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“National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy” – a review

October 6th, 2019

INTRODUCTION

The book is an overview of “National Populism”, the umbrella term the authors use to describe a political stance of increasing electoral salience in Europe and North America, familiar to us as an explanation for Brexit and Trump. The authors are Roger Eatwell of Bath University and Matthew Goodwin of the University and Kent: both are experts in academic study of the right and all its flavours. The book is a summary of their academic studies, expanded into a medium-size book written in clear, if slightly plodding text readable by the everyman. This is its strength and its weakness, which I will describe later.

STRUCTURE

The book sets out its thesis: the National Populism stance is real, electorally salient, on the rise and isn’t going away any time soon. The book chapters itself into Myths, Promises, and the 4 D’s (Distrust, Destruction, Deprivation, De-alignment), and concludes with a view of the future.

It’s convincing (with some notable exceptions). It lists explanations proffered by non-populists – it’s temporary, it’s a reaction to 2008, it’s just angry racist white men, it’s close, just one more heave and it’ll go – and points out that actually, no: it’s been around for quite some time, it’s not racist per se, it’s diverse, prodemocratic and will be around for a while because the reasons are deep rooted.

It encapsulates these reasons with the clever catchphrase of the “4 D’s” for Distrust, Destruction, Deprivation and De-alignment: Distrust for the realisation that the rulers no longer reflect the ruled, Destruction for the feeling that a familiar way-of-life is under threat, (relative) Deprivation for uneven distribution of the fruits of capitalism, and De-alignment for the disconnect between the parties and the people, and then points out that these are longstanding issues. It then concludes with “Towards Post-Populism”, outlining predicted future development and the parties that will survive.

DISCUSSION

There’s nothing really wrong here: the argument makes sense, it proceeds from A to B to C to D, it can be used for predictions, the prose is readable and the only fault of the diagrams is the monochrome. It’s written by two people but it has a singular authorial voice, which I assume was assisted by their copy editor at Pelican, Linden Lawson. So it’s quite good and an important addition to the shelves. But there are bits and bobs that had me biting my lip and the cumulative effect drove me scatty.

Eatwell and Goodwin are academics writing a popular book and have to adjust to the different length and audience, and it shows. An academic paper is short and you have to justify every word. But this is a book (approx 350pages) and you have to fill the word-count somehow and…problem is, not everything they fill it with is good.

They sometimes use telepathy (inferring motives to actors without providing justification), they use current terms to describe historical positions (“The first parties to develop in the nineteenth century…supported economically liberal and socially conservative values” Well in 21st century terms yesss, but there were other things) and their world-view intrudes.

Mostly it’s just irritating. As we move from a European to an American mindset, we lose the concept of multiple parties and subdivisions, with its French Radicals, Polish National Conservatives, British Atlanticists and all the shades of gray, and replace it with a more reduced instruction set of “Liberals” and “Conservatives”. So in the text they have to flit between definitions of the word “liberal” – the “soppy lefty” sense, the “Orange Book Liberals” sense, the “liberal democracy” sense, and you find yourself having to reread bits to identify what they meant. It breaks the flow.

But sometimes the wheels come off. In one case they devote some time to demonstrating that National Populism isn’t Fascist. OK, that’s fair: as I have said on here repeatedly, it definitely isn’t – there’s no militarisation of society, no recusal of democracy, and it’s notably lacking in the Nazi tendency to antisemitism. So what’s the problem?

The problem is their choice of characteristics: they define fascism as one list (holistic nation, new men, authoritarian), define populist as another list (popular will, ordinary people, anti-elite), and point out that they are different. Fine….but. The differences aren’t as obvious or conclusive as they think – both a “holistic nation” and “popular will” describe a national gestalt, and both the Fascist “New Man” concept and the National Populist “plain man” concept reify human individuals into archetypal groups.

So I ended up less convinced than before, even though I knew going in that National Populists aren’t Fascists. The argument was important to make, but their failure to properly stick the landing bugged me.

And lastly and more humorously, the book has a tic that I’ve observed before with Matthew Goodwin and it gets me every single time. I’ve characterised him as a good analyst but a bad advocate, and his urge to advocate instead of simply describe sometimes intrudes.

In this case it manifests as superfluous intensifiers: issues are never just “issues” they’re “legitimate issues”, “concerns” are “legitimate concerns”, and they stand out like poles in the snow. You’re reading the text perfectly happy then he jumps out from behind a tree, yells “LEGITIMATE” in your ear, and jumps back: the Catchphrase From Hell. It throws you off…

CONCLUSION

So, where are we? I thought their description of present and recent events was convincing and I value their conclusions about the longevity and robustness of the stance. The events of 2019 uphold their 2018 prediction of a “populist-lite” party gaining votes, as Boris mutates the Conservatives to fit that niche and hence defeat the new Brexit Party.

So the book is genuinely valuable. But the padding, their view of the past, a restricted palette, Goodwin’s tic – LEGITIMATE!! – and the compromises required for a popular book do take the edge off. I don’t want to overegg the pudding and the standards for a popular book are different for an academic paper or a briefing paper. But the problems are self-inflicted and this book would be a lot better if it was shorter.

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“National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy” is by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin. The reviewed version is ISBN 9780241312001 and is published by Pelican Books 2018, in print and available new at £9.99 or free from your local library. Support your local library. Legitimately… 🙂