Good populism, bad populism?

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At 19:30 CET on Wednesday 15th November 2017, deBuren and the Academy of Ideas came together in a Battle of Ideas satellite debate to look at the idea of populism and to ask why it is that certain populisms receive better press than others.

Full-length debate podcast:

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About the debate:

From Trump to Corbyn and Brexit to Macron, the past year has aroused several examples of unexpected outsiders riding the wave of populism and washing up on the shores of mainstream politics. The Oxford English Dictionary defines populism as “support for the concerns of ordinary people”. However, in the contextual framework of recent political events, it has come to bear pejorative connotations and to be associated with racism, Islamophobia, anti-immigration and the movements that elected Trump, influenced Britain’s vote to leave the EU and swelled the support of the National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen.

However, more recently, we have seen the start of several counter-movements, opposing populist trends and yet focusing on a new set of political arrangements. When Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, beat the controversial far-right candidate Geert Wilders in the Dutch General Election in March this year, he declared: “The Netherlands has said “no” to the wrong kind of populism”. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton tweeted “Victory for Macron, for France, the EU & the world” after the second round of the French presidential elections in May. The international liberal media shared her delight and Emmanuel Macron has become the poster-boy for a “third way” in contemporary politics, the antithesis of the “wrong kind” of populism. Significantly, Macron’s En Marche! movement’s victory was on the back of the almost complete destruction of the Ancien Régime of the left-leaning Socialist Party and the centre-right Republicans, who had dominated French politics since the 1980s. Even though recent polls have seen Macron’s approval rating plummet, he is still seen as embodying a new France, one which has rallied against the old, stuffy career politicians of before and promised a fresh economically centrist and socially progressive alternative to the wave of right-wing populism sweeping Europe.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as a lasting candidate of change, looking to break with the technocratic politics of centrism and enjoying continued support, despite some initial assumptions that his popularity had more to do with making a statement about the Conservative’s Brexit plans. The rise of left-wing populist movements and parties has in fact seen a shift in the public debate, with leading intellectuals, such as Chantal Mouffe, arguing that populism is good for democracy and that it is old liberalism that is the real problem.

Are we, therefore, seeing a new political realignment in Europe, with people supporting anti-elite movements regardless of their left-right alignment? Is there really such a thing as good and/or bad populism? Do both strands of populism equally represent and support the concerns of ordinary people or does one side exploit them, while the other does little to truly address them? And, are both sides of the populism war guilty of perpetuating what Cas Mudde, author of The Populist Radical Right: A Reader, describes as “an uncompromising stand which denies legitimacy to opposing views”? Is there in fact anything new about any of these movements or are they simply an unnecessary reinvention of the old left-right battles of the past? And, is the debate about good and bad populism not itself somewhat subjective and merely another way of imposing our own political persuasions?

Participants & planners:


Jan Cornillie – Political Director of the sp.a (Socialistische Partij Anders)

Frank Furedi – Sociologist, Social Commentator and Author of Populism and the European Culture Wars

Heather Grabbe – Director of the Open Society European Policy Institute

Hans Wansink – Op-Ed Editor and Commentator, De Volkskrant


Bruno Waterfield – Brussels Correspondent, The Times & Co-Author of No Means No


This debate was produced and planned by Alastair Donald, Institute of Ideas & Xander Stroo, deBuren 

Battle of Ideas 2017:

The Battle of Ideas is a huge annual festival of debate at London’s Barbican Centre. This festival prides itself on challenging accepted points of view and putting forward provocative arguments and promises to provide new perspectives.

To find out more about the festival and it’s 100+ events, click here.