Should the left try to tap in the anger we see all around us? Or should we try to build a broad consensus across all sorts of political perspectives and restore a sense of normalcy? In Chantal Mouffe’s new book For a Left Populism, she argues that it’s much healthier for democracy to fight it out. Broadly put, the stakes are that if ordinary people don’t see the left taking their side in the fight against the establishment, they’ll turn to right-wing demagogues who offer harmful fixes. When it comes to the theory side of things (Mouffe is a theorist and the book is her latest intervention combining political theory with strategy) she gets it exactly right — we need to use and expand the language of democracy and equality to take on growing threats to both. However, I’m skeptical that the strategy of left populism can succeed without taking the fight far beyond the usual politics of elections.
It’s easy to see these days how highly-charged political debate is with emotion. It’s common to see outrage at migrants — or the treatment of migrants. Anger swirls around feminist and anti-racist causes. The response from politicians like Donald Trump has been to play into and stoke this anger through vicious and mindless attacks on the most vulnerable. In response, much of the political establishment has been calling for a sort of calm politeness — lauding the late John McCain as a figure of moderation is a good example of this. Decorum is seen as the antidote to the rage of many average people.
Mouffe argues that a flimsy, pretend consensus actually has the opposite effect of shutting down real debate, pushing it to the margins and handing over victories to the far-right. Instead of building confidence in establishment politicians, it reveals that they have more in common with each other than with their constituents. If progressive political movements want to win, they first need to demonstrate that they see the problems all around us. They need to offer real changes that seem credible and relevant to the lives of average people. Mouffe writes that “instead of seeing the populist moment only as a threat to democracy, it is urgent to realize that it also offers the opportunity for its radicalization.” I agree with her so far.
But what would a radical democratic politics look like? Mouffe points to people like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. They have been able to mobilize large numbers of people around platforms that call for radical reforms. They use the political institutions already in place (such as the presidential primaries or the Labour Party) to awaken ordinary people to the possibility of a progressive alternative. Mouffe also points to new radical left movements that have sprung up across Europe —from Spain’s Podemos to La France Insoumise. These movements have tended to focus on grassroots democracy to build radical programs for change. All the above have quickly taken major roles in national politics in their respective countries just by offering a solid alternative to the status quo. This is what excites Mouffe about their potential for renewing democracy.
The potential for left populism hinges on the credibility of its radical reforms. This is where I begin to get skeptical that the path Mouffe lays out will be quite so easy to walk. The first reason is corruption, which plagues Western democracies even when the leader of the “free world” isn’t a sleazy real estate developer who brags about bribery. It’s common for politicians to accuse each other of bending the rules in their favor. It’s routine to accuse your opponent of taking money from special interests or for trying to rig the process. This happens even in cases where the choices are relatively friendly to big business. What happens when a left-wing politician poses a credible threat to the wealthy? I would assume that the normal rules go out the window and almost anything is rationalized away to prevent truly radical reforms. To some extent, we saw this dynamic play out in Greece, where a left coalition’s proposals were essentially vetoed by international financial institutions.
The potential for left populism hinges on the credibility of its radical reforms.
Is Greece irrelevant because it is a small country? Supporters of Bernie Sanders have often pointed to the additional hurdles he faced trying to take on Hillary Clinton, including the partisanship of many supposedly independent officials. But the present American system has all sorts of mechanisms designed to avoid radical reforms — from tightening voting procedures to huge corporate cash to a monopolistic media environment to even the basic operation of the constitution. If left populist movements direct people’s energy towards elections, a lot of these elections are rigged in favor of more right-wing politicians. Progressive candidates face gerrymandered districts and increasing barriers to even getting people registered to vote. Even widely supported reforms like Medicare-for-All will be extremely difficult to push through the existing system. The threat here is that by motivating voters to participate in elections only to fail to deliver on promises of change, those voters simply become alienated from the process. It seems clear by now that alienation is a major factor in driving people to the radical right.
And this is to say nothing of the exceptional and oft-unchecked power of extra-governmental players: investors and big business. With trillions of dollars at stake, there are a lot of ways that investors can withdraw their support from governments, freezing up credit markets and crashing the economy if they suspect major changes. With capital increasingly concentrated in a small number of major financial institutions, supported by aggressive international financial markets, America would not be immune to this financial veto. Many poorer countries around the world have suffered this directly — with international institutions swooping in and forcing painful and foolish right-wing reforms. This kind of veto from financial markets could only be overridden by even more dramatic left-wing reforms. The sorts of proposals that left populist movements have been promising, then, are either more than they can deliver or less than they will be forced to engage in. When Bernie Sanders promises to break up the major banks, he will have to either concede defeat or take real control of the entire financial sector. To most of the establishment, the latter is unthinkable, which is why they either fear him or consider him foolish.
This is all to say that the mountain that left populists would have to climb is much taller than Chantal Mouffe seems to suggest. Her framework is very useful, and the book helps settle many smaller controversies in left-wing political theory. It’s also a good launching point for discussions of left strategy, as I’ve tried to suggest above. Insofar as we need a good model for the radicalization of democracy, this does nicely. The question is if democracy as it exists can truly be radicalized without becoming something else entirely. A left populism worthy of its name would not stabilize the existing institutions around us, but stretch them beyond their limits, breaking them and building a new politics based on radical democracy. That may be worth trying.