May 6, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Populist Catch-all
MOST APROPROS of my recent essay on populism, I find word in the news (alas—exclusively the Italian news) of the recent visit to the Harvard campus, by one Luigi Di Maio.
A word to my American readers, who cannot necessarily be expected to know this name. Luigi Di Maio is one of the foremost spokespersons for the Italian Movimento Cinque Stelle, the Five Star Movement, by most estimates the strongest political party in Italy today. Mr. Di Maio is also Vice President of the Italian Chamber. His political office, and his special role in the Movimento Cinque Stelle, position him as the likely Movimento candidate come the elections for Italian Prime Minister. Italian politics being what it is, one can neither guess when the devil these elections will be, nor what will issue from them; but it is clear at least that this man has as good of a chance as anyone of soon becoming the most visible Italian in world politics. On all counts, his visitation to the United States, to say nothing of Harvard, is hardly an occasion to be shrugged at.
It would be both impractical for me and tedious for my readers, were I to attempt to explain the Movimento Cinque Stelle here. Suffice to say that it is a kind of internet-propelled grass-roots movement of recent origin, and that it unites a wide variety of diverse political strands—calling for everything from free internet for all citizens, to reduced wages for Italian parliamentarians, to reduced taxes for Italians, to the establishment of a number of pro-environment policies. To locate it solidly on the traditional political right or the left is difficult if not impossible—reason for which confusion I consider in another of my entries—but so far as the two touchstones of contemporary far-right European populism go, namely, anti-European Union nationalism and anti-immigration, the Movimento Cinque Stelle is rather tepid in comparison with other Italian parties, like Casa Pound, I Fratelli d’Italia, and even the Lega Nord. That Mr. Di Maio is a “populist” seems evident enough—but he is hardly a populist in the same vein as, say, Marine Le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.
I marvel—though really I should cease marveling at such Americana—to discover that Mr. Di Maio’s presence on Harvard campus was actually protested, apparently due to the anti-Europe stance that the Movimento Cinque Stelle has recently somewhat squeamishly adopted. This protest limited itself to a number of indignant letters to the moderator, Professor Archon Fung, criticizing the invitation (!) of Mr. Di Maio—but I am not much comforted by this evident lack of vigor, as it seems to me to indicate, rather than a general moderation on part of our contemporary Harvard students, a general diffusion of their ignorance instead. I am afraid that if a goodly number of the campus’ students had ever heard of Mr. Di Maio before this event, they might have pressed somewhat more strenuously to hold him at bay. For Mr. Di Maio himself is considered, I am amazed to find, a figure of the “populist right.” This phrase comes, not from some random student, but from the moderator’s own mouth.
The moderator noted that Mr. Di Maio would resist this description, but he did not pause to ask why this might be so, nor did he extend to his guest the benefit of the doubt, by reflecting that perhaps Mr. Di Maio might have sound reasons for his resistance. He did not ask himself if Mr. Di Maio perhaps understands his own Movimento better than a given professor of an American university. Although Professor Fung made it clear in his introductory remarks that he is aware both of certain complexities of the populist phenomenon (he referred as well to “populism of the left”) and of the possible inadequacy of the entire idea of the “left-right” axis in contemporary politics, still he saw fit to characterize Mr. Di Maio and Mr. Di Maio’s party with a term which that party rejects, and which is sure to instill an inaccurate image of what Mr. Di Maio and the Movimento are about.
I ignore for the moment the offensive, although unsurprising, parochialism of this all-too American reception. I want to know only this. Is it not remarkable, that this little word “populist” has so far gotten the upper hand of our sense and our senses, that it now goes about painting the world for us in false colors everywhere we turn? Is it not startling, that merely by having this word applied to oneself, one suddenly risks all manner of unpleasant and hostile reactions, no matter what one actually believes about this or that issue? And is it not embarrassing that a school of the status of the Kennedy Harvard School, should evidently be affected precisely by these misperceptions?
I would like to suggest—though I am perfectly aware that this suggestion will result in precisely nothing—a moratorium on this word “populism,” which has become a spur to adversarial passions and a mystifier of our reason. It would behoove us to attempt to look at the contemporary political world without the distorting lens of this concept “populism,” which means so many things by now that it hardly means anything at all any longer. We might learn something about the real political conditions of the day, if we only begin to extract them once again from this populist catch-all into which we have begun so injudiciously to toss them.
Note: Anyone who is interested in watching video footage in English of Mr. Di Maio’s visit to Harvard can find it here.