Rewind the Clock | The Problem with Populism

Populism is tricky to define for what we see as a populist move here in Ireland, might not seem populist in Hungary.

The term Populism is traditionally seen as a person or party who pertains to be looking out for the concerns of the ordinary person. In 2018 we do not have to look very far to see how populist policies have affected the world around us.

Brexit, Trump, National Front, and rise of predominantly right wing leaders such as Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand whose main policy was cutting immigration in half and placing heightened restrictions on foreign investment opportunities.

Everyone has their opinion on how such leaders and events are coming to place. Some believe it is because an ever-increasing sense of globalisation due to immigration; some feel it is due to poor economies and other, more cynical thinkers feel it is down to a lowly educated population displacing their fears and disappointments.

However, Donal M., owner of Irish award-winning blog The Cedar Lounge Revolution argues that the term ‘populism’ is flawed.

“I’ve a real problem with the very term populist – in respect of how it’s used by both those who are supportive and antagonistic to it,” he says. “For the first it seems to be taken as read that it’s a shorthand for the real opinion of people, which when one maps that onto actual percentages in polls or elections just doesn’t add up.

“Brexit was knife edge, hardly a commanding vote (either way). Trump’s vote was actually in historic terms low percentage-wise and of course he lost the actual vote (as against the electoral college). In France the FN didn’t do that well with all other forces hugely outweighing it.

“On the other hand, the opposite dynamic comes into play in relation to people against ‘populism’ where it becomes a shorthand for ‘opinions I don’t like’. So, take lower taxes, in 1977 Fianna Fáil cut rates [a type of tax]. This was, of course, regarded as populist but in the subsequent decades under Thatcherism cutting taxes became par for the course and the new normal. By the 2007 election even the Labour Party in Ireland was calling for lower personal taxation – a measure they’d have described as populist only shortly before.”

But populism in 2018 isn’t just about reactions to opinions we don’t agree with and although it may not be as straight forward as such “knife edge” results have shown, they are still the results that directly affect the world we live in.

populism |

21st century populism is similar to that of the 19th century’s. And while specific details of the backlash in Europe and America differ, it is much the same in a broader sense; less-skilled workers in the manufacturing industry have been replaced by machines or outsourced by ‘faceless’ governments and winners of economic globalisation.

This breeds discontent which populist leaders are then able to step in and promise to wrestle control back from the ever globalising market. It is not right to attribute all populist problems to the economy as most countries are beginning to grow again, or at least stabilise.

However, what these slow growths have achieved is a periodic stagnation which President Trump and European counterparts have used to spin narratives that exploit the middle and lower middle class’s ethno-nationalistic prejudices.

In the United States, declining wages and job prospects is attributed to Mexican immigrants and Chinese exporters. In Europe, they lay the blame for the erosion of the welfare state and public services on competition from immigrants, and refugee.

“Nearly all the populist right wing parties in Europe have old style 1970s style spending programmes,” says The Times’ columnist Jason O’Mahony.

“This probably reflects the fact that many of their target voters are older and acutely more aware of the need for public services, but it also a recognises a failure of New Labour style centrists to recognise that the gap between rich and poor does actually matter.

“It used not to as living standards rose sharply for each generation. But when that rise stopped in the 1980s for many but the wealthy, it started to reveal the failure in the economic model. There’s also the perception that immigration has somehow deprived the indigenous population of that growth and employment, whereas the reality is that technology is far more likely to be the culprit. Just look at the self-serving robots in supermarkets. Or as we call them: customers.”

But none of this actually helps the middle and lower-middle classes and can undermine democracy. However, it must be recognised populism is not solely caused by economic situations as a lot of contemporary commentators suggest.

In 2000, 10 of the 15 national governments in the European Union had left wing parties in power as compared to six out of 28 countries today. Over the course of 18 years we have seen social democracy decay and now it needs a renewal.

This renewal will more than likely come from a cultural standpoint. One explanation of nationalism and populism is that of cause and causality. Globalisation, while it has undeniable economic benefits, also has led to citizens watching their national identity dissipate into Starbucks and McDonalds alongside the high influxes of immigrants.

Nigel Farage populism |

Not all countries have reacted the same way. Some, like England have tried to prevent it and essentially ‘rewind the clock’. Others have tried to slow down the process by putting more obstacles in the way of immigration and foreign direct investment.

“Immigration into Europe is an issue that moves votes whether we like it or not. As long as Europeans refuse to address what is essentially a European problem it will continue to poison our political systems,” O’Mahony continues.

This thought isn’t new and resonates with a 2010 article penned by Christopher Hitchens in which he talks about the relationship between ‘populism’ and ‘elitism’:

“Elitism and populism, as we have painfully learned this fall, are too often found in the same person. The simultaneous aggregating and dividing of people by race and ethnicity turns out to be the cheapest and easiest outcome of supposedly democratic measurement.”

We can see the working example of this with President Trump’s consolidation of power seven years later through his (now deemed illegal) use of Cambridge Analytical to mine information and target voters. An effort which cost $15 million and while it didn’t win him the popular vote it still got him into power.

In an interview with the New York Times, Christopher Wylie, who co-founded Cambridge Analytical said, “They want to fight a culture war in America.” Which resonates with another thought on the cause of populism.

Wylie Cambridge Analytica populism |
Christopher Wylie

Author of To fight against this age: On Fascism and Humanism, Rob Riemen wrote about populism being a ‘New Age’ form of fascism. By this, he specifies what some leaders are doing is cultivating “our worst irrational sentiments: resentment, hatred, xenophobia, lust for power and fear!”

He continues to argue that this is not simply economic but it is in fact an attack on the very fabric of a nation. That this fascism is mobilising ignorance and prejudice by persuading democratic citizens to cut themselves off from “poetry and literature, philosophy and theology, the arts and history,” or in other words “the domain of culture” that puts us in touch with “what unites us and makes the unity of mankind possible.”

But the problem with populism runs much deeper in our cultural veins, especially when it is used as a singular or party ideology. According to Donal of Cedar Lounge Revolution we can see a much deeper societal issue developing:

“If by populist we mean ‘short term’ and ‘reactive’ political approaches and policies then that is definitely a problem. Adding to that the issue of policies that avoid or are detached from an economic analysis (whether left or right or centre) that too is a problem. And I would argue the biggest problem is the idea that there are either simple or singular solutions to issues facing societies and economies.

“I think, in that respect much of what is described as ‘populist’ can be politically and socially destructive. So, for example, a party that thinks all social problems are down to ‘immigration’ or whatever or makes that the primary plank of their political programme is a party that isn’t examining or engaging with the complexity of these issues sufficiently and ignoring the reality of other issues too. I also think single issue parties have a similar problem.”

But this ‘singular’ mind set is only confirmed or discredited by analysing voters who actively take part in the election and referendum process. Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker ascribed populist voters as “Low-income, low-education voters who sit inside both parties, waiting for an appeal that feels directed at their lives. The same goes for small-town and rural voters, and religious.” Although such a generalisation would be unfair and wrong.

In Brexit, polls have shown a lot of middle class voters opted to leave also.

Donal M. argues on this point:

“Take Brexit, some argue that it was due to alienation on the part of lower-income/education voters that the referendum passed, but the stats show there was a strong cohort of middle class voters who supported it too. And there was a rational basis for those in deprived areas in the UK to take a chance to kick back against the system, even if this was injurious to their self-interest, since it was one of the few chances they’d get.”

In the end, it is impossible to stop populism and it has become a staple part of party campaigns. Take Ireland’s two main parties as examples. Donal says both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are centrist but dabble in populist practices.

“I think there is a certain falseness to populism in Ireland. A lot of the language is appropriated from other countries in Europe that just doesn’t apply here. Take trying to brand either FF or FG as neo-liberal or Thatcherite which is just plain silly. Both FF and FG are essentially 1990s style New Labour/New Democrats interested more in outcomes than ideology. If one looks at the community rating VHI scheme Mary Harney brought in, which was a left wing solution to a free market problem, or the National Treatment Purchase Fund which was a right wing solution to a left wing problem, you can see that they’re centrists in the real sense.”

So is there reason to be concerned? Most definitely. Populism being the ‘concern of the ordinary person’ has become an issue, especially when we take into account the concerns of the ‘ordinary person’.

On this point, O’Mahony concludes that what concerns him is “the fact that many millions of voters believe that no matter how recklessly they vote the system can still take it.

“Pensions will be paid. Buses will run. Nurses will get paid. Peace will be maintained. The big lesson from populism, from Trump and Brexit is that if you kick the system hard enough you may bring it down on top of you.”

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