Something strange has happened in the last few years of Western populism. The same vices that social conservatives attribute to Muslims are now being used by liberals to describe conservatives voting for populist nationalist causes, like Brexit and Donald Trump as well as Joseph Muscat’s Labour and Adrian Delia’s PN.

Neo-conservatives like to describe Muslims – whether living in the US or Europe or else in the Middle East – as living in a state of perpetual rage. They are said to resent liberal democracy and the economic success that accompany open societies and pluralism. They are chauvinist and resent successful women. They resist any facts in favour of dogma. And they are ready to bring down the entire world with them just because they won’t come to terms with their own social and cultural decline.

The social sciences are invoked to support the picture. Arcane details from Islamic and Middle Eastern history are torn from their original context and waved knowingly in order to describe an unchanging, static mentality. It somehow covers a sixth of the world’s population, speaking half a dozen major languages, in a dizzying variety of social conditions.

Sounds familiar? It should. Trump and Brexit voters are today described in almost identical terms. White males, in a permanent state of apoplexy, resentful of a world they consider foreign, ready to destroy it. If they win a vote, then it’s described as the last rearguard action of an amoral individualism.

Once more, pundits invoke the social sciences, even though actual scholarship reveals a more nuanced picture of such voters. There are more women, more people of immigrant background, more of the middle class, than the stereotypes will allow.

The point is not that there’s no truth in such stereotypes but that there is not enough to explain what is going on. The result is that an important aspect of our world is misunderstood.

It may be satisfying to describe political opponents this way. But it explains very little.

Then there’s the irony. Stereotypes that are seen, by liberals, as unacceptable when describing immigrants and Muslims, are somehow justified when used to describe opponents.

Never mind the doublethink. You can begin to understand where right-wing populism gets some of the confirmation for its own prejudices about the supercilious middle class. Populist leaders can rail against undemocratic elites because their political vocabulary seems drawn from colonial times.

For an observer, the irony is that the two sides define themselves as each other’s antithesis – yet the rhetoric of each mirrors that of the other.

The sooner we get away from relishing the pleasures of stereotyping political opponents, the better

We can find all this happening in Malta, too. The social sciences are invoked to justify stereotypes about political opponents of liberalism. They’re stereotypes whose superficiality would be obvious had they been used about anyone else.

One move is to describe opponents as still captive to the supposed ‘mentality’ of their ancestors. So, opponents behave the way they do because they’re still, deep down, peasants or pirates. Sometimes, it seems they’re both.

Historical peasants and pirates think in very different ways, of course. Historical Malta hasn’t been dominated by peasants in centuries. Corsairing has long disappeared and, in any case, was led by aristocrats and, in certain famous cases, led to the creation of new senior members of Malta’s nobility.

To point this out, in my experience, is to risk being accused of pedantry. You see, it’s one thing to criticise the fact-free politics of populism, but it’s another to point it out in your own side. But if, like me, you think ‘factfulness’ should be the bedrock of political responsibility, then you’re obliged to criticise any political discourse where facts don’t matter.

Sometimes it seems there is no fact-free zone where some critics are not prepared to go. Did you know that one of the dangers of populist supporters in Malta is that they have more children? Liberty and enlightenment are in imminent danger of being outbred by the forces of benighted darkness.

Yes, it’s been said and written. Never mind that there is no data to show this. Indeed, there is no data that could possibly show it. How is the statistics authority supposed to collect that information? By asking people how they vote? What if it’s a politically mixed family?

What if one child was born while the parents were voting one way, and the second was born when they switched? Presumably, the first child should add to the tally of one side, and the second of the other.

But you never know. Perhaps it’s the upbringing that matters. So, a child born under the enlightened tally might shift over to the benighted one – causing mayhem to the statistics calculated a few years previously.

Such rhetoric shows that irrational extremism in Malta is not the preserve of any particular social class or of supporters of any or all parties. Those with no political party to call home are just as susceptible to being carried away by their sense of apocalypse.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. In Malta, as elsewhere, the rhetoric is infiltrating the media under the guise of objective cultural diagnosis. In particular, ‘amoral familism’ has become flavour of the political season when describing Maltese society, particularly in opinion pieces but also in reports.

The diagnosis comes with a social scientific pedigree, but it’s an unreliable one. ‘Amoral familism’ was used to describe a very particular region of peasant Italy around 60 years ago, not the whole of Italy, let alone the Mediterranean.

Some scholars remained sceptical but, in any case, amoral familism came with very specific conditions. It was a short-termism linked to particular patterns of land tenure, life expectancy and political fatalism.

So, anyone who wants to say we have it here in Malta will have to make a proper argument for it, instead of sagely nodding as though the case has already been proven.

My own view is that the evidence is strongly against it. How could a nation of amoralists spend so much time launching blistering moral attacks against their opponents?

The most electorally successful politician of our time, Joseph Muscat, has never neglected the careful art of demonising his targets. Whether he’s a hypocrite or not is irrelevant. Hypocrisy only takes place when it matters to appear moral.

The sooner we get away from relishing the pleasures of stereotyping political opponents, the better. It would be a move away from fiction to engaging with the real concerns of real voters. We’d be so much more credible when denouncing lies and snake oil.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us