there is little hope that the global economic downturn to come will change the situation for the better. In fact, the rise of populism and the dawn of Covid19 could mutually reinforce each other: populists in power already try to instrumentalise the crisis for their own purpose (i.e. in Brazil, Mexico, the USA, and Poland). The crisis and its upheavals further provide ground to exploit for the populist narrative. 

In fact, the overcoming of the Covid19 pandemic will not be a remedy to preceding problems deeply rooted in the DNA of Western countries. Populism was a serious threat to liberal democracy before Corona, and will remain so in its aftermath. Thus, we must deal with the root cause: there is a shift in electoral behavior rooted in an increasing dissatisfaction with mainstream politics, a huge lack of trust in political institutions, and a revival of extreme views of all kinds. 

Major parties are declining, while demagogues and populists are rising. With nationalism becoming more and more fashionable, solidarity and cohesion between EU Member States are at risk. In the light of the global dimension of the current pandemic, we should be all the more cautious in this regard. 


Macron and the good versus bad divide

In March 2019, shortly before the European Parliament elections, French President Macron launched an appeal addressed at the ‘citizens of Europe’, in which he warned of the ‘danger’ Europe faces. According to Macron, the danger lies in the destructive power of disinformation and manipulation as well as in the ‘trap of nationalism’. 

While he also criticised those who refuse any change to the economic and political status quo, his main focus lay on the eurosceptics standing in the way of those who want to bring the European project forward – the progressives. Even though distinguishing between nationalists (eurosceptics, “fear mongers” etc.) and progressives is understandable, it quickly leads to artificially constructing a good versus bad divide. Singling out culprits can be harmful and create further conflict, mainly due to three reasons.  


Victimisation, marginalisation, illegitimate polarisation 

First of all, this kind of discourse allows populist parties to exploit it for publicity and position themselves as victims that are ostracised by the ‘progressive block’. A good example for this is the reaction following the refusal of the members of the German parliament to elect a candidate of the right-wing AfD as vice-president of the Bundestag. 

Such events lay the groundwork for populist parties to be able to argue to their followers that they are the ones under attack for simply ‘calling a spade a spade’ and disregarding political correctness. 

Second, this further antagonises and also marginalises those that disagree with liberal progressives and feel left behind, but are not necessarily voters of populist parties. The gilets jaunes movement in France exemplifies this (Rucht 2019). Some may think that their worries are not taken seriously or that they are not well-represented by those in power.

Third, this construction is an expression of black and white thinking. However, in politics as well as in life, there are many grey areas, that cannot be reduced or simplified that easily. Such discourse leads to (unintentional) vilifying of political opponents and further hardens political discourse. Necessary, controversial democratic debate is basically ruled out. Macron’s letter is but one recent example of this type of argument. 

The problem with this type of two-camp thinking is that it divides society into those who are committed to liberal democracy and those who are not. Eventually, this leads to mutual distrust and lower social cohesion. 


The alternative = democratic cleavages

Polarisation of public discourse is not a bad thing per se. Conducted in a good manner, a polarised social debate can be incredibly useful to spur participation and even seems to be the precondition of a pluralist society. Only if lines of conflict are clearly defined, can diverging interests become visible and parties are able to raise awareness for their cause. 

This is crucial because democracy relies on the freedom to choose between different options. From a democratic point of view, mainstream ‘there-is-no-alternative’ politics is nothing but a dead end. Hence, instead of dividing people into ‘good’ liberals and ‘bad’ populists, we must conceive lines of conflict that reflect democratic cleavages: labour versus capital, free markets versus economic protectionism, redistributive versus conservative policies. 

Typically, discursive ‘cleavages’ pick up materially existing divides to construct a political narrative. In this regard, the liberal versus populist cleavage is no exception: public opinion is more and more divided regarding its approval of liberal democracy (cf. J-W. Müller 2016; Mounk 2018; H. Müller 2017). However, this empirical trend must not lead us to hasty conclusions. It is up to the agents of the public sphere – policy makers, intellectuals, the media, civil society representatives – to explain this trend. 

Framing the declining approval of liberal democracy by saying that our societies are facing a ‘cultural war’ is certainly of very little help. In this context, Lipset and Rokkan argue that “systems will come under much heavier strain if the main lines of cleavage are over morals and the nature of human destiny than if they concern […] the prices of commodities […] and the ownership of property” (Lipset/Rokkan 1990: para. 1).  


Tackling the root causes

What the agents of the public sphere need to do is to explain where this lack of trust in democracy actually stems from. The rise of populist rhetoric must be framed as the symptom rather than the cause of polarisation. The ‘root causes’ of the increasing social divide lie in economic inequalities, regional disparities, and unequal opportunities starting with early childhood education. 

Thus, instead of focusing on this good versus bad divide, it would be more adequate to bring the different societal groups together and make concerted efforts to alleviate some of the most pressing inequalities. In the end, European democracy has to make good on the promise of social convergence – during the Covid19 pandemic and in the time after the crisis.



Polarisation” is a blog-series where our members look at Europe’s societies of today and analyse whether the elections of 2019 represent an increase of political polarisation.

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image via unsplash 


Luisa and Lukas are Political Science students at Sciences Po Paris and Freie Universität Berlin. Since 2019, they are project managers of the Polis180-Podcast Brüsseler Bahnhof. Besides studying and podcasting, Luisa is a program assistant at a Berlin based foreign policy think tank and Lukas is working in the field of European trade union policy.


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