, Tony Blair, Matteo Renzi: three of rightwing populism’s greatest scalps.
Clinton admits she was left dumbfounded by her 2016 election defeat at the hands of . Renzi’s centre-left party was defeated this year after a surge in the anti-establishment vote in Italy, a country he calls “the incubator” of populism.
Blair may not have lost at the ballot box, but his legacy, particularly on Europe, was upended in the referendum.
All three are shunned by sections of their own party that accuse them of being responsible for the failure of the centre-left to offer a sufficiently radical alternative.
But all three are still thinking deeply about rightwing populism – its causes and the threat it poses – the mistakes of the centre left, including their own, and how modern politics appears to be mobilising resentment towards a perceived elite.
This much emerges from conversations with each, conducted in October and November, as part of the Guardian’s six-month exploration of the surge in populism around the world.
, just before the midterm elections. She admitted to still being “absolutely dumbfounded” by her defeat, and reflected on the sudden appeal of combative, supposedly straight-talking candidates who, she said, spoke to people’s emotions, not their reason.
“Strength right now seems really attractive, and there’s not enough of an awareness, or reminders, about what that can lead to,” she said. “There is this tension – I don’t fully understand it, I think it’s as much psychological, maybe more than political – as to what people are yearning for. I mean, freedom is burdensome. It’s hard getting up and taking responsibility for yourself and trying to make all these decisions.”
Candidates who set themselves on fire
All three interviewees argue that one significant problem for mainstream politicians is that detailed, reasoned arguments stand little chance against the antics of the populist, whose simplified, amplified rhetoric is apt to drown out costed healthcare programmes or earnest paeans to liberal values. And politicians are no longer held to their promises.
“The press does not know how to cover these candidates who are setting themselves on fire every day, who are masters of diversion and distraction,” Clinton said. “That is new.
“I always believed in the [2016 US presidential] campaign … the moderators would ask the hard questions, they would force us to respond and they would draw out the differences. That never happened. Because the guy I was running against is a master at just waving his hands and tweeting and insulting, and dominating the news cycles.”
Blair, whose non-profit organisation the Institute for Global Change into the growth of populism in Europe, agreed. “The political space for argument and debate has become very, very hard to curate and understand because everything is just sucked into this vortex of highly inflamed political rhetoric and exchanges of position without people trying to really reach much common ground,” he said.
Renzi formally resigned as leader of Italy’s centre-left Democratic party (PD) after a in elections that resulted in a populist coalition government between the rightwing League and the anti-establishment, Eurosceptic Five Star Movement (M5S).
“Social media makes you feel as if you are at the table , and yet nothing changes,” he said. “I made an unbelievable mistake when I did not understand the engineering of hate, and the way hate was engineered from abroad and inside the country.”
‘We were almost technocrats – this was our mistake’
Renzi, a former prime minister, said that while populists in government would find responsibility chastening, the centre left could not just sit back and offer austerity as their big idea. “In we lost the chance to fight against populism,” he said, speaking in his imposing offices in the Palazzo Giustoniani in Rome. “We lost the electoral campaign because we made the choice – for me, a mistake – to be very prudent and without passion.
“We presented ourselves as the government that saved Italy from economic disaster that had returned order to the table. We were the problems solvers, almost technocrats. This was our mistake maybe the worst mistake in our electoral campaign.”
Clinton is also ready to admit the mistakes she believes contributed to her defeat two years ago.
“We got caught in a kind of transition period. So what I had seen work in the past, and what had worked as recently as 2012, was no longer as appealing or digestible to the people or to the press,” she said. She admitted she rejected some big bold economic messages such as a because she worried about the cost.
“I was trying to be in a position where I could answer all the hard questions, but I never got the hard questions. I never got them. I was waiting for them. I could answer them. Yet I was running against a guy who did not even pretend to care about policy at all.”
‘The problem is not migration – it is fear of migration’
On specific issues that have wrong-footed the centrist consensus, all three point to migration, arguing that the centre left has to come up with a reasoned alternative to the kneejerk populism of the right.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Brexit was largely about immigration and the lies that were told by the leave campaign,” Clinton said. “But immigration really helped to push it over the line, and I think that’s why Viktor Orbán has consolidated his power. He closed his borders and it looked like he was a defender of Hungarian society and culture.”
Blair said those on the centre ground had to accept immigration was an issue of concern to large swathes of the electorate that cannot just be ignored. Renzi, in contrast, said it had only become a big concern to people because of the narratives that populists in his country were weaving.
“The problem is not migration itself but the fear of migration, which is worse,” he said. “The true narrative of the populist is a message that presents the future as a place of problems – about jobs we will lose and how migrants will steal the future”.
Clinton articulated a position that she felt Democrats should adopt on immigration in the US, where there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, as Trump exploits fear of migrants to inflame his political base.
Democrats, she said, must never stoop to treating migrants cruelly. “You deport the bad actors, you deport the criminals, you deport people who have some other kind of threat to our national security. People who have been here for a long time, you have a cut-off point and after that point, they have to learn English, they have to pay taxes, they have to follow the law, they have to wait in line, and you have a process.
“For people who then keep coming, you turn them back, unless they qualify for asylum, which has been in our law for hundreds of years.”
The risk to democracy
All three politicians are concerned about the implications for liberal democracy if debate is infantilised, opponents are delegitimised and opinion is Balkanised, all of which can be hallmarks of rightwing populism.
Speaking at his central London offices, Blair said: “If your society divides into two groups of people who are culturally opposed to each other, who don’t talk to each other, listen to each other or like each other, at what point do they decide that the other group is actually delegitimised?”
“That’s the risk. At what point do you say … and you can see some elements of this in American politics today … at what point do you say that these people shouldn’t govern, they don’t actually have the right to govern?”
Renzi said the confrontational atmosphere had given rise to a “climate of hate”.
“This is the problem of the new generation – they are educated to hate and to envy,” he said. “If in the past you are a good entrepreneur, journalist or artist, the first reaction was praise, but now the first reaction is not ‘wow’, it is to challenge. We have lost the sentiment of respect.”
Clinton said policy had to be written in bolder colours than a 10-point plan. “The real challenge is how do you carry a big banner that says, we are for you. We are going to promote policies and pass laws that are going to help not just those at the top, which is the Trump agenda, but really permeate universally into society, so that you, as well as your neighbour, as well as the guy down the street are going to be better off.”
She ends the interview with a dilemma and a lament. “I’m all for having civil conversations, but if you don’t win elections you can’t change what is happening and get back those norms that have been established over so many years. Unfortunately, the way that our press and politics and particularly social media operate now, people reward the most clicks, the most outrageous comments, toughness, strength. That’s what gets rewarded, and it’s heartbreaking to me”.