9 September 2020

You don’t have to be a populist to be popular

Populist politics is a growth market – and a great topic for a PhD dissertation that ties in very neatly with Maastricht University’s (UM) mission to raise global citizens. It also fits Carola Schoor’s career perfectly. She has decades of experience as a public affairs and political communication adviser to members of the Dutch parliament and the European Parliament in Brussels.

You can’t be all things to all people

Mixing the styles is a delicate operation. “An elitist cannot easily evoke pluralist or populist elements without internal contradictions.” This was evident with Hillary Clinton, who was often perceived as inauthentic during her presidential campaign. “She had this beautiful text about women getting paid less for the same work but that she doesn’t see women getting a discount when she goes to do the groceries. But of course, she doesn’t do the groceries herself. People felt that immediately.”

Trying to portray herself as ‘one of the people’ backfired. During his endorsement speech, then-president Obama portrayed her as a tireless civil servant with experience at the highest echelons of power, who would do anything to help people. “That’s an elitist picture but it would have suited her well. This could have been just as powerful and appealing.”

If the shoe fits

You don’t have to be a populist to be popular. According to Schoor’s analysis, Hillary Clinton stumbled over the uneasy marriage between different styles that couldn’t be narratively melded into a coherent whole. Schoor cites Boris Johnson as someone who’s very comfortable wearing the purple mantle of elitism. “He’s funny and eloquent, a great speaker. And he managed to pitch the Brussels elite as the enemy the British elite will fight, for the benefit of the people.”

Yet, a general shift towards populism is noticeable. “Right after the war, Dutch politics was very elitist but then began to shift towards pluralism in the seventies. It bounced back towards pluralism-elitism in the eighties and nineties, after which, a shift towards populism became visible. As a reaction to the populist wave, all politicians feel they have to express that they belong to the people. This goes beyond using more common language. When Rutte spills his coffee, he grabs the cleaner’s equipment and starts mopping up. He wants to look like a normal guy, rather than someone who’s busy running the country.”

The power of words

She noticed the same trend in her analysis around the Brexit campaign. “After the referendum, Johnson, Corbyn and Farage had become more populist. If you accept the outcome of a referendum, it follows that the people have won and you have to reflect that in your rhetoric. But, of course only around 47% did want it, so a referendum is really very anti-pluralist.” COVID-19 on the other hand is more suitable to a pluralist narrative (all of us against the virus) or even an elitist one (do as we say to stay safe).

 “The nuances of language, the little words, constitute the structure that subconsciously influences the way we speak, think and act – so this is important to study and understand.” She is happy with her model and confident it would also apply in another political context. Ultimately, though, she thinks it’s not about which political style politicians adopt but that they have style. “People can tell if someone is authentic, if the things they say are well put and congruent with their personality and their narrative.”

By: Florian Raith