Populisms from Trump to Brexit

Populism is a topic that seems to be trending in current politics and journalism. At the festival, four speakers from different media outlets discuss what this wave of populism actually is, how it affects current world affairs, and what the solutions are to counter populism. Gaia Pianigiani from the New York Times, Olivier Tosseri from the French Les Echos, and Davide Ghiglione and James Politi, both of the British Financial Times, cover these topics in a one hour-session at the Hotel Brufani.

As populism is a term that is often used nowadays, the moderator starts off asking the panel how they define this phenomenon. Davide Ghiglione states how the term is too often used and not always in the right context. He does, however, indicate some common elements which define populism. First of all, populism offers easy solutions to complex problems, mostly for problems experienced by society at large. This was, for example, the case with the Brexit and the American elections. Secondly, populism promotes direct democracy, in which political ideas and ideologies represent those of the people. Lastly, populist parties and politicians use social media and blogs to spread their message, and they heavily criticize traditional media.

Apart from these common elements, Ghiglione expresses reasons for concern about populism, for example, its effects on the western world. The globalized world is coming to an end and it is moving towards isolationism, in terms of international trade, financial exchanges and international politics, which could lead to social and economic damage. Ghiglione emphasizes that there have not been prominent immediate effects, but the damage will reveal itself over time.

As an explanation for the rise of populism, Ghiglione talks about the financial crisis of 2008, which had an impact on the public opinion and really scared people off. For example, the United States experienced the crisis earlier than Europe and it came on quite strong there. This made people question the current way of the system: after the crisis, an open economy and society became much more difficult for parties to defend.

Trump and populism

The rise of populism is often associated with Donald Trump’s campaign and administration. However, Trump did not begin in the traditional populism path. Pianigiani points out that Trump’s campaign initially ran on his success as a businessman and did not include rhetoric that supported working and/or middle class America. However, when the Republican Congress took notice in the rise of his popularity, there was an evolution that shifted his rhetoric to include a more populist approach.

According to Pianigiani, this shift changed Trump’s political platform to include working and middle class Americans that have long felt neglected by the previous administration. The panel mentions a couple of key elements that were important to Trump’s successful campaign focussing on a populist agenda. The first was a clear and simple message to his audience, diluting complex issues by supplying an easy solution to the public. Second, Trump used the collective dissatisfaction among Americans and provided a platform that catered to their demands.

Five Star Movement

The panel recognizes that Europe is also experiencing an important election year, which brings challenges to traditional political systems. It brings our attention to an important factor, which is the fluidity of populist parties, blurring the lines between the right and left factions.

Politi observes that in Italy, the Five Star movement is currently leading in the polls and is considered a populist party. If successful at the polls, the main goal is to initiate a referendum on whether Italy should remain in the EU and implement strict immigration policies. According to Pianigiani, it is difficult to pin-point where the party sits on the left-right paradigm, but the panelists are convinced that it shares both values. Politicians from the group pick and choose from both the left and right wing agenda, which draws many voters from both sides.

French election

Tosseri mentions that France has the perfect foundation to lay down the roots for populism. The state’s involvement in promoting nationalism, the political history (which continues to emphasize the will of the people against the establishment), and the country’s motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, further supports equality in society.

Tosseri points out that Marine Le Pen’s party, the National Front, are also able to conjure the large number of votes due to the fluidity of the party’s agenda. There is no clear distinction between the left and the right wing agenda in a populist party, which gives an advantage over the traditional political parties. The panelist explains that there is a vacuum in the French political arena, leaving traditional parties struggling to come up with innovative solutions to societal problems, which allows for the development of a populist environment. Traditional political parties need to reinvent themselves and connect with their constituents in order to regain the trust they lost to populism.

Countering populism with journalism

The panel addresses the ways in which journalists can counter the simplistic answers populism offers. One of the issues is immigration. Both Politi and Pianigiani confirm the way it is covered by the media: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Conventional newsrooms mostly tackle immigration as a problem which resulted in social friction and loss of social identity. James does, however, admit that they should also report the other side of the coin, and present it as an economic opportunity. Immigration could help the aging population’s pension by introducing younger people into the workforce.

Politi mentions that journalists have the responsibility to present a balanced view on a topic to their audience instead of sensationalizing the news. He puts forward an example on how the Financial Times tried to raise awareness on the risks and consequences of the Brexit. However, the UK tabloids were more successful in influencing the public perception because of their significant part in the British media market.

Lastly, Politi encourages media outlets to break out of the city bubble into other areas of the country to fully grasp what people think. In order to get a bigger picture of the public opinion on Brexit, Politi mentions that the Financial Times should have focused more on the rural population instead of the urban demographic.

By Charlotte Teunis and Irada Yeap