Thu, May 11, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Trying to define when a political movement is populist, or not

By Max Fisher  /  NY Times News Service

In France, the state was accused of selling out to the EU, to global finance and, in the National Front’s not-so-distant past, to Jews.

Although the movements express different grievances — social and economic change in France, corruption in South Korea — they share a belief that the state has sidelined the people it is supposed to serve.

This sentiment can arise when political systems are dominated by a small circle of elites seen as in cahoots, often because of corruption scandals such as those in Brazil and South Korea.

Or it can arise when establishment parties rally around a policy that not all voters accept.

For instance, when French mainstream parties found consensus on supporting the EU, anti-union voters interpreted this as a conspiracy to shut them out. The establishment came to seem not just unresponsive, but undemocratic.


In both South Korea and France, the movements arose because they saw the state as ignoring the needs of the people.

In South Korea, the spark was corruption, an issue that affects everyone and so could bring people together. And it led protesters to support institutions, such as the courts and law enforcement, rather than seek to smash them.

However, in France, the anti-establishment sentiment arose over issues that concern a subset of people and that those people see as pitting them against others in society. Only a minority wishes to leave the EU. Restricting immigration or religious clothing would serve some people by hurting others.

This reveals something important: The French and South Korean movements differ significantly in how they define “the people.”

For many of Le Pen’s supporters, “the people” refers to white ethnic French who say their culture and traditions are threatened by immigrants and Muslims.

“France isn’t Burqinis on the beach,” Le Pen said on US TVshow 60 Minutes this spring. “France is Brigitte Bardot. That’s France.”

South Korea’s protests did often lean left, and drew pro-Park counterprotesters, but the movement, Delury said, strove to cross social lines and often succeeded.

Park’s low popularity — she polled in single digits — aided this mission. So did recent memory of South Korea’s popular uprising to install democracy, a history that makes protest feel like a healthy check on the system rather than a disruption — and a collective rather than divisive activity.

“The baby stroller per capita numbers were staggering,” Delury said, explaining how the protest movement reached the urban middle classes, which tend to favor pluralism, stability and rule of law.

This agenda points toward upholding institutions rather than tearing them down.

Eventually, leftist movements such as labor, initially central to the protests, were joined by apolitical civic organizations whose presence made real the message of representing the people.


While South Korea’s protesters sought to cross social lines, Western populists have relished in drawing them.

In Britain, the movement to leave the EU did not just criticize Brussels, but also rallied against immigration. Trump ascended, in part, on a promise to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US.

For such movements, championing “the people” becomes a way of not only declaring the state unresponsive, but of defining who does and does not belong.

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