Progressive Futures

Democratic stress, the populist signal and extremist threat

21 March 2013

Democratic stress, the populist signal and extremist threat: A call for a new mainstream statecraft and contact democracy

Anthony Painter

The rise of populism seen across Europe and the US is exposing old and hidden fault-lines in democratic systems.

Mainstream parties seem powerless to respond to basic popular anxieties. Many appear blind to the reality that elite political projects have run their course. Democracy is under considerable stress – and fissures are opening up out of which new forms of populism and extremism have emerged.

And yet populists are routinely dismissed as ‘protest’ parties, ‘clowns’ and ‘flashes in the pan’. In fact, real demand exists for Europe’s populists – of different kinds – and they must be seen as serious challenger movements that the established parties ignore at their peril.

Today, Policy Network launches a significant new report entitled “Democratic stress, the populist signal and extremist threat”. The report is based on a substantial European research project which has over the past 8 months investigated campaigns, policies and political approaches targeted at populism and extremism at the national, local and neighbourhood levels. Working with a wide range of politicians, experts, campaigners, academics and public officials, it has considered how parties – of the left and right – have responded to their different manifestations in countries across Europe.

The final report identifies where mainstream politics has failed to date and sets out a strategic evaluation of how the antagonistic and corrosive aspects of populist impulses and identity politics can be resisted and defeated. The conclusion sets forward an approach blending ‘statecraft’ and ‘contact democracy’, with case-study examples.

Photo credit: John Gomez /