Who’s afraid of populism?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


The recent clamour in Germany for a ban on a right-wing populist party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has once again thrust the question of populism and democracy centre stage. With polls showing support for AfD at an all-time high, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that ‘enemies’ of democracy could soon erode Germans’ freedoms and ‘brutalise’ society. ‘We all have it in our hands to put those who despise our democracy in their place’, he warned, ominously.

However, since Plato argued that excessive freedom leads to mass ignorance, hysteria and, ultimately, tyranny, it has been Western cultural and political elites themselves that have often been driven by a sense of mistrust or even hostility towards democracy and the people. No doubt such fears are accentuated by populist parties being voted into power in Finland, Italy, Hungary, Sweden and more. The latest anxieties centre on Net Zero as the focus of the next big populist revolt. Liberal opinion frets that ‘green policies are the new Brexit’ and suspiciously eyes new rural-metropolitan divides, for example, as expressed by the Dutch Farmer Citizen Movement.

Pragmatically, it can be convenient for mainstream politicians, especially on the left, to use the populist label to discredit grassroots opposition by denouncing the likes of protesters against London’s ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) as alt-right conspiracy-mongers. But mainstream free-market conservatives can be equally ill at ease, for example with popular hostility to migration or globalism and can wince at expressions of old-fashioned socially conservative attitudes to family and working-class community norms.

‘Never Trump’ anti-populist Republicans have been as keen as liberal-minded Democrats to distance themselves from the tens of millions of ‘deplorables’ who have helped singing Virginia farmer Oliver Anthony’s song ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ become an overnight viral success. In the UK, Singapore-On-Thames Vote Leave politicians’ seem to have conflicting priorities with those Red Wall Brexiteers, who demand British jobs for British workers.

Do erstwhile socially conservative populists such as Sohrab Ahmari have a point when they say populism must take a leftwards turn and address economic transformation? Perhaps populism is in fact less of an ally of conservatism, than the force of revenge against nominally conservative parties that bought into a liberal, elitist agenda. But does this reactive aspect to populism limit its ability for forge a new political movement?

If populism is worth embracing as offering a voice for people, how can it provide a genuine alternative to the politics of technocratic governance? With many populists fixated on cultural battles, is there a danger of simply mimicking the narrow identitarian outlook of progressives, in this context transferring a sense of victimhood to the lives of the masses? And how can we move beyond populism being defined in the public eye by its detractors?

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
chair, Freiblickinstitut e.V; CEO, Sprachkunst36; author, Off-centre: how party consensus undermines our democracy; Germany correspondent, spiked

Lord David Frost
member of the House of Lords

Tim Montgomerie
conservative journalist; founder, ConservativeHome, UnHerd and Centre for Social Justice

Jacob Reynolds
head of policy, MCC Brussels; associate fellow, Academy of Ideas

Freddie Sayers
editor-in-chief, UnHerd; former editor-in-chief, YouGov; founder, PoliticsHome

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question