Let’s talk about European and U.S. populisms, shall we? Maybe you read my previous post about how one could equate Fascism and Communism as they relate to populism. Well, on Friday I went to a conference at NYU titled, “The French National Front and Beyond: A Global Populist Movement?” It was SO interesting. I was able to confirm several things I understand about populism, come up with some new questions, and widen my understanding of Right-wing political movements in both the United States and Europe. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay for the keynote speech because I arrived when the conference started and couldn’t stay until the evening, but the two panels I listened to,“Sexual Politics” and “Populism from Below: Ethnographers at Work”, were both amazing.
DISCLAIMER: I have complex opinions (some lengthy and mature in their development, others new and ever changing) regarding topics each panelist spoke about. I am not prepared to write each of them out in this post. When I write about my disagreement with a panelist it does not mean that I agree with the alternative viewpoint, it only means that I don’t agree with their specific interpretation in the context of their presentation. If I write something that offends or confuses you, ask me to clarify what I mean and I will gladly do so!
The first panel was about Sexual Politics and three presenters spoke about their work: Kathleen M. Blee, Anika Keinz, and Cornelia Moser. Kathleen spoke about Right-wing movements in the United States as they relate to gender. Kathleen touched on something that I agreed with: the Right isn’t necessarily ignorant, but they use a different strategy of ideological bundling than the Left. Ethno-nationalism, masculinity, hierarchy, and anti-globalism are each ways the Right in the United States is able to appeal to different ideological bundles people hold. This directly confirmed my idea that one’s hierarchy of social identities determines if they will vote Left or Right. I did disagree with one assertion she seemed to make which was that politicians who develop or articulate their stances issue by issue rather than as a complete ideology are opportunistic. I am of the opinion that anyone (politician or not) can hold opposing views on different things without being a hypocrite or an opportunist so I would have liked to have heard more about her ideas on that.
Cornelia spoke mainly about gender and the Right in France. I liked all of the presenters, but two points in Cornelia’s presentation struck me. She identified the Right as “familialist”. That is, promoting ideologies that emphasize families in tandem with oppressive sexual and gender norms. Had this been used solely as an adjective to describe the way the Right wishes to organize society, I may have agreed, but it wasn’t. I understand that it refers to the way in which a group hopes society organizes itself-that is in a familial structure-but the definition of a family has expanded considerably over the years. With the progressive changes in domestic partnership and adoption law (especially in France), the traditional husband and wife with two children is no longer the only form families take. What I mean to say is that familial organization of society is not as narrow as it once was and doesn’t not have to denote “oppressive sexual and gender norms”. Even historically, a familial organization of society has not always meant organizing around a nuclear family. I also do not know what one who is against familialist parties or societal organization would propose as an alternative. Cornelia mentioned that the Right is also anti-individualistic in some ways, so I am again curious what the alternative is, if anti-individualism and familial organization of society are both negative. Cornelia also spoke about something that was my biggest objection of the 6 presenters: “dediabolization” or the idea that “making stances discussable” makes them less negative. She specifically mentioned this regarding neo-nazi stances. I wish I could have asked her to explain what she meant more clearly but I vehemently disagree that talking about an idea or stance makes it less evil or negative.
Anika spoke about the politicization of gender/sexuality in Germany. Her presentation was very interesting and she spoke about a topic that was the focus of many of my classes at NYU: othering. She specifically talked about German politicians bringing lesbian and gay citizens (all presenters were clear that politicians do not recognize TQIA* in Europe) into their constituencies in order to make Muslims the new, more other, other. She and Anika both explained homo-nationalism and gay-imperialism as ways in which the West is reinforcing the Orient-Occident colonial (and pre-colonial) divide in a neo-racist way. I’ve often thought about this topic, so I was glad that these two presenters discussed it and provided examples. That being said, I would love to hear more about gay-imperialism because it seems to be a poor way of describing the permeations of Western sexual culture outside of the West. I don’t agree with cultural imperialism (hence my firm belief in regionalism), but where is the line to be drawn? Speaking of gay-imperialism between the Occident and Orient seems to imply that there is a singular cultural idea about sexuality in the Occident, which is being forced onto the Orient . When, in fact, as each of these presenters showed, cultural ideas about sexuality and gender in the West are very different. It was also mentioned that many decolonial governments preserved sexist and homophobic legal systems, which in itself seems to contradict the idea of a contemporary gay-imperialism in many ways. Who constitutes a cultural group? Should all cultures be preserved and protected from ideological imperialism? Which cultures are to be made to embrace contemporary, progressive ideas of gender and sexuality? When is ideological imperialism “liberation” and when is it imperialism? Why? Anika also presented the Right on a spectrum, which I also thought was quite accurate and fitting (right conservative-right populist-right extremist). This panel was the most eye-opening and definitely sparked my curiosity and need for more research. If you have thoughts on these topics or want to recommend literature, feel free to drop a comment below and we will discuss!
The second panel and my personal favorite featured Don Kalb, Christele Marchand-Lagier, and Rachel Meade. Don spoke about the Right as it relates to workers in Poland and race in Hungary. Rachel spoke about populisms on the Left and Right in Michigan, and Christele explained the intricacies of the social positions and views held by voters for the French National Front-the leading Right-wing party in France. Rachel’s presentation was an explanation of her field work in Traverse City, Michigan. She spent 4 months with an Occupy group, a group of Bernie Sanders supporters, and a 912 group. She explained that both the Left and Right populist groups situated themselves against the party establishment, felt their values were being undervalued, and distrusted the media. Her research also echoed something similar to Christele’s: there was a clear disconnect between people’s day-to-day life, their online persona, and their voting identity, especially among those on the Right. She explained the similarities and differences between populism on the Left and Right in each of these cases and also relayed her personal experiences as a researcher. She also focuses on Argentina and I was quite sad that she didn’t talk more about her work there because I have done some research about clientelism in Latin America as well as Italian Fascism in Argentina so I would have loved to have known more about populism there (she did explain that Argentina presents a perfect example of historical populism on the Left with Peronistas, while contemporary Leftists in Argentina reject the populist label).
Don spoke in-depth about class and labor-share as it relates to voter turnout and the way people vote. He focused on the working poor and how the Right was able to capture their vote. His was the most historical of the 6 and he also explained the evolution of Left-wing Catholic, Trotskyist voters in post 1989-Poland. I was intrigued by this aspect of Polish labor history and will definitely be looking into it more. He also introduced an amazing idea that I felt was a great way of distinguishing populisms on the Left and Right. He characterizes populism on the Left as binary: “the people” against the elite with equality as their main goal and populism on the Right as tripartite: “the people” against the elite and against the undeserving classes in the promotion of a new elite made of the “deserving classes”. While I don’t necessarily agree completely, I do think this is a productive and helpful way to distinguish populisms. He also threw out an alarming statistic about the working poor and Roma in Hungary: many families in each group survive on 200 Euros ($212) a month, which I think is absolutely insane. He mentioned several other things including geography, nationalized welfare and public schooling (would love to see how it relates to the formation of French nationalism and public education—see The New Regime: Transformations of the French Civic Order, 1789-1820s by Isser Woloch) as they relate to the Magyar–Roma relationship in Hungary.
Christele interviewed people in two southern French departments over many years and asked why they voted why they voted. She has also done extensive exit polling. She explained that the French National Front attracts a diversity of voters that often do not know or may not even agree with the party platform, but that feel they are choosing the best candidate out of many bad candidates…She explained that one’s interpersonal, social, and economic relationships to society and how they change over time (Dan also made a point to explain how one’s class identity changes over time and therefore often causes a change in voting) are the biggest factors in determining how a person votes. She also made a point to dispel the notion that any party speaks for the “silent” citizens or those that “don’t have a voice” because as she said, silent citizens or citizens who aren’t represented do not vote. I thought that was a great point. Another point that I agreed with and was glad to see her research support is that people’s votes do not necessarily translate to agreement. I thought this also played into one thing that Kathleen brought up which was the erasure of gender as a factor for the 53% of Caucasian women who voted for the Right in our most recent election. Christele also spoke about geographic differences in voting, as did Don, which I am also very much interested in.
I liked that each panel had a presenter who showed how populism in the United States both aligns with and differs from European populism. I would have liked for any of them to relate their work to regionalism and Euroscepticism (one of the audience members asked about this but they ran out of time). It delighted me that most presenters agreed that populism was not a manifestation of only the Right or only the Left and that it can emerge from any political ideology. I was also happy to see presenters from different fields presenting their research (historians were under-represented though) and it was especially good that there were people who had done fieldwork on their topic. Historians don’t have the luxury of being able to prove things that aren’t available in primary or secondary documents (except oral historians), so it was great to see research that was based on living people. Christele focused on something I am most interested in: what makes people vote the way they do. She is a political sociologist; she said that it is an underrepresented field of Political Science and that there is only 1 other Ph.D. in France working on anything remotely similar to what she focuses on. I wonder if there are any political sociologists in Italy studying Lega Nord voters or secessionists in the south? What about the political sociology of members of organized crime syndicates? The political sociology of voters in the Southern U.S. or Hawaii? I could do it! Anyway, this was an amazing conference and I hope that I am able to attend other similar events in the future. I think next up will be another lecture at Columbia about Italian Renaissance drawing so come back soon!