Does Populism Have a Political Spectrum?
Right-Wing Populism and Identitarian Populism Are Indistinguishable
To have paid attention to any political event in the UK or the US in the past 5yrs is to have witnessed an incomprehensible mesh of confused ideologies clash with levels of tribalism previously unseen in post-Second World War democracies. For a fleeting half-century from the end of that conflict, the political fault lines were relatively narrow across a spectrum of centre-Left to centre-Right, with more clearly defined societal issues to navigate. This competing tension was kept narrow for a reason: the worst excesses of drifting too far to the Right had laid Europe to waste up to 1945, while the worst excesses of drifting too far to the Left revealed themselves soon thereafter with the fall of the Iron Curtain and 'Cultural Revolution' in China.
Within this spectrum, crudely defined, the centre-Left served a purpose of guarding against the issue which had been at the root of the rise of vicious political regimes - of both extremes of the spectrum - in Europe through the 1920's and 1930's: promoting policies that prevented social discontent and ferment. Education for all, access to healthcare, fair and adequate pay, stable employment, better working conditions, food in the belly: the fundamentals for keeping demagogues from the door. The centre-Right served a purpose that had equal importance for a functioning democratic ship of state: a clear concept of the nation-state, without hubris of excessive nationalism, the need for stable and trusted institutions, laws, and a caution in viewing economic growth as a process of steady accumulation.
These competing tensions helped to keep the other in check. But each came with their own complications that respectively came home to roost. The centre-Left failed to balance the need for the welfare state with being held ransom to organised labour, presided over an increasingly stifling bureaucracy in administrations, and had no answers for stagflation. The centre-Right's response was to throw its previous constraint out the window, embrace free-market fundamentalism, abandon its commitment to public institutions, and get drunk on the intoxicating hubris that the fall of the Soviet Union offered conservatism, that the government was never here to help and the market would respond and cater to societies every need with a rising tide of paternalistic benevolence that raised all boats.
And in the face of this 'new Right', the past 30yrs has, to the detriment of society, been characterised by a salient political fact: the absence of a functioning political Left. Instead, what emerged was an awkward dichotomy: a political shift in formerly centre-Left parties to embracing neoliberal economic policies, abandoning the working class and historic class-based fault lines, and increasingly becoming parties of an urban, educated, cosmopolitan vote. These same sophisticated, urban, educated, voters largely identify as "progressive" and "liberal", buy Fairtrade coffee, and declare pronouns. They may even proudly state that they won't date Tories in their Hinge profile, and spend disproportionate amounts of time refining their social media verbiage to keep pace with the social justice zeitgeist. Ironically, they proudly vote for parties - Labour in the UK or the Democrats in the US - who resemble Left-of-centre politics about as much as Michael Jackson's theme park resembled a safe-haven for children: the reality was right there for us to see, we choose not to because we liked what we heard. The reality in this case is parties pursuing neoliberal policies, yet what people hear is overtures to the politics of identity.
This has generated, in turn, its own kickback from the modern Right, which has coined its own lexicon in the face of this confused opposition: "culture wars", "the radical Left", "the Woke", "Social Justice Warriors (SJWs)". But this reactionary rhetoric is itself confused, because it makes two fundamental diagnostic errors. The first is the idea that this movement is a political threat, when in reality it is largely confined to cultural opposition. This still poses a threat in the corporate world and in public institutions, but it isn't winning any elections. The second is that, if the mechanisms of this 'cultural Left' are scrutinised in detail, it becomes difficult to distinguish it from right-wing populism. A better term for it may be identitarian populism.
Nothing here is a new analysis. In 1996, physicist and Left-wing academic Alan Sokal of NYU wrote:
"Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We're witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful -- not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many "progressive'' or "leftist'' academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. I'm a leftist (and feminist) because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it. Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolize the intellectual high ground?”
We can go back even further to a quote from Nobel Prize winner Noam Chomsky in 1969:
"George Orwell once remarked that political thought, especially on the left, is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of fact hardly matters. That's true, unfortunately, and it's part of the reason that our society lacks a genuine, responsible, serious left-wing movement."
Whatever we have now - and irrespective whatever the decrepit modern Right wants to call it - this radical identitarianism is far from a functioning Left-of-centre political movement. In her excellent book, 'How to Lose a Country', Turkish journalist and writer Ece Temelkuran set out seven steps which have characterised the rise of right-wing populism she observed in her own country, and then watched spread to Europe and the US. The steps are as follows:
Create a Movement
Disrupt Rationale/Terrorise Language
Remove the Shame
Dismantle Judicial and Political Mechanisms
Design Your Own Citizen
Let Them Laugh at the Horror
Build Your Own Country
While these steps referred to right-wing populism, none of them are necessarily indistinguishable from the so-called "radical Left".
Create a Movement
This is central to both Right-wing and identitarian populism. A rhetoric of 'We' is used to fulfil a politics of 'I', and while the Right speaks of "the people", identitarian populism speaks on behalf of silos of identity, innumerate and oppressed. Both claim to be beyond politics and above institutions, self-proclaiming a moral high ground that it is politics and institutions themselves which must bend to the will of "the people/group A/intersection of Group A-M".
Both hold their critics to epistemic and ethical standards they have no interest in applying to themselves, and what they are really demanding is unquestioning silence and obedience. Both play "identity politics", and by making identity central to 'the struggle', are able to deflect criticism back onto the critic ["you're just a snowflake" (Right)/"you're just a racist" (Left)], rather than on the movement itself.
Disrupt Rationale/Terrorise Language
Nothing terrorises language more than identitarian populism, philosophically grounded as it is in 'Critical Theory'. 'Theory' has long been recognised by its opponents as the enemy of reason, as deliberately obfuscating and verbose, following in the well-established tactic of charlatans and religions of deliberately deploying obscurity to conceal the irrationality of their ideas.
Right-wing populism has aimed to infantilise political language and destroy reason: this is clearly a characteristic of identitarian populism. The dictionary continues to undergo a frontal assault, and every day we can be told a word that was benign yesterday is offensive and causes 'harm' today.
As Sokal highlighted, there is a difference between ideas and dialogue that is challenging because the subject matter is itself complex, and ideas and dialogue that is purposefully rendered obscure to hide the vacuity of the subject matter. To quote:
"As George Orwell noted a half-century ago in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, the main advantage of writing clearly is that your mistakes will be immediately apparent to everyone, including to yourself. By contrast, obfuscation poisons intellectual life and strengthens the facile anti-intellectualism that is already all too widespread in the general public."
Disrupting rationale and terrorising language is a modus operani for identitarian populism, not only to hide the banality and irrationality of the philosophical tenets of the movement, but because - rooted as the philosophy is in postmodern thought - language itself is power, and used to maintain power. Thus, the targeting of language is not a means to an end as it is for right-wing populism: it is the end in itself.
Remove the Shame
Both sides have become expert in creating alternate realities for their followers to immerse in. For the identitarian movement, this is expressly grounded in a philosophy which considers tools like science, empiricism, and rationality, merely other 'ways of knowing'. This is a philosophy where the goalposts are always shifting.
Those who value rationality are reduced to trying to defend truth, reason, and objectivity, against a movement which not merely chooses to dismiss the value of this epistemic framework, but actively seeks to dismantle and sees it as a threat. Consider this quote from Temelkuran, which was referring to Right-wing populism:
"Their mission is not to discuss or refute an argument, but to terrorise the communication space with unprecedented hostility and aggression, in order to force opposing ideas into retreat."
No single sentence could better encapsulate the behaviour of identitarian populism.
With identitarian populism, the terrorising of the communication space with hostility and aggression is inherently tied to terrorising language and disrupting rationale, as a Tweet from a decade ago with a word that was only this morning deemed offensive can result in a person's entire character and career being eviscerated by the mob.
While this movement may have little shame in its own hostility and aggression, its entire purpose is to inflict shame and guilt on to anyone who does not yield to the imposition of their dogma. To question their core tenets is confirmatory of your "complicity" in oppression. The shameless witch-hunts of identitarian populism know no bounds once intellectual honesty and epistemic humility have been sacrificed on the alter of moral purity.
Dismantle Judicial and Political Mechanisms
There is no doubt that the assault on democratic norms has come largely from the Right, particularly post-2008, and it is the Right that has held the keys to office. So there is only so far this comparison goes. However, if we consider the judiciary and political mechanisms as part of the institutions of state, then a particularly worrying analogous circumstance becomes evident: the attempts, increasingly successful in the US, to dismantle educational institutions and the workplace, and reassemble it on the basis of 'Critical Theory'.
Identitarian populism operates through forcing institutional knee-bending. Ironically given that this movement is comprised of urban, educated, cosmopolitan millennials and younger gens, they become the very thing they most hate: capitalist toys in a social justice sandpit. The very corporations they purport to detest are the ones flying the rainbow LGBTQ flag and gleefully adopting various displays of diversity. This is social justice as neoliberal voyeurism, but there is a dark side to this. Consider the case of the Google employee fired for responding to an email about why there are less women in the tech workforce with his opinions about why there are less women in the tech workforce. "Wrong answer buddy! Here is the door..."
It is especially pernicious in US education. Take the case of Kieran Bhattacharya, a medical student at the University of Virginia. Bhattacharya attended a panel debate about 'microaggressions', and raised his hand to engage with the presenter, which he did - respectfully, based on audio recordings from the lecture theatre. A university administrator in the audience decided, however, that his questions had been antagonistic and filed a complaint. What follows amounted to the university's administration gaslighting the student, mandating that he be psychologically evaluated before being allowed to return to classes. And, when the student's frustration did eventually boil over - questioning on whose authority he was being mandated to attend counselling - the university had him arrested and expelled from campus.
Bear in mind this is America in 2021, not Moscow in 1953. This is 'Social Justice' activism at work. At least, unlike in Soviet Russia, Bhattacharya has recourse to the courts - where he has pursued this case. The 'Critical Theorist' Alison Bailey calls questioning or critiquing the tenets of the dogma "privilege-preserving epistemic pushback", a blether means of saying that she/them are in possession of a truth, and should be able to teach the truth according to 'Critical Theory' unimpeded by opposition (and reality). Scrutinising the ideas is merely resistance, and resistance confirms that you act on behalf of the oppressors.
A stated goal of Social Justice activism, or identitarian populism, is the dismantling of society as we know it, from political systems to capitalism itself. It achieves this by refusing to submit its ideas to critique, brandishing anyone who dare question it a heretic, and forcing institutions to adopt - and teach - its theories. And the inroads it has made in the educational establishment should be of concern to anyone who values a rational society.
Design Your Own Citizen
Every movement designs its own model ideal, and whether far-Right or far-Left, there is a model ideal of the noble citizen and a model stereotype of the oppressor. For radical identitarianism, the oppressor is simple: 'cis-het White male'. Thus, skin colour, sexual orientation, and gender identification are combined into one monolithic identity responsible for all oppression of other identities.
While the Right tends to have an individual avatar of its ideal, the philosophical roots of radical identitarianism rejects the individual in favour of the identity of the group (or groups, as it happens). It then purports to speak on behalf of entire groups, as if, for example, "people of colour" represents one homogenous block of individuals who all see, think, feel, and experience the world in the exactly the same way. In the realms of radical identitarianism, there isn't an ideal citizen to be designed as much as ideal groups, and because of "intersectionality" there is no limit on what identities may be created. Anything but the 'cis-het White male' is to be reified.
As Temelkuran highlights, all that is needed is a cause, and a line drawn between those for the cause and those against it. Once that is present, empathy can be subsumed by antipathy, and our worst tendencies as H.Sapiens can be indulged.
Let Them Laugh at the Horror
This is the reality of the descent from civil engagement and debate to feral speech and tribalism, from empathy to antipathy. To quote Temelkuran:
"...we all know what happens when self-doubting intellect encounters ruthless, self-evident ignorance...ignorance then proudly pulls up a chair alongside members of the entire political spectrum and dedicates itself to dominating the table, elbowing everyone continually while demanding, 'Are you sure your arm was in the right place?' And the opposition finds itself having to bend out of shape to follow the new rules of the table in order to able to keep sitting there."
While this was written about Right-wing populism, it is indistinguishable from the characteristics of identitarian populism. Both sides are only capable of portraying the other in the most pejorative, strawman terms, a strategy of engagement no more than pointing and mockingly laughing. And while the laughter may give a veneer of solidarity from the side laughing and pointing, if you listen closely it sounds more like the nervous laughter of not knowing what comes out of this.
Build Your Own Country
George Orwell once remarked that:
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
We currently stand in a confused mess between Right-wing and identitarian populism, both of which have distorted concepts of history. Right-wing populism tends to indulge in narrative fantasies of a bygone time, when men were apparently men and there were only two genders. Conversely, identitarian populism wants to rewrite the entire history book according to its moral code of today. Facts are whatever you want them to be, and to have been. And the stated, open aim of 'Critical Theory' is to "deconstruct" society. The problem is that what it may construct from the rubble is far more disturbing that the current status quo.
While not every step here is entirely analogous, within each is a comparable characteristic in identitarian populism that has been identified in Right-wing populism. Maybe it is simply that populism doesn't have a side of the political divide. Indeed, a salient feature is that these movements exhibit similar characteristics, but are notably devoid of real policy agendas that would address the respective grievances that each side has.
Of course, there is an issue with the term populism itself, as Temelkuran highlights, in that it conceals "the ideological content of the movements in question, and ignores the troubling question of the shady desire to melt I into we." The reality is that both are extremes are the spinoff of democracy's failings.
Echoing Sokal, we should be able to build a better society because of evidence, not in spite of it. Populism in both forms poses a threat to that end, one which warrants real attention being paid to both, to ensure I doesn't melt into We, the implication of which is always a Them to be scapegoated for societies afflictions.
And history tells us that does not play out well for democracies.