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The Good, the Bad and the Populist. Rethinking the Relationship Between Populism and Liberal Democracy

22 febbraio 2019 -
The Good, the Bad and the Populist. Rethinking the Relationship Between Populism and Liberal Democracy

Contributo selezionato da Filodiritto tra quelli pubblicati nei Proceedings “5th ACADEMOS Conference 2018”

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Contribution selected by Filodiritto among those published in the Proceedings “5th ACADEMOS Conference 2018”

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Bujdei-Tebeica Vlad [1], Nicolescu Valentin-Quintus [1]

[1]National University of Political Science and Public Administration (ROMANIA)



The first half of the year 2018 brought about a new player on the Romanian political scene, Mișcarea România Împreună (the Romania Together Movement), initiated by the former technocratic prime-minister Dacian Cioloș. Built on the foundations of the civic initiative Romania 100, the new political formation proclaims itself to be a moderate party, pro-European, and center-left. In this paper we aim to demonstrate that, despite this self-identification, MRI illustrated a particular political model, initiated in France by the current president, Emmanuel Macron, La République En Marche. Unlike other authors, who speak about “anti-populist populism” in order to define this particular political formula, we consider that, on the contrary, it should not be considered as a special category in the taxonomies regarding the populist phenomenon, but as a formula by which the demo-liberal political order understands to adapt itself to the challenge of the populist phenomenon. Consequentially, the so called liberal populism inspired by Macron, professed in Romania by MRI, must be looked at from a different perspective, namely that of a contextualized political reaction from the liberal civil society which, fundamentally, chooses to mobilize itself in front of the populist challenge through an adaptive strategy capable, finally, to produce a consistent and coherent reaction to the populist discourse – Manichean, anti-establishment and nationally self-centered. Methodologically, we aim to examine qualitatively the fundamental documents of MRI, as they can be accessed on the official website of the aforementioned political movement. We will try to identify the central elements of the identity and political discourse of MRI, in order to offer a better understanding of the populist phenomenon in general and, also, to propose a new model of interpreting this phenomenon which should include the demo-liberal adaptive formulas.



The populist phenomenon has become already a central preoccupation of the studies that cover the contemporary politico-ideological families of the Western world, as an effect of the political developments that took place in the advanced democracies of the 21st century. There is a real and concrete need for explaining and interpreting the political evolutions of the last decade, fact which brought, with necessity into the spotlight the study of populism, which were marginal up until now. Probably carried by the extremely dynamic evolutions of the moment, they do not seek to pay a lot of attention to the contemporary causes of the phenomenon but, by virtue of habit, they try to articulate a definition and categorization of the populisms as faithfully as possible, by way of collecting the data obtained through study cases, but also through comparative endeavors.

Populism, although fundamentally oriented discursively against the establishment, has become, in the last few years, hegemonic. This seems to be another fact which is overlooked by analysts in this field, but which seems to us to represent an explanatory variable regarding the emergence of a particular type of movements considered from an analytic point of view as populist, such as that of president Macron. How do we know that populism has become hegemonic? It went from the position of perpetual opposition to that of currently governing.

In other words, we can clearly state that, with the winning of elections by populist parties, we can talk about a “populism in power”, fact which has to reflect, in our opinion, in the way in which it is analyzed. This is the more so as the analyses in the field keep starting from the pernicious assumption according to which the adept democratic forces of the demo-liberal “system”, identified by the populist discourse as being the “enemy” par excellence, finds itself in a defensive position and has yet to identify a viable survival strategy on the new political scene. The “anti-populist populism”, as it is called by Fabio Bordignon[i], the political model initiated by Macron, represents a false category of populism, in so far as we can accept the thesis that categorizes populism as an ideological current.

Regarding the three macro-approaches of populism (strategic, discursive and ideological [1]), we consider that this distinction should be approached not analytically, but rather intersectionally. Thus, in our view, the three do not exclude each other; instead they complete each other [2]. A populist discourse can be strategically instrumentalized (e.g. in order to attain power) and cannot be articulated except ideologically (even if in an incongruent manner regarding the classical distinctions, such as right-left).

In this context, we state that, on the contrary, we can identify a model of political reaction to the populist mainstream, characterized by the adaptation of the old structures to the new discursive order by adopting some of the populist discursive elements to the classical demo- liberal ethos. The researchers’ confusion in this respect is well illustrated by Fabio Bordignon’s argument, who considers that “according to some observers, Macron is living proof that “the system” can resist the populist wave. More and better, he is living proof that a political leader can oppose populist insurgents, like Marine Le Pen, using opposite arguments and opposite recipes. But Macron’s profile and words tell, at the same time, a different story: quite the opposite, in fact. If we analyze Macron’s discourse and project, we find all the symptoms that mark today’s democratic malaise, and populists’ responses to it.”[ii] Bordignon fails to understand the way in which the accommodation of the “system” takes place at a discursive level, more precisely in the way in which the populist themes and motives are taken over, reinterpreted and rearranged in order to create an apparently similar narrative, but which brings back the old demo-liberal values into the political debate, this time in a positive manner. And here, unlike Margaret Canovan, we consider that, although populism can be, undoubtedly, approached by way of Oakeshott’s distinction between “politics of faith” and “politics of skepticism” [3], it is more than “a shadow cast by democracy itself” [5], it is an intrinsic dimension of democracy. From this perspective we will try to approach our case study, by trying to argue that, once populism gains power, the political forces of the liberal status-quo adapt and reinvent themselves in order to handle this new order, by integrating populism (or its dimensions) into the liberal democratic process.


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