The recent European Parliament elections have sent shockwaves through the political establishment. Populist parties considered to be on the political fringes topped the polls in four member states (Denmark, France, the UK and Greece) and scored over 10 per cent of the vote in more than 11 countries. On the other side of the Atlantic, the emergence of the Tea Party and the Occupy movements in recent years have also profoundly changed the political landscape.
Movements such as UKIP, the Front National, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, SYRIZA, Occupy and the Tea Party obviously range across the political spectrum from extreme left to extreme right, but all share a common political theme: they are populist and anti-establishment. They all reject both the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties as compromised by money and power. Their political vision is not based on a horizontal political division between right and left, but on a vertical division between those they perceive to be an out-of-touch ruling elite and the ordinary voters.
Vertical political division is of course nothing new, but constituted mainstream politics for most of our history, when a small elite monopolised political power and economic resources and exploited the impoverished masses. In some ways, modern democracy is actually the result of the progressive transition from a vertical political division to a horizontal one.
For the first time in the past 50 years, political parties whose ideologies are based on a rejection of the established system and of the existing elites are becoming mainstream in both Western Europe and the US. Is this a protest vote against the parties that presided over a prolonged period of economic recession and unemployment? Is this due to the constant rise of inequalities denounced by Thomas Piketty? Is it a temporary situation, or is it here to stay?
This emerging journey from a horizontal political divide back to a vertical political divide is, in my opinion, extremely dangerous. Mainstream political fights between the right and the left allow different values and visions to compete and therefore contribute to create better policies. Whereas the end goal of any political movement campaigning with vertical divide rhetoric is ultimately to over-turn the entire political system. As history has taught us so many times, a battle between the ‘representatives of the people’ against an elite can end up being very destructive.
So far, none of the current extremist parties are in a position to be elected to the government in Europe or the US. But the rise of these fringe movements cannot be ignored by mainstream traditional parties. They need to understand the challenges they are facing, look beyond the borders of their closed political circles, and – most importantly – listen and talk to their electorates.
The challenge of any communication campaign – be it corporate, individual or political – is to find common ground and connect on a rational and emotional level with your target audience. Many Western political parties seem to have simply lost this connection with their electorates. ‘Natura abhorret a vacu, nature abhors vacuum:’ populist parties have occupied this space.
Political communication in many countries has become too polished and too dominated by sanitised, scripted sound-bites which lack real emotion and seem remote from our everyday lives. In contrast, populist leaders such as Beppe Grillo or Nigel Farage sound authentic and speak directly about concerns and issues that voters feel are being ignored by the establishment. Even if I vehemently disagree with their views, it is hard to deny that they are extremely talented political communicators.
Our representative democracy is in crisis. The recent European elections and the rise of the Tea Party represent serious warnings. If traditional political parties do not change the way they listen, talk and represent the people, they will end up just representing themselves. And that would be in nobody’s interest.