Michael Walzer – you may or may not have heard of him but he’s a real political brain box. He’s written about politics and been a key player in political movements since the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties. He’s in the UK this week to talk about right-wing populism and how we can all contribute to its defeat.
We had a chat with him to find out what he thinks about the current state of politics and what young people can do about it.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to recognise what populist/nationalist politics looks like. This is particularly true for our readers who are young and haven’t experienced this sort of politics in their lifetime. How would you define it, and what does it mean for the world?
It looks like Donald Trump. It looks like Brexit. It looks like the right-wing Prime Minister Orbán of Hungary, or President Erdoğan of Turkey.
A populist leader is normally someone who gives the impression that they are a great, powerful and strong leader. They normally appeal to a sense of anger, resentment and disappointment with current politics. In America, it’s really just an appeal to old-fashioned American racism and nationalism (which is the politics of promoting the interests of America and Americans above all others).
You’d often see the left-wing in America appealing to these feelings of frustration too; arguing that there is an oppressed working class who deserve more. In the past, they have – when in power – acted on these arguments by doing things like raising wages, increasing social security and introducing unemployment insurance.
Right-wing populist leaders – like Donald Trump – appeal to the same feelings but without delivering anything.
It’s similar to the UK with Brexit. It’s all talk, and we’re still waiting for people to realise that they haven’t gotten anything out of it. The policies that Trump supports, in fact, only benefit the very rich and they are making our unequal society even more unequal.
You mentioned Trump’s right-wing policies. His supporters would argue that he’s made some improvements, like ensuring reduced unemployment or the rise in the stock market. Would you agree?
It’s true that unemployment has gone down, but a lot of these jobs are part-time, temporary, and low-paying. People are employed but they are more vulnerable to the next health crisis or lay off. In America we call this the precariat; people who are living lives that are very unstable. They might just be managing to survive day-to-day, but one small change and they could be in a really bad situation.
Most young people, despite being put off by politics, do care about democracy. Is the populism we’re seeing today a threat to democracy?
I think right-wing populism is a huge threat. It’s not unthinkable that Donald Trump might lose an election and refuse to leave.
We also have to be careful that we don’t respond to right-wing populism with left-wing populism. Bernie Sanders (who’s really popular with young people) and Elizabeth Warren have exciting ideas and policies, but some are not backed by their party (the Democrats). I support their programmes, but I worry that if they win they will not be able to enact these ambitious programmes as they haven’t built a movement that can support these ambitions.
Young people often feel very let down by “politics”. They feel powerless and like there’s no place for them. What can they do to counter the rise of right-wing populism?
Young people are right to feel this way. They have been let down by politicians, particularly those on the left who embraced policies that have hurt younger people, like neoliberal economics and austerity. Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all abandoned their traditional base for neoliberal economics.
But young people can and should get involved in politics. They can do this in two specific ways. Both of them are equally important:
- Electorally, so very much working within the system. Basically, you need to vote!
In the US people aged 18-29 vote at a much lower rate than any other age group, and I imagine it’s a similar situation in the UK. Young people turn out in huge numbers at Bernie Sanders’ rallies, for example, but they don’t register to vote. Young people really need to get involved if right-wing populism is going to be defeated. A big surge of new young voters could really boost the chances of beating right-wing populism and, in turn, see the introduction of more policies to help and support young people.
- Movement politics; a good example of movement politics is the climate change movement (currently being lead and heavily influenced by a young person: Greta Thunberg). But it’s got to be sustained, rather than a one-time thing (e.g. ‘Fridays for Future’, which has been consistent for the past year).
Are protests and activism a waste of time in terms of creating a more hopeful future? We’re seeing a lot more of them here in the UK but are they it worth it?
They definitely can be, if done right. Occupy Wall Street was a young people’s movement that developed after the banks crashed in 2008. But there was no proper organisation and no accountable leaders. There was a famous moment at one of their meetings in Wall Street Square where someone stood up and said they needed to recruit more people and it was shouted down as a “fascist idea”. A movement like that cannot sustain itself.
The Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s (African-Americans fighting for their right to vote) is a great example of a successful movement. It was sustained over time and produced accountable leaders, which is very important (these included young leaders like Stokely Carmichael). I remember those days very well and it was the Baptist preachers who took on a leadership role. It’s harder now with the Movement as there aren’t obvious leaders and spokespeople in place.
Finally, summarise your top tips for how young people can get involved in politics and counter right-wing populism?
Make sure you get involved in electoral politics- so VOTE! And get involved in movement politics and understand that it involves commitment, good organisation, leadership and accountability. It’s not easy but it is the real antidote to the right-wing populism of today.
If you’d like to hear more from Michael, he’ll be speaking at the event “Authority and Populism in the age of Donald Trump” at The Stuart Hall Foundation in partnership with the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Mile End Institute. This event is free, get your ticket here.