In Defense of Populism


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In his end of year review Sunday Business Post political editor Pat Leahy described Sinn Féin’s opposition to austerity in 2012 as ‘aggressive and populist’.

His description is one that has a broad currency among political commentators.

The charge of populism is rarely complimentary. It suggests a politics of pandering to the people irrespective of the costs. It pits popularity against wisdom and short-term political gain against long-term social and economic sustainability.

When used in this sense populism is viewed as a cynical and dishonest style of politics. It seeks to manipulate public opinion by playing to its desires and emotions. In doing so it reveals a less than full commitment to democratic norms.

Populism is, according to this account, about the pursuit of power for powers sake. At best it is foolish. At worst it is reckless.

Given that populism has such a negative connotation you would expect the rest of this column to argue against Pat’s description of Sinn Féin.

But no, he is right. Sinn Féin’s entire political project, including our opposition to austerity, is populist, and unashamedly so.

Where Pat is wrong is in his understanding of populism.

The unflattering sketch of populism outlined above is based on an unstated prejudice. It betrays a worldview that is deeply distrustful of popular opinion, and the ability of people to know what is in their own best interests.

It pits the rationality and expertise of the technocrat against the irrationality and gullibility of public opinion. And it views politics as the management of short-term public desires in accordance with long-term technocratic wisdom.

This way of thinking about politics has become increasingly dominant in recent years, particularly across the European Union. It is elitist, technocratic and distrustful of the people. It is also now in a deep crisis.

And it is here that the real problem with populism is to be found.

Populism is not an ideology nor is it a project as such. It is a way of doing politics. It seeks to mobilise disparate social actors by linking their individuals concerns into a single coherent popular movement.

In doing so it asserts that these individual demands cannot be met within the parameters of the existing order. Their resolution demands a level of systemic change not available within the existing rules of the game.

It pits the people against an elite. It values the wisdom of ordinary women and men over the technical knowledge of the expert. Its politics is expansive and participative, not restricted to the world of professional politicians and their well-paid advisors.

Populism can be progressive or reactionary. It can be democratic or authoritarian. But it is always a challenge to the status quo and is most powerful when a political or economic system is in crisis.

The defining feature of populism is that it seeks to restore the primacy of the people as the foundation of any democratic society and in doing so empower the people to shape that democracy in accordance with their needs and desires.

Political theorist Ernesto Laclau is right when he says that populism is subversive of the existing order of things and the starting point for radical reconstruction of a new order.

The economic and social crisis that has gripped Ireland and the wider world since 2008 has shaken the status quo. Politics has been discredited. People are angry. Their trust has been broken. They no longer believe that the political system has the will or the capacity to respond to their legitimate demands. And they are right.

It is to these people that Sinn Féin speaks. We are trying to convince those most aggrieved by the failure of politics that their concerns can be met, but only if they come together in a truly national popular movement for social, economic and political change.

We seek to mobilise these people in opposition to the corruption and mismanagement of the political elite and their coterie of senior civil servants, bankers and developers who together have done so much damage to our society.

But more than this we seek to mobilise in support of a New Republic in which popular sovereignty is restored and political and economic power returned to where it rightly belongs, in the hands of the people.

In this sense Sinn Féin’s political project is truly populist, but a populism that is democratic, egalitarian and progressive.

And it is this, more than anything else that so troubles those who continue to believe that our broken political system is not yet beyond redemption.

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10 Responses

  1. darren o connor

    January 3, 2013 12:26 pm

    i am all about a fair society its vunerable people of our society that are suffering and bankers, devoloper that are gettin away with murder please change the face of politics for a fairer society

  2. Niall Devlin

    January 3, 2013 1:11 pm

    I certainly agree to an extent. Populism is a political tool and also, simultaneously, a social, political and economic shift in which a movement in many cases is formed and is widely agreed to be popular. This is not its definition however. It is only my personal take on it. The true meaning of this term is far more fluid and far more debatable than anyone may think. Of course i may well be wrong in my above meaning of populism, but i want to make it clear that i think no one person or group can possibly claim that their definition is the correct one, which is what Pat Leahy is attempted to do and clearly for his own political purposes, which are barely hidden on his part.

    What i think your mistake is Eoin, and in fairness there isnt alot, is that although you start by implying that Pat cannot possibly attempt to formulate the game, set and match definition of Populism for himself, perhaps because simply you either may believe that nobody may have the right to do so or maybe even because you may think it allows Pat Leahy too much political clout. Whatever the reason may be, it doesnt really matter. The implication is correct in my view. But then, you say that your own definition is correct and then reinforce it with the opinion of the political theorist Ernesto Laclau, exclaiming that his definition is “right”. Isn’t the entire point of being a political theorist, to put forward ‘theory’.

    Of course i largely agree with what you’re saying about Sinn Féin’s message. They will be described as populist in the future by many commentators and writers no doubt, but as you say why should they be afraid of it. Indeed its neither good nor bad depending upon the circumstances of the particular ‘populist’ force in question. Indeed also, it’s self evident that a force that is ‘populist’ need not worry about accusations of being so, because of course it is decidedly much better to be accused of being populist than say perhaps a fringe group, or even an opposition/coalition partner bound party for that matter.

    So i would agree on the fundamentals of what your message is. The definition of populism is neither here nor there. It all depends on what is done with the unique power bestowed upon said entity once the ‘populist’ mantle is placed upon it and for the future, at least, we should have hope. After all what else have we left..

  3. Paul

    January 3, 2013 2:38 pm

    Populism challenges not only the expertise of the technocrat which is controlled by vested interests of the status quo and can only succeed when it wrests that expertise from these vested interests. The Third Way creates the myth that populism is winning that struggle when the reality is that vested interests are resisting that confrontation. There are signs in the Nordic countries for example that democratic populism is winning. I t will however be a slow battle.

  4. LeftAtTheCross

    January 3, 2013 3:02 pm

    “The unflattering sketch of populism outlined above is based on an unstated prejudice. It betrays a worldview that is deeply distrustful of popular opinion, and the ability of people to know what is in their own best interests.”

    I would strongly disagree with this statement. The problem with populism is that it follows rather than leads public opinion, and refuses to acknowledge that public opinion is not formed in a vacuum which is devoid of ideological contamination. Public opinion is formed largely by elite interests, the corporate sector, the church, the professions, the political class themselves, and is fed to the public via the mainstream broadcast media. By following public opinion populists implicitly acknowledge the hegemony of those interests and the validity of their narrative.

    Not trying to score cheap points here, but the point has to be made, that following a populist approach leads to the silly situation where in one jurisdiction there are SF representatives aligning themselves with good ole local boys like Seán Quinn who “provides jobs” in Fermanagh, while at the same time in the other jurisdiction the SF TDs spout left-sounding rhetoric about bankers and developers being the bad guys. I don’t want to make too much of one particular instance but it does point out the dangers of pandering to popular sentiment exclusively in the absense of a guiding ideological compass. Populism is buttering all sides of the bread, whatever you’re having yourself. Attempting to wrap it up as a principled strategy just doesn’t stand up.

    Of course having principles and no popular support is just as useless as it’s polar opposite. Realpolitik is not a bad thing. But the dangers must be recognised, it must be used if at all in a highly qualified and managed context, the tail should not wag the dog. It’s a floodgate and there are plenty of examples where it went wrong in the past.

  5. Branno\'s ultra-left t-shirt

    January 3, 2013 4:42 pm

    Sinn Féin’s support for Sean Quinn in Fermanagh is not entirely about populism and local opinion. There were strong links between Sean and Peter Quinn and the Provisional republican movement over the years and they are too important to be simply dumped. The former SF councillor in Wexford referred to this a while back but nobody seems to have followed up on it.

  6. LeftAtTheCross

    January 3, 2013 5:17 pm

    Again, the Seán Quinn issue is just a tangent so it would derail the main point to go there in more detail.

    Another example might be the issue of taxation. In one jurisdiction SF make noises about reducing corporation tax as a lever to encourage financialisation of the NI economy in the hope of following the ‘economic miracle’ of the IFSC in the other jurisdiction. While in the Dáil the SF TDs convey a broadly social democratic message which is critical of the financial and corporate sector. It breeds cynicism, say one thing on the opposition benches, adopt opposing positions when in government. It’s exactly the type of politics as practised by FF, FG and the LP, court the popular vote when in opposition and as soon as they become elected they defer in favour of the power elites who continue to run things to their own agenda. There’s nothing whatsoever radical in it at all.

  7. Niall Devlin

    January 3, 2013 7:42 pm

    Once again I return to the point I made sirs. Who conjures up the definitive description of populism as either final good or bad thing? Or better yet, who has the right to? We all do I expect, but this means that there is no solid or factual definition of populism in general.

    One populist movement in one nation may differ in effectivity and celebrated popular opinion from one in another nation. So why do we constantly argue over whether over all its ethical or not. It’s just a political norm that happens, usually in crisis. It could either a terrible thing with brutal consequences or a wonderful thing with terrific consequences. The definition is fluid and the temporary solid examples of good or bad I largely based upon the popularity and ability, or inability, for a group or leader to govern well. We can try to predict the future, but usually that’s an exercise in futility unless the future s glaring obvious.

    As for SF’s take on tax and in particular corporation tax and its difference between north and south, isn’t an intended betrayal, but rather a adaptation to the circumstances, and the needs of the two economies. For example in the north, there is a pitiful private sector and in order to create wealth quicker (undoubtedly faster than the public sector can) you need to attract investment. As you say they are attracting “financialisation”, meaning the creation of a financial sector which is useful and has a lot of benefits, however whether in the future the financial services sector behaves badly and requires punishment tighter control in the north to correct itself, such as what needs to happen in the republic, and what SF are calling for, then I’m sure the party would call for it just as much as it is the republic. It’s not an incremental flaw for financial sectors to function badly but it is a possible one and seems to me the party is prepared for it, never mind populism..

  8. John Goodwillie

    January 3, 2013 11:21 pm

    What worries me about Eoin’s article is that he cannot see anything in populism to criticise. Does he really see nothing wrong in sacrificing some short-term popularity in the interests of “long-term social and economic sustainability”? Does he see nothing wrong in manipulating public opinion? Does he not think that people with technical knowledge have a duty to point out things that ordinary people may not realise? Does he not see the danger in praising a philosophy which can be “progressive or reactionary … democratic or authoritarian”? Does he not see that a “radical reconstruction of a new order” requires some deeper principle than following the “people” as opposed to some non-people that he does not clearly define? If your only definition of the “people” is those who are not the elite, how can you avoid allying yourself with elite groups who disguise themselves as part of the “people”, as LeftAtTheCross suggests?

  9. D

    January 4, 2013 4:10 pm

    While I think Eoin is correct that populism can be progressive, the problem is that it lacks ideological or economic content – just like Sinn Fein – which is why perhaps he doesn’t mind accepting the charge. Sinn Fein’s populism primarily reflects their political opportunism (grounded in the absence of revolutionary theory or practice).

    Up north, Sinn Fein is happy to implement billions in benefits cuts on behalf of the Westminster ConDem government to retain a share of political power while down south they pick and choose which anti-cuts campaigns to support or engage with. It is indicative that the party whose leadership voted for the Bank Bailout – outvoting the handful of internal dissenters such as Eoin on the grounds of political ‘realism’ – has since seen fit to not fully support the Campaign against Household & Water Tax.

    If their populism was progressive surely that would have been an obvious intervention? As it is, elected representatives see fit to take a variety of positions sanctioned by leadership but the party has failed to wholeheartedly support the growing fight-back by activists and communities across the state.

    Sinn Fein are a long way away from street politics in Northern Ireland today. Their representatives are primarily geared towards running local councils and managing the cuts in Stormont.

    10 years ago, Sinn Fein activists were out protesting most weekends about something related to the peace process but now that they have their Ministers administrating austerity they are nowhere to be seen in the midst of the most dreadful cuts implemented since 1924. As a revolutionary force in society, Sinn Fein are dead in the north.

    The situation in the south is not all one-way traffic either, the lining up of party representatives from Leitrim, Cavan, Fermanagh and Tyrone behind Sean Quinn at a recent meeting in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan was not an isolated event. For years, Sinn Fein reps studiously avoided making any noise about the purges of unionised workers in the Quinn Group but now that the business is owned by IBRC their councillors see fit to pass motions backing unionisation.

    Along the border, Sinn Fein’s instincts are firmly behind local employers: they are very much the party of the petit-bourgeoisie. When Target Express in Cavan and Cork went into administration in 2012, Sinn Fein representatives come out fighting on behalf of the employer against the banks who had shut him down instead of joining with striking employees who were fighting for back pay.

    Populism is okay because populism allows them the flexibility to tell everyone what they want to hear and get elected so that they do the same thing in Dublin as they already do in Belfast.

    It is telling, indeed, that Eoin quotes Ernesto Laclau. We should remember that Laclau along with Chantal Mouffe was responsible for providing the most rigorous theoretical attempt to justify post-marxist radical strategy – a strategy which was grounded in a move away from class-based politics to those based on the hazy notion of a post-Gramscian version of hegemony. The problem is that this ideological collapse reflected the historic circumstances of the mid-1980s which saw the collapse of the old left and this theory was used to justify the rise of the Blairites within Labour and the final ideological collapse of the Euro-communist parties. It is natural that it might justify the ideological collapse of new-Sinn Fein.

    Eoin takes his ideological lead from the chief architect’s of defeatist post-class, post-marxist analyses who were writing in the era of the reverses engineered by Thatcher and Reagan, the ideological collapse of early 1980s Mitterandism, the wider roll-back of the 1970s radicalisation and the teetoring and eventual fall of the Soviet Union. The sad thing for Eoin is that history has moved on. We no longer live in the ‘end of history’ but in a time when increasing numbers of younger people are drawing marxist and eco-marxist conclusions anew about capitalism. Class politics is very much the politics of the 21st Century.

    To conclude, Sinn Fein’s populist turn will last until they get into coalition in Leinster House – a goal which will be justified by ‘realpolitik’ objectives. I suspect that they will make the transition to ‘mature’ and ‘responsible’ politics in the south even faster than they did in the north. The challenge for those of us who wish to see left-wing politics in power in Ireland will only really commence with Sinn Fein entering government and we must build political strength in advance of that with the goal of fighting their opportunism in power on both sides of the border.

  10. vincent wood

    January 4, 2013 4:38 pm

    I think that Eoin is brave to take this one on. Leftatthecross is right to point out that ‘popular’ opinion is manipulated and that manipuation is widespread over many aspects of society, especially in what passes for mainstream media, including film (at least that which makes it on to the multinational cinema outlets)

    The biggest progressive breakthroughs have come from leadership that bucked trends, broke ‘laws’ and amounted to radical departures from what had become the ‘realpolitik’ of the era.

    It would be more acurate to say that these radical advances reflected the instincts of oppressed and progressive people. Political parties have to be able to call it as it is and not be afraid to depart from both the language and actions of what is expected of a ‘responsible’ or ‘serious’ position. Unless a party is prepared to shift the paradigm then both popular opinion and the attempt to mould policy around it are stuck in a loop.