Are we witnessing the emergence of a Post-Spectrum Politics? (Or has it been so all along?)
What with all of the fallout of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, it might be easy to forget that the U.S. intends to elect a President this November. At this point, it seems almost guaranteed that the matchup will be between the incumbent, President Donald Trump, and former Vice President Joe Biden. This is noteworthy in many ways, one of which being that this election, similarly to 2016, could easily be painted not only as the Democrat versus the Republican, but also as the Establishment candidate versus the Populist one; given that the President, a supposed outsider interested in “draining the swamp,” portrayed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an establishment elite in 2016, one can easily imagine Trump adopting similar tactics in a race against the longtime Senator and former VP.
This dynamic calls attention to populism, that increasingly popular word, and begs the question of just how it is affecting our politics. Despite its popularity, populism as a word is notoriously difficult to define. However, University of Georgia professor Cas Mudde highlights that “populists are dividers, not uniters.” Mudde explains that this division is between “the pure people on one end and the corrupt elite on the other.” Similarly, Columbia University professor Nadia Urbinati also “argues that populist content is ‘made of negatives’ — whether it is anti-politics, anti-intellectualism, or anti-elite.” In other words, populists generally stand against some group of purported insiders that has heretofore dominated society at the expense of the “true” people.
Numerous contemporary political figures around the world are adopting this tactic with a nationalistic flair: President Trump talks about building a Mexican-border wall and leaving NATO, both in order to “Make America Great Again;” Italy’s Matteo Salvini and his Lega party have promised to “deport 500,000 ‘illegal immigrants’” and have pushed for Italy to follow the UK out the door from the EU; and France’s Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National, or National Rally, has been labeled as “racist,” “xenophobic,” and “far-right” for her views on immigration and other matters. In each of these examples, the figure in question combines rhetoric about standing against external threat with promises to restore the “true” Americans, Italians, or French to their proper place in society.
Now, classifications of Le Pen and her party as far-right are not uncommon; indeed, professor Mudde affirms that “most successful populists today are on the right, particularly the radical right.” Yet, on further examination of cases in France, Italy, and the U.S., it is seen that a number of contemporary populists, rather than fitting squarely into one end or the other of the left-right political spectrum, instead blend policies and voters from the disparate ends of the spectrum, calling into question the utility of this traditional understanding of the spectrum. From this context of populism, then, there emerges a new style of political classification, a “post-spectrum politics,” so to speak — one defined not by what one stands for, but by whom one stands against.
In discussing the French case, Gavin Mortimer posits for Spectator USA that the supposedly far-right National Rally’s “Le Pen has always been left-wing economically.” This would seem to contrast with her sentiments against illegal immigration, for example, which would typically be considered right-wing. However, even this nationalist attitude could arguably be traced back to her left-leaning economic values. In an interview for NPR’s Morning Edition, Mikael Sala, an adviser to Le Pen during her 2017 presidential campaign, argued that the issues of unsustainable immigration into France and the country’s stagnant economy can be viewed as one and the same, claiming that “an important proportion of the immigrant population is not working… [b]ecause there are no jobs left.” The solution, according to Sala and Le Pen, is a reduction in immigration. Seen in this light, the traditionally leftist desire for government intervention to reinvigorate a struggling economy dovetails with far-right anti-immigration sentiments. Now, it should not be ignored, neither here nor throughout, that anti-immigration policies and politicians often seem to have ulterior motives, using arguments like Sala’s to defend against and divert attention away from an underpinning racism. It should not, then, be assumed that Le Pen and her adviser do not possibly fall under this category; indeed, Arthur Goldhammer, in his piece, “Explaining the Rise of the Front National: Political Rhetoric or Cultural Insecurity?” observes that, “[i]nstead of denouncing ‘cosmopolitan,’ ‘stateless’ elites as her father [former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen] did, Marine… attacks the ‘globalized hyperclass,’ avoiding the anti-Semitic connotation of” some of her father’s attacks and potentially disguising racist undertones. However, the point stands that, regardless of motivation, Le Pen succeeds at meshing policies that normally would be considered to exist on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
The Italian cases of populism and pushing the boundaries of the traditional political spectrum are even more intriguing. For one, any discussion of Italian populism would be remiss to exclude the Five Star Movement, commonly referred to as M5S from its name in Italian. A movement with a unique history, M5S began as a comedian’s blog in 2005, yet has escalated to a political party that claimed the keys to the cities of Turin and Rome in 2016, and won more seats in Parliament than any other party in the general election of 2018. European political researcher Arthur Borriello makes clear that populism is alive and well in the rhetoric of M5S. Borriello claims that the movement owes their success to their creating a perception of “a conflict between ‘honest citizens’ on one hand, and ‘political and economic’ elites of all stripes on the other, depicted as an undifferentiated and corrupt group.” This is exactly that type of oppositional rhetoric that is indicative of populism. Borriello also points out that M5S campaigns on policies that range from those considered “classically left,” such as ones benefiting the environment, to “openly right-wing themes” like Euroscepticism. It is important to understand, as Borriello also notes, that this brand of policies favored by M5S encapsulate “themes abandoned by other political forces, but which resonate strongly with the electorate.” What Borriello is saying is that these simultaneous partialities to saving the planet and leaving the EU, despite seemingly existing on opposite ends of the political spectrum, are sincerely held not only by the elected M5S officials, but by seemingly-forgotten (whether or not they were forgotten matters not, but only that they felt so) members of the electorate itself. This is important because it demonstrates that these shortcomings of the commonly understood political spectrum may be starting from the bottom of the political food chain and working their way up, rather than being instigated by those already in power and working their way down. In other words, populism and post-spectrum politics may well and truly be of the people. This all, keep in mind, is to say nothing of of the nationalistic populism of Matteo Salvini and his onetime-separatist Lega Nord (“Northern League”) party, or the spectrum-straddling neo-fascist CasaPound movement that has resonated with a number of Italians in the last two decades.
Back in the States, Donald Trump’s nationalistic populism has also exposed and even exploited the frailties of the left-right spectrum. A textbook example of nationalistic populism, the President’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” resonates deeply with many who feel that the political elite and other supposedly negative forces within and against the U.S. have caused the nation to deteriorate. Interestingly, despite the President’s identification as a Republican, he didn’t receive all of his electoral support from the right four years ago. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall notes that “[a]bout 10 to 12 percent of Sanders’s 2016 primary voters cast ballots for Trump in the general election.” This certainly seems surprising, given how incongruous many of the two candidates’ political views are; for one, as was referenced earlier, Sanders supports a “Medicare-for-All” system, while Trump has voiced a desire to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a precursor to Sanders’ plan. Edsall quotes political scientist Brian Schaffner as having said that “[a] lot of people underestimated just how much of Sanders’s support in 2016 was an anti-Clinton vote, and now that he’s not running against Clinton, those voters aren’t backing him anymore.” Edsall speculates at why these voters may have made this jump, citing “Clinton’s perceived elitism, her ties to Wall Street, her social liberalism and the fact that she is a woman” as likely culprits. Any one of these concerns could have easily driven voters to Trump, especially given his resoundingly anti-elitist and traditionalist values and rhetoric. Once again, then, it is seen that the traditional left-right spectrum is contorted by populism.
These frailties and shortcomings of the left-right political spectrum are, if we’re honest, nothing new. Writing on the shortcomings of the traditional spectrum, Crispin Sartwell exposes how the common understandings of left and right today are much less coherent than many might like to admit. The modern right, as characterized by Sartwell, is an umbrella that is understood to simultaneously include, among other groups, “the Nazi Party… [and] Ayn Rand capitalists.” The contrast between these two groups — supporters of a totalitarian dictatorship and proponents of a laissez-faire economic theory — is stark. Similarly, “anti-globalization activists… and advocates of a world government” have both been construed to occupy the left. Clearly, the catch-all umbrellas of “left” and “right” already do not do much to clarify one’s political sentiments. And let us ask — why should a binary political understanding be useful in the first place? Attempting to classify most political beliefs within a dichotomy, even when allowing that dichotomy to exist as a continuous spectrum, is reductionist, doing little justice to the human capacity to create unique solutions to complex problems. Put simply, there are more than two ways to skin a cat.
Conversely, Sartwell points out that there have been a plethora of popular political movements and movers that have transcended the traditional political spectrum, citing “such figures as Lucretia Mott, Henry David Thoreau, and William Lloyd Garrison, who articulated perfectly coherent positions that cannot possibly be characterized as on the left or the right.” I would also direct the reader’s attention to the Puerto Rican New Progressive Party, whose primary platform is statehood for the island, and whose base includes both Democrats and Republicans; and to Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party on the Irish island, whose advocations may not fall neatly on either the right or the left, notwithstanding the fact that most of their respective supporters identify more with one end of the spectrum than the other.
So, rather than the traditional framework of a candidate running on what they stand for within the recognized political spectrum, this new post-spectrum politics seems to be founded primarily upon antagonism — on whom one stands against. This is right in line with Columbia professor Urbinati’s portrayal of populism as being “made of negatives”: being defined by what it opposes. The American example of Sanders voters jumping to Trump out of a desire to vote against Clinton clearly exposes this dominant characteristic of post-spectrum politics. This antagonism, too, is nothing new. French political scientist Nonna Mayer observes in her paper, “Why Extremes Don’t Meet: Le Pen and Besancenot Voters in the 2007 French Presidential Election,” that Jean-Marie’s National Front, the predecessor to Marine’s National Rally, “was a complete failure until the Socialists won the 1981 elections and called four Communist ministers into the government, which radicalized part of the right-wing electorate.” Apparently, while certain voters may not have been entirely motivated to vote pro-right, they were certainly eager to vote anti-left. Additionally, this antagonistic politics can clearly be seen in the overarching nationalist and anti-immigration sentiments held by most of the populist figures and groups mentioned up to this point. From Marine Le Pen’s economic qualms with immigration to Salvini’s promise to deport half a million immigrants to President Trump’s controversial “Muslim ban,” many populist figures have struck a powerful chord with voters on the subject of immigration. Why these anti-immigration sentiments are so effective in the contemporary political climate is a topic for a separate discussion. What is certain, however, is that a great deal of those who vote for populist candidates seem to be voting primarily against immigrants and other supposedly negative influences, more than they are voting for any particular candidate or policy.
It is, of course, important to address some potential shortcomings of these arguments. For one, the examples being used to demonstrate that both politicians and voters are expressing sentiments that transcend the traditional left-right political spectrum could easily be classified as “radical,” particularly Le Pen and her National Rally in France. To be sure, a group characterized as “radical” is so identified because it stands apart from the sentiments of most citizens, and as such would not typically be representative of the overarching political climate in any nation. However, it cannot be disputed that Donald Trump, the M5S, and even Marine Le Pen all enjoyed widespread support in free and open democratic elections in their respective nations. So, while these movements and movers are so readily classified as “radical,” enough people have supported them that it may be worth questioning the system that classified them as “radical” in the first place. One might also accuse these arguments of supporting the oft-criticized “Horseshoe theory” of Jean-Pierre Faye. It must be said, though, that connections truly can be drawn in the sentiments and habits of those on the far-right and the far-left — but, at times, less in terms of policies and more in terms of motivations. In her assessment of the 2007 French presidential elections, Mayer observes that, when made to place themselves on the left-right political spectrum, “sixty-two percent of the [far-left] Besancenot voters and 56 percent of the [far-right Jean-Marie] Le Pen voters” self-identified as “neither right- nor left-wing.” While Mayer, in her piece, ultimately challenges the notion that far-left and far-right approach each other, it cannot be ignored that more than half of these “radical” voters were united in desiring something that they found neither on the left nor the right. Fast forward ten years and observe that 37% of first-round voters who identified as “neither-nor” went for Marine Le Pen; eventual President Emmanuel Macron claimed the next-biggest share of this neither-nor group — 17% — for a total of 54% of the bloc going for the two candidates who emerged from the election’s first round.
In light of the surprise result of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, it would be foolish to try and predict here the outcome of the anticipated faceoff between Trump and Biden this November. However, gaining a deeper understanding of the qualities and rhetoric of Trump that attracted voters to him in such an unexpected way in 2016 can help to paint a clearer picture of what to expect now in 2020 — one that hopefully doesn’t catch the U.S. nearly as off guard as many found themselves four years ago. At the very least, it should help to interpret the results once they are in. Certainly, Trump’s populist tactics were extremely impactful in 2016, and it is fairly safe to expect them to come into play again. Given the current political climate, one can surely expect that many of the ballots cast, for Trump as well as for Biden, will not be a vote for either candidate as much as they are a vote against the other.