"We must accept that all politics is in fact passionate"LOUIS ASHWORTH

When we talk about populism (as we often now do), we usually talk in terms of political extremes. It is associated with primal emotion, charismatic personalities and, above all, the abandonment of reason as a motivator of political decision-making. The extremes of populism stand in opposition to what we might understand as a more rational middle ground.

The election of Trump and the Brexit referendum are frequently cited as manifestations of right-wing populism; on the left, we point to Spain’s Podemos party and Greece’s Syriza party, and even to the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Student politics are not immune to such dynamics; only the other week, Varsity published an opinion article that lamented the apparent rise of “politicised” public language, aligning it with Orwell’s concept of Newspeak. Polarised, irrational and dangerous – it seems both the left and the right corrupt a public conversation of would-be moderation and reason.

The ‘ordinary student’, who haunts our student politics with the possibility of an authentic student to whom our representatives should listen

Anywhere there is talk of democracy and representation, it seems populism is hardly around the corner. Yet there seems to be something missing here, and I find myself turning to a more familiar example – that of our University campus. If I were to make a bingo card for CUSU election campaigns (as I’m sure someone has done before), terms like ‘representation’, ‘student voice’, and ‘engagement’ would no doubt make an appearance. So, too, would the ‘ordinary Cambridge student’, who haunts our student politics with the possibility of an authentic student to whom our representatives should listen. But who is this ‘ordinary student’?

We may find our answer in the columns of Varsity, where Theo Demolder speaks of a growing divide between the “activist left” and the “majority of students” following the events of last term. Discussing the strike action, he writes: “For most students, [the strikes] have been frustrating – but few would direct their annoyance at the strikers; it’s a difficult, complicated situation. Conversely, the zeal with which the activist left has embraced the strikes has been extraordinary.” Padded with implications, a dangerous division emerges.

On the one hand, most students have been frustrated because they are students who care about their education and have been put in a difficult position. On the other hand, the activist left are immune to this frustration, as is demonstrated by the fact of their activism – because it seems they are not also students who care about their education, or have been put into the same position.

The logic is clear. Those who actively choose to engage (overwhelmingly those who are marginalised) are not ordinary students; those who talk explicitly of politics are not part of the body who are owed representation. Yet, unlike what might be called left-wing or right-wing populism, centrist populism plays on the very idea of what separates these dangerous extremes from the ideal of a rational and democratic centre to bolster its appeal.

Another example might come from this year’s successful CUSU presidential candidate, who made a point of her distance from CUSU in her student life and emphasised that “CUSU shouldn’t be about partisan affiliation”, but listening to and representing “all students” – construed, yet again, in the frame of the “ordinary student”. More recently, the defeat of a motion to support strike refunds at CUSU Council by a large voting majority has been criticised as a pursuit of “ideological goals” at the cost of student interest; the ‘ordinary student’, of course, possessing no such goals at all.


Mountain View

Performative outbursts against elitism are not good enough

This is less to disparage the centre than to ask what it means when the ‘ordinary student’ is invoked. Populism seems to be a term that currently plays an ironic double role. In common usage, it represents less a real phenomenon than a strategic use of an artificial division between good, democratic politics and the dark shadow of emotion; it is the emotional weight of such an ideal which makes it so effective. The most dominant form of what we might call populism at our University may then be the misconstruing of the average student as apolitical.

It is not only those who could be deemed centrist who leverage emotion for political purpose – they are merely the most successful, and the most perversely incognito. We must accept that all politics is in fact passionate, and ask what is at stake in this false ideal. Perhaps, then, we can move beyond the re-enactment of these stale and pale tropes, and on to more honest conversation. We may even be able to shake up our bingo cards.

Sponsored links

Partner links