Dr. Ifj. Lomnici Zoltán
Dr. Ifj. Lomnici Zoltán alkotmányjogász

Populism in society: tasty or tasteless? An attempt of understanding

I have chosen this article title because, based on the complexity of the issue, we need to distinguish at least two basic sets of criteria on the topic.

In addition, as a father of four children, I consider it important that sociological research has long shown a decline in the confidence of younger age groups in politics, which is also very significant for them compared to the general trend; and this does not provide much encouragement for the survival of democratic systems in the long run.

The level and nature of youth mistrust varies from country to country, but can also be observed in different regions of Europe, for example.

Anyway, populism is an old concept in politics. The choice of topic and rhetoric of populist approaches is, of course, correlated with current political intent and reflects on and appeals to folk moods. This means, on the one hand, the creation of certain moods and opinions, and, on the other hand, the exploitation of existing moods and opinions, and their reinforcement by populists in order to achieve their own political goals. Populism is also characterized by a specific political style, and this - in a way that is not reprehensible in itself, as this is the long-term goal of any policy - serves as a strategy for gaining power.

Populists often show a contradiction between the “people” (the common people) and the “elite” and, of course, they claim to represent the interests of the “common people” in this struggle. Many forms of populism profess the rejection of power elites and institutions, confront intellectualism, and in return proclaim their commitment to “common sense,” which reflects the “voice of the people”.

Not all populist politicians or theorists have a “props” of reasoning in the use of simplistic words and concepts, even if they often try to interpret populism itself and its main object, the people, flexibly.

Populism has been a long-standing concept, taking on many political forms since the 19th century, including fascism and communist movements and ideologies. Populism seems to have succeeded in the Western world in recent decades through and in the context of the advancement of globalization and the population explosion. Today we are living in the heyday of populism. Populism and nationalism are often linked by common themes, which has resulted in the emergence of national populisms in the last century.

In the view of contemporary French historian Jean-Pierre Rioux, populism means instrumentalizing the opinions of people on the part of parties and political figures who claim to be spokesmen for the common people, the majority will, even though they most often belong to the upper social class. Even if this is partly true, leaders who are able to remedy social problems at the political level may still come from among the elites (i.e., the more educated and wealthy).

A specific approach, known interpretation and meaning of populism, especially in Western Europe, is also used. This interprets populism as a set of promising and unrealistic, i.e. irresponsible promises that are sound and popular in political practice. Proponents of this approach say populists simplify what they can and emphasize only reference to the people, anti-elitism, and in some cases even nationalism itself.

However, the notion of populism in the Anglosphere does not follow this notion. For example, in the United States, the term populism is not used as pejoratively as in Europe. U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt can also be considered populists based on modern approaches today, as President Jimmy Carter, for example, declared himself populist. The emergence of this as a political product at the time may have been aided to some extent by the oil crises of the 1970s, as well as the statesmanship of Barack Obama and then Donald Trump as American leaders after the global economic crisis that erupted in 2008.

Whether this kind of interpretation of populism in the Anglosphere, or a continental, European interpretation practice based on its rigid denial — interpreting the concept almost exclusively pejoratively and dismissively — will be successful in the long run, it is not yet clear today.

One thing is for sure: the rise of populist tendencies does not in itself mean the end of democracy. Populism is not in itself a reprehensible thing and cannot be seen as a mere “repulsive” political behavior, so populism alone is not a “tasteless” political and ideological trend. For example, why would it be tasteless, repulsive if, in the wake of the economic crisis, a political party, its leaders and its representatives proclaim that people affected by foreign currency debt should be helped instead of banks? Or is it populist - whether political, ecclesiastical or other - who, for example, wants to involve the banking sector and other sectors in the burden-sharing?

An important sociological concept here is the elite, a term that mostly refers to well-defined groups of people - such as the governing elite, the economic elite, the banking world, CEOs, or the educational elite. German sociologist Michael Hartmann sees that the elite tends to create their own values ​​that ignore the morals of society as a whole. At the same time, this can favor truly extreme trends, meaning the elite has a responsibility.

It can also be observed that in many countries parishes, religious congregations still play an important role in local societies and their basic structures to this day. This also meets the needs of the majority of society, i.e. a significant proportion of citizens still find it useful and even expect churches and religious groups to have a say in society, whether on cultural or social issues, and to be able to represent the opinion of the people. Any democratic system can only respond appropriately to such and similar societal needs, that is, the opinion of citizens, if it recognizes equal rights to do so. This can also significantly help the situation of social minorities, i.e. the promotion of the interests of more or less separable groups (such as ethnic, religious or other) within a given society with a specific sense of identity.

Churches in many countries are in a good enough position to assert their influence and to confront the truly harmful, extremist tendencies of populism, either through their messages or through their actions. Churches can also play their part in this joint effort by drawing citizens ’attention to the dangers of extremist populism and involving the democratic majority in the fight for democracy and human rights.

*A fenti tanulmány az Európai Egyházak Konferenciája nemzetközi webináriumon 2021. június 22-én a szerző részéről elhangzott előadás leirata