May’s MEP elections are expected to pit liberal democratic internationalists against a populist right intent on taking over the EU. But anyone interested in tracing that debate in Malta is going to have an interesting time.
Remember, this is the country where the political party most frequently accused of espousing right-wing populism, Labour, also champions the selling of passports; while the politicians who have criticised the passport scheme have done so, among other reasons, in the name of national pride in one’s motherland (yes, that was the rhetoric, at least in the early days).
Are there no easy indices of Maltese populism? It’s trickier than you think. A prime candidate should be the slogan Malta First And Foremost (Malta l-Ewwel u Qabel Kollox). But you will find it has been used not only by Labour but also, less frequently, by some Nationalist Party politicians and not least by the former Democrat Party leader, Marlene Farrugia.
Anti-establishment and anti-elite rhetoric is a mainstay of populists of right and left, who pour it liberally, like ketchup, over whatever they’re saying. It’s been used by both Labour and the current leaders of the PN. Even here, though, it’s complicated. In the PN, the rhetoric has mainly been used against other party figures, not social elites.
In turn, Joseph Muscat is very careful with his dosage. Turning out for one of his MEP candidates at a Labour public meeting in Żejtun on Friday, he told his grassroots audience that the establishment has “never given anything for free” to the party. But he said so while urging serenity.
He was quick to add that Labour had learned how to smile and extend the hand of friendship. You have to suspect it was intended to justify why his government is in league with fat cats, as much as it was to remind his audience he was on their side against a common adversary. With Muscat, anti-establishment rhetoric is more French dressing than ketchup.
Another pillar of European populism is anti-EU rhetoric, of the sort we’re used to hearing from Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. In Malta, however, anti-EU rhetoric is likely to lose you an election. The Eurobarometer polls leave no doubt about that.
Context is everything. Populism is a shape shiftier. Social class or economic recession are not reliable indices. In Hungary and Poland, populist parties are dominant in a period of historically low unemployment. France does have economic problems but it’s been said the biggest predictor of a vote for the National Front is how far you live from the nearest train station – the farther away, the more likely Marine Le Pen will echo your sentiments.
It has sometimes been suggested that, at least in Malta, the way to spot a populist is by gauging whether they are ‘amoral’. The problem here is twofold. First, it mirrors the very criticism that populists make of ‘amoral’ elites.
Second, it doesn’t fit the facts. It misses just how moralising, say, Muscat’s rhetoric is. It is full of morally loaded language. His policies are described as compassionate, encouraging industriousness and full of social conscience; his adversaries are treacherous (among themselves as well as in relation to the country) and envious.
I suggest the best way to spot a populist (or a liberal democrat) in Malta is to look for how the nation is moralised.
For liberal democrats, nations are a microcosm of humanity. Of course they feel things like national pride and pursue national interests but not as far as to endorse a slogan like My Nation Right or Wrong. The fundamental bonds are those of common humanity.
Populists, at least of the right, tend to speak of the nation as a family writ large and the country as a household. The bonds are of ‘blood’. Foreigners will always be foreigners, no matter what papers they have. As in a household, it’s the cooking and the clothes that matter. Authority is paternalist and denouncing the national government is immoral, because it’s like washing dirty linen in public. Populists insist on defending their nation, right or wrong.
These are two different bases for morality. Of course they overlap. Liberal democrats care for human fraternity. They take seriously the idea of the human family. But the parallels between families and nations are limited.
Freedom of speech – the right to give offence – has no equivalent in a family. Nor, for that matter, does transparency, which is intolerable in a household where being under someone’s eye all the time is oppressive. What is right for families – the leaders behaving paternally or maternally – is perverse for liberal democracy.
It is striking that, in Malta, civil liberties are most associated with rights linked to private family life: marital and reproductive rights. Perhaps it is because they are easier to assimilate to an idea of a nation as a family writ large.
For liberal democrats, such rights are important but secondary to the more fundamental rights to do with the public sphere, which understandably cannot be imagined along family lines. The public sphere is where strangers meet and make explicit their differences and debate them. It is those rights that are under question today.
For populists, though, there is no such thing as a public sphere or public goods in their own right. There is, rather, an aggregation of individual private interests, as there is in a household, for which one argues on an ad hoc basis, by appeal to parents who understand and listen, rather than to rules overseen by public servants.
My hunch is that this approach to populism, as rudimentary as it is, reveals more than trying to paint populism by numbers. As the MEP elections approach, it is likely to show that populists are found across the mainstream political parties. Hopefully, so will liberal democrats.