Spain: Populists, demagogues and democrats

"Populism" has become the big scare word in  political invective of Spain, especially since the débâcle of the big established parties in the European Parliament elections. What politicians and supporters of those parties mean is any new movement that gathers the votes they think should have gone to them, whether far Right like Marine Le Pen's Front national or socialist like Podemos. What they are implying is something like the movement of the guy grinning in the photo. He called his movement "Fascismo".

Let's not let them confuse us. A xenophobic, chauvinist and national protectionist movement like Marine Le Pen's and an open, egalitarian and internationalist assembly like Podemos are aiming at very different kinds of political changes. Front national was founded by a neofascist pied noir, Le Pen père, in 1972 and has a long racist history that it has tried to prettify but has never apologized for; Podemos came into existence just last January, through a radically democratic assembly process and a selection of candidates through open primaries, with a ten-point program of reforms for economic guarantees, protection of social services (public health, education, and scientific investigation), all pointing to the left of the policies of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). What they have in common is that they challenge  politics-as-usual and the subservience of their respective national governments to big banking interests, and that they been able to attract large numbers of voters.

"Populism" didn't used to be a bad word. In fact, it's pretty close to what Spain's right-wing party uses to describe itself, the "Partido Popular" — literally, "people's party". To that earlier People's Party in the U.S., "populism" meant responding to the real needs of the people. But in current usage in Europe, it means demagogue, implying blatant use of attractive symbols to gull the ignorant masses into supporting leaders who may take them anywhere — even into war or bankruptcy. 

Demagoguery works when the people are easily gulled. Podemos (so far, at least) is dedicated to educating people so that they won't be gulled. And it also has built-in guarantees against creating a closed, self-referential leadership capable of leading docile masses to extreme actions. I've been participating in our local, Carboneras Podemos "circle", a group of about 15 men and women of varied opinions and backgrounds, where we are focusing on local issues in an atmosphere of complete free discussion. It feels a lot like the old SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) gatherings I was involved in the the U.S. in the '60s, when the practice was "participative democracy".  SDS, as you may remember, was eventually taken over by a radical Maoist organization, taking advantage of the very open leadership structure to get their own activists elected and to change the rules. The same could happen to Podemos, if we're not careful. But so far, the possibility looks remote. And if it does happen, why, then we real democrats will move on to something else.

Meanwhile, there are worse things than being called, or even than being, a "populist". 

Cartoon borrowed from Hightower Lowdown