FOR Populism

AGAINST Populism


For too long politics has been dominated by a self-perpetuating, corrupt elite, detached from the concerns of ordinary people. Populists – be they of the left or right – can give the people a voice again. Take France, where generations of politicians coming from the same elite schools have alternated in power with little interaction with the public beyond the “grandes écoles” bubble. The result has been stale ideas, stagnation and a string of corruption scandals that has left voters disillusioned and searching for an alternative. The rise of the National Front should be a wake-up call for mainstream parties to clean up their acts and find fresh faces who can reconnect with the people.


By its very nature, populism is based on quick fixes aimed at bringing easy solutions to appease the disaffected masses. In the very short term that can work, but it never takes long before populist economic policies go pear-shaped. Need some examples? Latin America was long the pre-eminent populist playground. Leaders like Juan Perón of Argentina, Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas or more recently Hugo Chavez of Venezuela initially won popular support with their pursuit of nationalistic, protectionist and free-spending policies, but eventually they left their national economies in tatters. That pattern has been repeated whenever populists get their hands on the levers of power.


Democracy sometimes needs a shock to the system. Responses to recent populist power plays – from Americans protesting Trump’s entry ban on Muslims to Poles taking to the streets to defend media freedom – are signs of a fightback by a re-invigorated civil society. Concern that democracy is being eroded by populists can push decent people to re-engage with politics again. A democratic renewal could counter demagogues who claim only they represent the people. Perhaps a flirtation with populism can give a shot in the arm to democracies grown complacent by years of peace and relative prosperity (assuming it doesn’t do too much damage in the meantime).


Today’s populists are the inheritors of the 19th-century Luddites who smashed up machinery in a vain attempt to turn back the Industrial Revolution. Globalisation is here to stay and efforts to wish it away will be as unsuccessful as the Luddites were. President Trump’s supporters may want to put America first, but they also want cheap TVs, t-shirts and computers. Currently they can get them because they are made in China or Mexico. If they want them made in America (and without immigrant labour) they will either have to start working for very low wages, or be prepared to pay a lot more for their consumer goods.


Today’s news reports focus on populism as a threat to liberal democracy through the activities of Trump, Orbán, etc. But look at the dictionary definition: “a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people” is how Merriam-Webster defines “populist.” Recent history is full of examples of “people power” rising up against corrupt and tyrannical regimes. The phrase defined the peaceful movement that toppled Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986; was applied to the uprisings that liberated eastern Europe in 1989; and Ukraine’s resistance to corrupt, authoritarian governments. As governments become more barefaced in their erosion of basic rights or their taste for corruption, perhaps a more positive form of populism will keep them in check – recent events in Bucharest could be a taste of things to come.


Populism thrives on the demonisation of the “other.” Internal or external enemies are essential for such regimes to survive, especially when their unworkable economic model starts to collapse. Throughout history, populism has led to dictatorship, oppression and war. Populists exploit fear of their chosen scapegoat to clamp down on civil liberties, reject criticism as “treason”, remove the checks on their power from opposition parties, the media or judiciary. War will be used to whip up patriotic fervour as a distraction from economic woes or as an excuse to silence opposition voices. These are not theoretical concerns, they are happening in Europe right now, with examples ranging from Russia’s attacks on Ukraine to assaults on the press and courts in Hungary, Poland and Turkey.

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Dr Case