In the West and elsewhere where populist right-wing political parties and other extremist groups organise, mainstream politicians and regular people seem unable to understand what goes on. We somehow seen unable or unwilling to believe the unorthodox right-wing political trends. There are also people who feel some kind of Schadenfreude, simply saying, ‘”there you see, you went too far with liberal politics”. Many see development of populist groups as a reaction to the more bureaucratic, intellectual and scientific ways of analysing society and formulating policies.

In our time, few major decisions can be made by parliamentarians without a pile of studies, reports, white papers and other ‘knowledge based’ material. Often, this would be thousands of pages, and there would have been a number of meeting and discussions between experts and politicians before recommendations and decisions are made. There would also have been debates with the electorate and ordinary people. Yet, much of this would be so technical that only professionals in the fields in question would understand all of it; the rest of us would simply have to believe the recommendations, assume they are well-meant, and follow the convictions of the politicians in the parties we sympathise with.

As long as people feel that their interests are included, that they have jobs to go to, earn a bit better every year, and that the society in general moves in the right direction, they go along with most of what the politicians and experts say. But people notice that much is decided above their heads, and that they have little real chance to influence decisions. If the decision-makers, the politicians and bureaucrats, then behave in arrogant ways, and that can easily happen, then voters and ordinary people may begin to question politics and bureaucracy.

I believe these are key reasons for the mushrooming of populist and other protest movements in our time. In Europe they sometimes get 15-20 percent of votes in elections; in America they even got the president, the most powerful man in the world. Much of the reason is that people feel alienated, as social scientists and psychologists would term it. If politicians are arrogant and insensitive, or simply believe that what they do is right and above discussion, then ordinary people may dislike what goes on, feel overrun by political power, bureaucrats and experts. Especially people with low education and in job with low status could easily feel that they are ignored and told what to do, and not included in the process of reaching conclusions.

Instead of throwing stones and holding demonstrations, the powerless groups in society would simply make their own homespun analysis and talk in lunch breaks at work and at the coffee table with friends, and they would vote for the populist parties, led by self-made politicians who are ‘fishing in troubled waters’. Such leaders would often be disgruntled and negative, flattering people, and explaining that they are not getting what they deserve (and to some extent that may even be true). They would look for target groups to criticise and blame for the situation that are easy to identify; often, or always, immigrants would be a key target group. They also criticise authorities for high tax levels and uneven redistribution of wealth and services, and they often claim that groups misuse welfare systems.

In my article last week, I gave a brief summary of political trends in my time, that is, from the 1960s till today. We have moved from winds from the left to the right, from responsible and inclusive thinking to selfish and individualistic ideas, and in recent decades, the populist movements on the right, have begun to shake up politicians and the rest of us. But we seem slow to realise the seriousness in it; we don’t want to admit that the old political parties must not just dismiss the populists as foolish and extreme. We must begin to analyse properly why it happens, yes, find out what is wrong with mainstream parties and politics, and the bureaucracies that implement and administer decisions by the politicians.

I wrote last week that we must always be part of the spirit of the times we live in, the Zeitgeist, as it is called in German, and now that word is commonly used in English too. To be part of the Zeitgeist can mean that we support trends, but it can also mean that we oppose and question things, and we may adopt some of the new ideas and ways, but not all. What we should never do would be to dismiss new waves as stupid, yes, even when they may be! We must always be able to discuss with opponents, teach them and explain our own views, but also listen to concerns of others. It is difficult to hold such discussions, but it is the only way to win the argument.

I shall admit that I often find that many conservative opinions are based on misunderstandings, lack of knowledge and analysis, and even a want to describe reality without admitting how things actually are. I personally believe that the left-oriented analysis is truer and more scientific. However, who am I to tell people? Everyone must be allowed to have their opinion and analysis (well, as long as they are not my students in social sciences!). Besides, we all have our misunderstandings and biases. The least we can and should do would be to try to be objective and neutral, and also try to see issues from the point of view of our opponents. Politics is not science; politics is about interests and values, and it is about participation, even when we don’t quite understand things around us. But through taking part we all learn. We should argue for what we believe is right and good, yet, we should allow others to do the same, and we should listen to everyone.

Would I really be as open-minded with all my opponents, even the ultra-conservatives and extremists on the far right (and even far out on the left)? Would I allow the Swedish Democrats to talk about their politics? Yes, I hope I would as long as SD would argue in a descent and honest way. I would not accept that the SD politicians and sympathisers, or any other party, group or person, to argue in such ways that are disrespectful to others.

In addition, in political discourse we must also not discuss in arrogant or unfair ways so that we make other people unable to understand our arguments and argue back. That would be manipulation and that is wrong.

Sometimes, maybe more often than we realise, many politicians and people higher up, with degrees and fine education, behave in unacceptable ways to people lower on the social and economic ladder – and experts and bureaucrats may also behave in such unacceptable ways.

A major reason why some of the old mainstream political parties are in trouble has to do with this, giving room to simplistic, homespun political opinions on the right. Not all that we think and say in private should be said and given prominence in public. What political parties say and stand for must be more than what we say in everyday conversations or twits.

The political right-wing trends in our time can only be challenged by arguments – and the old mainstream parties have the main duty to set the rules for fair debate, even so that the right-wingers can be part of the debate. Hence, in many ways, it is a responsibility of everyone to win over the extremists through better arguments and more fair play. I believe we can do that, and it is high time the establishment and the old parties understand this, and that we all renew ourselves so that we can face each other in open and honest debates. After all, people are not stupid; people listen to reason, indeed so if the playing field is level.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.