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The Grillo Threat: Why We Should All Worry About 'Liberal Populism'

06/03/2013 13:22 GMT | Updated 05/05/2013 10:12 BST

Amid the chaos of last week's election in Italy, cool heads have nodded in recognition of Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S). It bears all the hallmarks of the Fronte dell'Uomo Qualunque, an anti-political movement which won 30 seats in the election of 1946 and promptly imploded on impact with parliament.

The impurities of politics - compromise, negotiation, trade-offs and moderation - make fools of those who profess themselves to be above such things. We don't yet know how or even whether a government in Italy will be formed. But whatever happens, M5S will be tainted by any involvement. The movement may well meet the same fate as the Qualunquismos and disappear with barely a trace.

But for those who would celebrate this - and there are many grounds (both economic and political) for doing so - a word of warning. Throughout its democratic history, mainstream European politics has been confronted with various types of populism and has generally kept it safely confined to the margins. But Grillo's movement is one example of a new and more powerful type of populism. And anyone who values representative democracy should see this new populism as a serious threat.

'Populism' is usually associated, in Europe at least, with the far right. More-or-less racist parties present themselves as the voice of 'the people' against a vilified elite. But they have an exclusive idea of who 'the people' really are, with Muslims nowadays the most commonly excluded group. Populism can also describe the politics of the radical left. Occupy and the Spanish Indignados use anti-elitist slogans that could just as easily come from the far right ('we are the 99%' and 'the politicians don't represent us'). But their politics (although they try to hide it and probably wouldn't call it politics) is broadly New Left mixed with a defence of the social democratic welfare state.

Neither of these types of populism adequately describes Grillo's movement. According to Demos research, the typical M5S supporter is slightly left-of-centre, educated, quite young, pro-immigration and pro-business. In other words, Grillo's support is liberal, in both the economic and social sense. You might even say that the M5S occupies the centre ground.

This 'liberal populism' is fuelled by astoundingly high levels of anti-political sentiment in Italy. There are particular reasons why Italians are so fed up with their politicians, but similar levels of dissatisfaction can be found in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Consequently, liberal populism is not confined to Italy. The Pirate Party in Germany has enjoyed anti-establishment success almost on a par with Grillo's, based on a similarly liberal support base. 38 Degrees, an activist organisation in the UK, pursues liberal campaigns by using people's disillusionment with formal politics as a strategic asset.

Young, educated and tech-savvy people, who increasingly form the centre ground of European citizenries, are starting to express their dissatisfaction with mainstream politics through populist channels. The broad social make-up of this constituency means that this new form of populism is much more likely to stick around than the more radical left-wing and right-wing versions. So while Grillo's movement may not last long, there are good reasons to suspect there's more where that came from.

But there is a danger that liberal populism, if left unchecked, will eventually undermine the legitimacy of representative institutions. No doubt some would see this as just what is needed, but at the very least it's a path fraught with danger. The participatory mechanisms favoured by liberal populists have their place in modern democracies. But over-reliance on such mechanisms could have seriously negative outcomes. There's a reason why the word 'populism' has derogatory overtones. Bernard Crick described the dangers best: for him, any commitment to the mythical 'people's will' which over-rides the conciliatory aspects of representative democracy is essentially totalitarian in nature.

So while there are good reasons for liberal populists to be disillusioned, the solution is not to abandon representative democracy but to reinforce it. The liberal populism of Grillo and his ilk must be confronted before it's too late.