Is there a culture war against populism?

From 10:00-11:30 GMT on Saturday 28th October 2017, the Battle of Ideas featured a Time to Talk debate on the hostility towards populism and its cultural background.


A full-length audio recording of this debate can also be found further down the page.

About the debate:

The unexpected triumphs of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign have been widely interpreted as signs of a new wave of populism across the Western world. In contemporary political discussions, the concept is generally used in a negative way, associated implicitly or otherwise with notions of racism and xenophobia. Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Viktor Orbán in Hungary seem to form a rogues’ gallery of demagogic politicians, criticised for profiting from promoting rising anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment throughout Europe and the US.

Yet populism has come in more left-wing forms, too, like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. What unites populist movements on both the left and right is their rejection of elite culture and its values. Indeed, despite the attempt to represent different movements labelled as populist as a distinct political form, they seem to have little in common other than their hostility to the ideals and the political practices of technocratic governance.

More recently, there have been attempts to dig deeper, recognising that many of these movements represent not simply a hostile reaction to political institutions, such as the EU, or the decay of an old way of doing politics, but also to the cultural values of out-of-touch elites. Beyond electoral politics, some commentators perceive deeper fault lines in society, suggesting that populist revolts are symptomatic of a conflict of values and identity that is beginning to eclipse the traditional economic redistribution divide which used to define the left and the right.

David Goodhart’s recent book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and The Future of Politics, describes two different groups increasingly pitted against each other. On the one side are the marginalised “people from somewhere”, who are rooted in a specific place or community, often not particularly highly educated, socially conservative and hold a roots-based conception of national identity and attachment to ways of life that have been lost or are under threat. On the other side are those who could come from anywhere and these are more likely to subscribe to a cosmopolitan identity and be well-travelled, footloose, often urban, metropolitan, liberal, socially mobile and university-educated. In Goodhart’s view, populism expresses the rebellion of those from somewhere, of social groups, whose “decent concerns” have been ignored and routinely pushed aside by a media and political elite that has become a “cheerleader for restless change”.

In his new book, Populism and the European Culture Wars, Frank Furedi explains that the hostility of elites towards populism largely reflects the tension between values deemed acceptable by the political and cultural establishment and values that influence people’s everyday lives. In the wake of the exhaustion of the post-war political order, ideology and political principles have been displaced by expert-led, technocratic governance, which justifies itself on the basis of expertise and process rather than vision. For years, Furedi argues, these experts have ridiculed ordinary people’s habits, customs and traditions, as if they had a right to dictate how people should lead their lives and behave towards each other. Consequently, many people feel patronised and demoralised about their capacity to conduct their everyday affairs in accordance with their own inclinations and/or belief systems and are drawn towards movements that promise to take them more seriously.

Should we understand the rise of populism as a challenge to the elites’ top-down values or a desperate fight to cling on to traditional, backward attachments? Are populist movements merely morbid symptoms of a dying political order or the first signs of a democratic renewal? Is populism worth celebrating even if it unleashes uncomfortable sentiments?

Find out more by listening to the full-length recording of the debate or keeping an eye out for our highlights video which will be produced post-discussion.

This debate is part of the Time to Talk series of debates entitled Understanding the Populist Turn: The Ex-Debates. This series is supported by The Open Society Initiative for Europe.



Frank Furedi

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

David Goodhart

Author of The Road to Somewhere and Head of Demography at Policy Exchange

Elif Shafak

Political Commentator, award winning Novelist and the most widely read Author in Turkey. Her most recent novel is Three Daughters of Eve

Moderation and production:

Claire Fox

Director of the Institute of Ideas, Panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze and author of I Find That Offensive

Full-length audio:

You can listen to a full recording of the debate here.

Alternatively, you can find a highlights video of this debate at top of the page.

Related reading:

Snowflake Liberal Elite Whinging about ‘Populism’ Can’t Stand the Idea They Don’t Know Best…WE Do, Tony Parsons, The Sun, 10th December 2016

Populism: It’s the BBC’s New Buzzword, Being Used to Sneer at the “Uneducated” 17 Million Who Voted for Brexit, Douglas Murray, The Mail Online, 8th December 2016

Britain Allowed Its Populist Right to Rise. America Should Heed the Warning, Richard Wolffe, The Guardian, 24th June 2016

The Problem With Populism, Cas Mudde, Guardian, 17th February 2015

The New Progressive Populism. Why Progressives Should Declare Independence from Neoliberalism and Embrace a New Economic Populism, Tyler Norris, Medium, 4th July 2017

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.

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