On the Perils of Populism

Somewhere along the way, a tipping point may have been reached. Across the developed world, the centre is struggling to hold. The United Kingdom may be about to commit economic suicide in a fit of xenophobic pique. A far right candidate lost the vote to be Austria’s next president by a hair. The Greeks electorate decided that competency and honesty were less important factors in electing a government than raw anger and brinkmanship. And in the United States, a naked populist preaching socialist revolution came close to becoming the nominee of a major party, while a naked populist preaching fascist revolution went one further. From both sides of the ideological divide, democracy in the West is under pressure.


It’s not just a Western problem, as anyone who followed the recent election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines will be aware. But the Philippines is a relatively recent convert to democracy, and in character Duterte isn’t far removed from a Latin American strongman a la Evo Morales or Hugo Chavez. The kind of populist baksheesh these people promise resonate in those kind of countries, we tell ourselves complacently. It’s not supposed to resonate here.


There are many theories as to why the Western way of government is under such threat from populists.  The fault belongs with the so-called “elites”, goes one such theory, usually propounded by the populists themselves. In this theory, there is some sort of cabal, be it Brussels, Wall Street, or the “Liberal Media” who have, for some unexplained nefarious reasons, sought fit to rob “the People”, who are generally the audience of said populist, of their rights/taxes. To some degree, even mainstream media has bought into the notions that politicians are hopelessly out of touch elites, thereby giving populists the veneer of credibility


Then of course there is the media. Nothing sells like negativity. Papers like the Mail have effectively become nothing but mouthpieces for grouching. It feeds into a middle class notion that those better off are dishonest elites screwing the system, those worse off are dishonest scroungers screwing the system, and conveniently at the same socioeconomic level of the reader are the good, honest folk.


This climate of seeking scandal has created a whole sector of society who effectively will choose the simplest answer. This is at the nub of the Brexit debate. A poll today showed the Remain side are more inclined to trust experts, while the Leave side do not in fact trust anybody, not even pro-Brexit politicians. Were such a poll to be conducted among voters in the US, no doubt there would be a similar breakdown. In other words, there is a certain segment of the population at large who are effectively beyond all persuasion. So it is that the worries of economists over the impact of Brexit are dismissed on the grounds that they failed to predict the last financial crisis (many economists did in fact predict it, but facts are irrelevant to these people). As cabinet minister and Leave campaigner Michael Gove said “People in this country have had enough of experts”.


Men like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump (consciously in the first case, instinctively in the second) understand this. RT, Russia’s propaganda arm, has become adept at spreading false news and distortions, secure in the knowledge that its target audience in the West, while not necessarily accepting it as truth, will be more sceptical of the truth of the matter, either through a misplaced sense of false balance or a truculent refusal to be budged from their underlying beliefs. Trump, meanwhile, continues to spout the most outrageous falsehoods, which work either because his audience a) genuinely believe that Trump is honest, b) fall into the trap of “truthiness”, a form of motivated reasoning in which they will accept without question anything that sounds right or reinforces their underlying belief, or c) they don’t care that Trump is lying, they assume everything they hear is a lie.


Social media, too, has played a part. Just as in authoritarian states social media broke government monopolies on information and communication, thereby enabling protest movements to coordinate their activities, so too it has allowed fringe narratives to take hold. A holder of extremist views is no longer constrained by having to find someone in his circle who holds similar opinions. He can merely take his political discourse online, secure in the knowledge there will be others who share his views. This reinforces the sense of political introversion. Surround yourself with people who share your views and you become less cognisant of the idea that other people, for perfectly legitimate reasons, may have differing views. It merely perpetuates the idea that the only reason the government isn’t listening to the views of you “the People”, is because they are an out-of-touch “elite”.


This political nihilism takes other forms. Assume that your politicians are venal idiots and anything seems better. The role of legislature as a place for framing laws has been partially forgotten. When Irish Senator Ronan Mullen lamented that only two members of the Oireachtas were opposed to the Marriage Equality Bill in 2015, whereas a full third of the electorate rejected it, his concerns were brushed aside as bigotry, but it speaks of a deeper problem in Irish politics. Politicians in Ireland aren’t elected for ideological views. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail stand for everything and nothing. The role of a legislator in actually legislating seems to be largely a relic.


The ultimate outcome of this is takes two forms in Ireland. One was the election of protest candidates, a tactic that is becoming increasingly prevalent across the developed world. People like Paul Murphy and Ruth Coppinger have a professed opposition to compromise, or in fact governing at all. They do not see their mission as working within a system so much as overthrowing the system itself. Then of course there is voting for an Independent, a kind of non-vote, less in favour of representative democracy and more of a clientelist system whereby one sends a representative to the Dail on the understanding that he or she extracts the highest possible price for their support. The upshot of this is that scarcely half the current Dail has any interest in actually governing. Hardly a basis for competent leadership.


Of course, if a populist truly wishes to achieve power, they must broaden their appeal. Merely opposing the government isn’t enough. In general, a plurality of voters retain the good sense to realise that hanging their political classes is not necessarily going to lead to the best outcome. So they must take their negativity to another level, by directing it not only to a corrupt and out-of-touch government, but also to another section of the population, or better yet, foreigners.


Empathy is a strange beast. It has been shown that people get more upset by the death of a family pet than they do from seeing news of a mass-casualty disaster on the other side of the world. It is this differential in empathy that enables populists to target an amorphous “other”. On the left, it is the “super rich”, and on the right, it is those whose only crime was the accident of birth. Both are inherently negative arguments, in that they try to put a face upon the author of all the nation’s problems. Get rid of these people, the argument goes, and all the national woes will be resolved. This is the narrative that frames every Syrian refugee as a potential terrorist. Do not empathise with these people, it says. They are the other. As overt racism has become less tolerated in the West, so it has become more covert and insidious. Foreigners are no longer subhumans, but they have different values than us, they are collectively a security threat, or they put pressure on important public services. So it is that, rather than see increased pressure on hospitals as the logical outcome of an ageing society, there are those who retreat into the fantasy that the problem is in fact foreigners. Like many populist narratives, this is in no way borne out by the facts (In the UK, migrants make up a disproportionately high amount of NHS staff and a disproportionately low amount of patients), and like most populist narratives, the target audience aren’t particularly concerned with facts.


Bereft of any coherent argument, the Leave Side in the Brexit referendum has dragged xenophobia into the mix. Photos of (conspicuously brown) Syrian refugees have found their way into the debate, not as an appeal to common humanity, but to paint immigrants as a marauding horde who are coming to Britain. It is a naked appeal to the kind of negative populism that has become commonplace in Western public discourse.


Or, if one doesn’t wish to descend into racism, there is always the option of blaming foreign governments. When last year the Greek electorate, brutalised by years of having to live within their means for a change, finally caved into the populism of SYRIZA, the fringes finally had a chance to prove their worth in government. Like all populists, their actual plan for dealing with the country’s woes was somewhat lacking in detail. Their electoral promises hinged on convening what they called a “European debt summit” which seemed to have the express goal of allowing Greece’s creditors to magnanimously forgive her sovereign debt. In this spirit of generosity, these now former creditors would then front vast amounts of money for a Greek Marshall plan, neglecting to point out that a liquidity crunch was the eventual manifestation of Greece’s economic sclerosis, rather than the underlying cause of it.


Concurrent with this Utopian narrative was the idea that somehow Greece’s problems weren’t self-inflicted, but rather the product of the ever-present European elite, who funneled the national wealth abroad to pay off their mysterious backers in global finance. This narrative conveniently neglected the fact that Greece spent the first decade of the twenty-first century merrily cooking the books while embarking on years of debt-fueled growth, and that all this money was loaned to Greece on the assumption that it would someday be paid back.


When they found themselves in power, SYRIZA were in a quandary. To their credit, a significant proportion of the government genuinely believe the narrative they had spun. They genuinely believed that all it took was a government of honest, competent men (as they supposed themselves to be, in contrast to their supposedly dishonest, incompetent predecessors), with a “mandate from the Greek people” to get a better deal from Europe. There never seems to have been contingency planning as to what would happen were their creditors to refuse these sensible demands.


And of course, refuse they did. It turned out that the other EU governments also had a mandate from their people, one that didn’t include writing off tens of billions of monies owed to them. Greece’s behaviour thereafter offers a salutary lesson to those who think populist government makes for good government. First, they appealed over the heads of Europe’s governments to the people of Europe, who, it turned out, didn’t feel the same about Greek debt as did the people of Greece. Then they tried to claim a moral obligation from the Germans for a bailout, based on the Second World War. Eventually they resorted to threatening to bring down the eurozone with them. Inasmuch as they seem to have had any strategy once their initial request had been denied, it seems to have been to hang on and hope for socialists to be elected in Spain and Ireland. Eventually they caved.


The above demonstrates another reality. When you define yourself solely by opposition to the establishment, a coherent plan is a vote-loser. The trade-offs that come from a sound fiscal/economic policy are going to put some people off. Better to promise to smash the elites, or whatever other bogeyman one is using, promise a radiant future, and hope that the target audience assumes a causative effect. Try to go into the detail of how this comes about is too risky. Defining oneself in the negative is safer ground.


The Brexit referendum and the US election this year are classic examples of that. The Leave camp have conspicuously failed to get into detail about how they envisage a post-Brexit UK. They rosily talk about a Britain striking trade deals with emerging economies, shorn of a supposedly-protectionist EU. This of course ignores the cognitive dissonance of being pro-free trade and simultaneously withdrawing from membership of the world’s biggest trading bloc and being anti-free movement of labour. In the US, Bernie Sanders neatly mirrors this, being in favour of the free movement of labour while being against the free movement of goods (In fairness to Donald Trump, he is at least consistent, opposing both free trade and immigration).


Neither Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump have made much effort to flesh out how they plan to bring their respective utopias to fruition. Sanders’ talk of revolution seems more reminiscent of the Tooting People’s Front than actual policy, and seems to neglect the fact that his plans would fundamentally upend the US economy. Trump, on the other hand, seems to be a reincarnation of Reed Smoot, Willis Hawley, and Benito Mussolini all rolled into one. However, because they rail against bogeymen, a certain section of the population is willing to give them a free pass on specifics. Trump, whose only specific national security policy suggestion is banning Muslims from the USA, now polls ahead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on national security matters. It is far from impossible that he will be the next president of the United States of America.




I started writing this to try to get a few ideas in my head into a coherent format. It was intended as a slightly light-hearted take on the idiots of the world and those who pander to this idiocy, be they in the media or politics.


Then yesterday a Remain MP was shot dead in the middle of the Brexit campaign by a man shouting a nationalist slogan.


It is said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. If that is indeed the case, the Leave campaign, like nationalist populists everywhere, are guilty of the worst form of scoundrelry, wrapping themselves in the cloak of nationalism to accuse their opponents of hating Britain, and using xenophobia and racism where reasoned argument fails to carry the day. Add to that a media culture that thrives on the notion that all elected representatives are corrupt narcissists.


Neither the Leave campaign nor the populist media killed Jo Cox. Their sin lies in pandering to the kinds of mind that see killing politicians as an acceptable idea. But the problem is those minds themselves, not those who pander to them. A whole section of the populace have now embraced the idea that the best use of their vote is to give two fingers to the government, foreigners, or society at large.


In a rational world, men like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump would have never made it as far as they did. Society would have recognised their economic illiteracy and basic insanity, respectively They would have been forced to demonstrate how their solutions would work, rather than simply being allowed to rail against their problems. Unfortunately, the world is far from rational, and is going in the wrong direction.


Democracies have collapsed in many ways. Foreign invasion, military coups and ethnic fragmentation have all brought down democratic societies. But now, democracy in the West may be facing an altogether more insidious threat: that we take it for granted.


By gregbowler

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