61. Is Populism even bad? Lessons from History and Democracy

By: Brian van Oosterum

Politics is about cooperation, and cooperation is not in the first place built on brotherly love, or solidarity, though these things can greatly facilitate it. The Roman Senate managed to keep that state afloat despite many substantial threats to its existence, and the leaders of Rome had no choice but to enlist the cooperation of its people from time to time. Julius Caesar was not the first, but the most famous product of the unofficial senatorial faction called the Populari, in which lie the etymological roots of our modern day populism. From time to time ‘the people’ have to be promised something in order to support elites in their efforts to keep the machine of state intact. You can promise corn and land like Caesar did, you can promise independence and peace like countless others since, or you can promise to keep foreigners out!

Populism is a mode of communication between actual or aspiring leaders and a public whose endorsement they seek. It generally emphasizes the injustice of the status quo and suggests solutions that are capable of mobilizing people emotionally and, if all goes well, politically. These solutions should be simple, tangible and should have a short-term element that allows people to easily relate; think, a large wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States.

But an extreme example is risky here, because it hides the fact that political campaigning can practically always be said to use populist tactics. Like a business expanding its consumer base, the politician or party tries to expand its voter base by giving a particular grievance eloquent expression and appearing to possess the right solution. ‘Are you tired of finding stains on your washed clothes? So were we. Try our new…!’ is not that different from ‘Are you tired of waiting for 3 hours at the hospital? So are we. Vote for…!’ Caesar and his Populari forerunners were called populists in a derogatory way for appealing directly to the people in a time when that was not done. In today’s democratic political discourse this is still the only way you will hear the label attached to somebody. However, when we think of democracy as tradition says we should; as ‘rule for the people, by the people,’ promising the people solutions to real problems is the most normal thing to do.

If economic inequality reaches very high levels, promising to redress this is populist, democratic, and a great idea, provided results can be delivered. The large space that divides good populism from bad populism is in the ability elites have of fabricating grievances, promising unrealistic solutions, and generally playing on mass psychology to achieve power. I see a conflict here. If Populism is such a foundational part of democracy, while at the same time being the reason for the scariest democratic dangers, how should democracy’s fans think about it? As is often the case, history can help us sort out our confusion by putting things into proper perspective. With some historical notes I want to make four related points on our modern problems with populism, conveniently headlined for your consumption.

 Populism is part of the package of democracy; good, bad, or hideous

 What then, is a successful populist movement? That depends on whom you ask. If you ask the cynical populist politician, success is the measurement of his power. If you ask civilians aching for positive change, it is the bringing about of that change. I don’t think we need to ask the politician, in fact, unless it is grossly obvious, the motives of aspiring politicians are always opaque and will always contain a measure of self-interest and an interest in seeing the kinds of social changes he preaches. Focusing on civilians though, you can only judge populism as good if the results are good. Does the same go for democracy? When leaders or aspirants to power use the word democracy, it is hard not to sound like a populist.  So what can be said before you elect the Trump or the Hitler, or, indeed, the Obama, who like the others in this list, scanned the country for grievances and created a large enough supporting coalition for change. I want to keep populism available as a criticism of political action that simplifies complex issues or makes overtly false statements and promises. If populism is the harnessing of public voice and resources, then it begins to look like what some of us think of as democracy itself. Popular expression of opinion is a prerequisite for democratic politics, but it doubles uncomfortably as one of its biggest risk factors. It is a matter of ideas, and if a terrible idea like ‘we are the master race’ takes hold, it can literally bring down the world as we know it.

Populism has no particular content or ideology. Populists in the Americas have usually been left wing, populists in Europe have usually been right wing. Whether it is a dangerous threat to a decent status quo or a practical solution to a crappy one, is difficult to judge accurately beforehand, and this is the battleground of ideas where intellectuals, politicians, demagogues, and even Hollywood stars all push their interpretations. Populism embodies the ‘public opinion’ part of democracy, which is by no means the least controversial part. There is not one public, and it does not have a clear opinion! Things like competition for leadership, basic human and property rights, freedom of speech, and strong legal institutions come to mind as less controversial.

Modern democracies are more vulnerable to populism than most states in the past

Whether or not democratic institutions exist somewhere, public opinion has always mattered. Medieval kings had a hell of a time collecting taxes or military recruits when their populations did not respect or fear them enough. Where public opinion matters as a matter of law, let’s say, where there are periodic elections, the potential for populism should be greater. When Lenin promised the fed up Russian people “Peace, Land, and Bread,” he was making a clear populist appeal. This message captured the imagination of millions and eventually broke the threshold beyond which a people is no longer scared of government retaliation or resistance. Lenin was not speaking to a democratic audience but we can use the story to keep illustrating the cosy relationship between populism and democracy. In democracies power changes periodically as a matter of law, meaning the established order does not necessarily have to be threatened with violence for massive changes to take place among the holders of power. Supporters of Tsipras or Trump did not have to fear getting beat up in the Agora or in Kansas City. This gives us the first reason why Populism, as a matter of challenging the status quo, could be more likely to work.

In democracies people do not need to scare the government with their collective power. Its expression is enough for its accumulation. It is easier to be convinced to hold up a sign than an AK47. The necessary threshold of discontent is lower.

I am of course jumping the gun. The first ingredient in cooking up Populism is the perception of injustice and unnecessary hardship on the part of the ruled. If perception were omitted from that sentence, we could say the greatest facilitators of populism should have been far back in history. Life was rougher! Perception being key though, raises the idea that while many peoples have lived under hardship, our modern democracies, which happen to have mass media, have populations that are more likely to form any kind of mass perceptions than, say, a thousand loosely related towns in medieval central France.

Perceptions of injustice must be shared, and the likelihood of seeing those perceptions expressed on a large scale is a necessary starter. Even terrible suffering, if disorganized, cannot result in a successful populist movement. It is crucial to see that whether the perception of injustice is legitimate is not as important as it appearing to be. If a population expects a government to make them significantly richer every year, while mediating international conflicts and cutting carbon emissions, the problem might be on the demand side of governance.

 Understanding that we are more vulnerable can help distinguish the good from the bad.

 Contemporary citizens of advanced democracies are more vulnerable to populism for specific reasons. The ability to change leaders without violent revolution lowers the cost for people who want to support a drastic change. Being more connected and having more access to information means that the appreciation of a widely felt grievance can spread faster than fire. Finally, being ahistorical in the way we think of the job of governments, and the inherent trouble-spots of democracy, can lead us both to demand the wrong things of our governments, and to take blatant political advertising as truth.

Just as some have trouble seeing through bad populism and false promises, it may also be common to insult some political message as populist when it is addressing a clear legitimate grievance and proposing logical solutions. I will not give concrete examples, but you can think of any true attempt, successful or unsuccessful, to mitigate legal and natural injustices that have a tendency to protect elites at the expense of average people. The point is that we must take in information with the same scepticism we reserve for marketers who try to sell us things we do not believe we need. There are NGO’s that are currently working on ways to improve ‘news literacy’ among the young, putting direct effort into improving the capacity of news consumers to separate fact from opinion. However, the only real way to tell good populism from bad, is to see what happens when the populist movement achieves power. Unfortunately, this is a little bit late in the game for those concerned, and as such I end on a less than optimistic note.

Conclusion: Populism can only stop being a problem insofar as people become better at gathering information and making political decisions

 With compulsory public education and the potential for any citizen, in theory, to develop an understanding of society and form sensible opinions, modern democracies have real potential to resist the ugly kinds of populism. With mass media, weak attention spans and unwillingness to consume alternative points of view, and societal complexity itself, we are also more vulnerable than ever to unpolished but loud rallying cries from populists. In a simplified sense, one could hope that bad populism ends up defeating itself in the long run. Protestant populists in 16th century Europe advocated a bright future where peasants would be able to read the bible themselves. Once you can do that, you don’t need the populists anymore! Since populism generally pits the masses against the Elite, who generally are favoured by the societies institutions, the kinds of promises it makes are to empower ‘the people’ in some way or another. The best way to empower people politically is to help them understand their needs and the resources available to achieve these needs. This is a long uphill battle that to this day, we are far from winning. It involves a much deeper public understanding of the dynamics of democratic politics and the risks it contains. Ultimately, the ability of the population in question to distinguish messiah from megalomaniac, and real solutions from dumping problems on others, is the only real gatekeeper against the evil sides of populism and democracy itself.

This article was written by Brian van Oosterum, a freelance journalist based in New York with a degree in political science and economics.



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