Europe and the problem with voting 'against' things

by Cathrin Schaer / 03 July, 2017

Scenes from Glastonbury Festival on June 24. Photo/Getty Images

There’s nothing like a common enemy to get your (political) party started. And it’s happening all over Europe.

France’s handsome new president, Emmanuel Macron, won the French presidency in May and his party, La République En Marche, which he founded barely a year ago, swept to victory a month later, taking more than 60% of all seats.

Although Macron has the makings of a wily statesman – check his handshake with Donald Trump – his party had hardly any policies or even any members when he won the presidential elections. Who’s to say what would have happened if Macron had not been competing against the widely reviled Marine Le Pen of the neo-Nazi-esque Front National?

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and some of her senior ministers have been talking far tougher on international issues. Merkel recently made stern comments – at a beer festival, no less – about how Germany’s former partners can no longer be relied upon and how Europeans must fend for themselves. (Yes, Donald Trump, she was looking at you.)

Merkel and her allies have a common enemy now: anybody who’s mean to the European Union, thinks climate change is fake or pushes the Montenegro prime minister around at Nato meetings. (Yes, Mr Trump, we’re looking at you again.) It’s forcing the once-reticent German chancellor, who clearly prefers behind-the-scenes diplomacy and letting Germany’s money talk, to assume the mantle of – if not exactly leader of the free world, then certainly – leader of a free-trade, border-free Europe.

The UK general election is another good example of how a common enemy can help. Jeremy Corbyn’s fans were quick to congratulate the Labour Party leader on his performance in the snap election, in which his party gained an unexpected 40% of the vote.

Strangely, however, Corbyn does not appear to have harnessed the fury and power of the working class his party was founded to represent. Within days, number crunchers had ascertained that Labour gained most ground in districts populated mainly by middle-class or wealthy professionals – that is, the same districts that voted “Remain” in the Brexit referendum.

Sure, some of those Labour voters were concerned about healthcare, education and other state services. And some younger folk certainly believe that Corbyn is the second coming of Bernie Sanders, the anti-establishment US senator who promised American voters “political revolution”. But there’s no doubt that Britain’s proposed exit from the European Union was a major issue and that the politicians who made Brexit happen – the Conservative and UK Independence parties – were a common enemy to vote against.

But there’s an obvious problem with voting against something, rather than for something. Populism involves splitting society into “two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’”, Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist and expert in extremism and populism, explained in the Guardian recently.

Populism can be positive, Mudde noted, when it brings up issues the powerful don’t want to discuss. It forces politicians to address the fact that, for example, austerity measures may be indirectly responsible for the tragic deaths in an awful London apartment block fire last month.

But populism is negative when it is divisive, Mudde continued, when it makes one group the enemy and the other not and there’s no acknowledgement of more nuanced opinions in the in-between. That’s when we all become sworn enemies, everyday extremists, who don’t even know what we are voting for, only what we hate.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the July 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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