Javier Milei in Argentina. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. These are the two latest “populist shocks” – the tip of the “populist wave” that comes crashing against the weakened defences of liberal democracies.
At the same time, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage benefits from the same “funwashing” on I’m a Celebrity Get me out of Here! as Pauline Hanson, leader of the most successful extreme right party in Australia in recent years, did when she was invited on Dancing with the Stars just a moment after her political career plummeted.
The contradiction in addressing the rise of far-right politics in public discourse could not be starker. And yet, it goes far deeper.
It should be obvious to anyone concerned about these politics and the threat they pose to democracy and certain communities, that humanising their leaders through fun reality TV shows or coverage of their hobbies rather than politics only serves to normalise them.
What is less obvious and yet just as damaging is the hyped coverage of the threat. Milei and Wilders are not “shocks”. The resurgence of reactionary politics is entirely predictable and has been traced for a long time. Yet every victory or rise is analysed as new and unexpected rather than part of a longer, wider process in which we are all implicated.
The same goes for “populism”. All serious research on the matter points to the populist nature of these parties being secondary at best, compared to their far-right qualities. Yet, whether in the media or academia, populism is generally used carelessly as a key defining feature.
Using “populist” instead of more accurate but also stigmatising terms such as “far-right” or “racist” acts as a key legitimiser of far-right politics. It lends these parties and politicians a veneer of democratic support through the etymological link to the people and erases their deeply elitist nature – what my co-author Aaron Winter and I have termed “reactionary democracy”.
What this points to is that the processes of mainstreaming and normalisation of far-right politics have much to do with the mainstream itself, if not more than with the far right. Indeed, there can be no mainstreaming without the mainstream accepting such ideas in its fold.
In this case, the mainstreaming process has involved platforming, hyping and legitimising far-right ideas while seemingly opposing them and denying responsibility in the process.
While it would be naive to believe that the mainstream media tell us what to think, it is equally naive to ignore that it plays a key role regarding what we think about. As I argued in a recent article on the issue of “immigration as a major concern”, this concern only exists when respondents think of their country as a whole. It disappears when they think about their own day-to-day lives.
This points to the mediated nature of our understanding of wider society which is essential if we are to think of the world beyond our immediate surrounding. Yet while essential, it relies on the need for trusted sources of information who decide what is worth priming and how to frame it.
It is this very responsibility that much of our media has currently given up on or pretend they do not hold, as if their editorial choices were random occurrences.
This could not have been clearer than when the Guardian launched a lengthy series on “the new populism” in 2018, headlining its opening editorial with: “Why is populism suddenly all the rage? In 1998, about 300 Guardian articles mentioned populism. In 2016, 2,000 did. What happened?”. At no point did any of the articles in the series reflect upon the simple fact that the decisions of Guardian editors may have played a role in the increased use of the term.
A top-down process
Meanwhile, blame is diverted onto conveniently “silent majorities” of “left-behind” or a fantasised “white working class”.
We too often view the far right as an outsider – something separate from ourselves and distinct from our norms and mainstream. This ignores deeply entrenched structural inequalities and forms of oppression core to our societies. This is something I noted in a recent article, that the absence of race and whiteness in academic discussion of such politics is striking.
My analysis of the titles and abstracts of over 2,500 academic articles in the field over the past five years showed that academics choose to frame their research away from such issues. Instead, we witness either a euphemisation or exceptionalisation of far-right politics, through a focus on topics such as elections and immigration rather than the wider structures at play.
This therefore leaves us with the need to reckon with the crucial role the mainstream plays in mainstreaming. Elite actors with privileged access to shaping public discourse through the media, politics and academia are not sitting within the ramparts of a mainstream fortress of good and justice besieged by growing waves of populism.
They are participating in an arena where power is deeply unevenly distributed, where the structural inequalities the far right wants to strengthen are also often core to our systems and where the rights of minoritised communities are precarious and unfulfilled. They have therefore a particular responsibility towards democracy and cannot blame the situation we all find ourselves in on others – whether it be the far right, fantasised silent majorities or minoritised communities.
Sitting on the fence is not an option for anyone who plays a role in shaping public discourse. This means self-reflection and self-criticism must be central to our ethos.
We cannot pretend to stand against the far right while referring to its politics as “legitimate concerns”. We must stand unequivocally by and be in service of every one of the communities at the sharp end of oppression.