The spectre of populism has gripped the world nowadays. We are living in a dangerous time of transition where industrial capitalism is breaking down and we don’t yet have a viable alternative. Incumbent politicians are still clinging to fixing the existing system while insurgent populists are arguing for big changes. This, to a large degree, explains the scary rise of populism we are seeing around the world. Why is that so? Why the sudden rise in populism? And what are we talking about when we talk about “populism”?
Populism has historically been a slippery phenomenon, sometimes focused squarely on economic grievances, but often exploiting such grievances to advance a chauvinist political agenda. That is also true today, when populist movements are gaining ground in Europe and the US, even as they and their leaders are being forced from power in Latin America.
The International Club of Populists has been gaining visible prominence in recent years. Remember the late Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela; or take Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Then Narendra Modi’s burst onto the scene in the world’s biggest democracy and most recently Duterte’s in the Philippines. The political stage seems full of sinister demagogues. Populist leaders have come to power around the world in recent years, From Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, from Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen to Frauke Petry and Geert Wilders, and from Matteo Salvini to Narendra Modi, the world is increasingly getting under the claws of populists who mostly share the same backwards fundamental characteristics such as re-emphasizing the nation state, being anti-globalization and anti-science, usurping personal power and rolling back democratic institutions.
So, what is populism and why has it emerged now?
Populism in politics generally involves making statements and policies that appeal to a wide audience. Typically they take a problem experienced by many people, escalate it to a primary priority and then promise to solve it.
For instance, in Europe, iconoclast politicians revel in anti-immigrant rhetoric, capitalizing on voters’ disquiet over rising unemployment and an elite they think is out of touch. American presidential hopeful Donald Trump has trained his fire on Muslims and Mexicans. He has threatened to build a wall along the southern US border to keep out immigrants — Mexicans are ‘rapists’ in his world — and says he will ban all non-American Muslims entering the US in his bid to combat the perceived threat of terrorism.
Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in Britain have all enjoyed electoral success, to one degree or another, espousing anti-immigrant nationalisms that until recently seemed consigned to Europe’s past.
The problem is that proposed solutions are either so vague that they are largely meaningless or, if implemented, would cause more problems than they would have solved. But this is not a worry to populists. They arouse emotions to get votes and don’t really fret about the practicality of solutions. Only once in power will they worry about such trivia.
Populism flourishes when people feel disempowered, vulnerable or oppressed, and where unfairness clouds their sight. As this becomes evident, politicians and parties play on these fears, giving them voice and whipping up the storm. Through their rhetoric they legitimize and promote collective selfishness, where ‘our’ needs are assumed paramount over faceless, culpable and demonized others, while big issues, such as global conflict and climate change, are roundly ignored.
Three C’s can be identified as critical fears underpinning populism: corruption, culture and complexity.
Power corrupts, which we all know, and when we see money riding to the top, where fat cats gorge at the trough that somehow we seem to be paying for, we feel outraged. When smooth-talking, suited and smiling elites seem to think they have a right to oppress the masses, then hatred foments in our hearts. Some difference we tolerate. We don’t mind hierarchies and gain vicarious pleasure in ogling celebrity lives. But when the balance tips too far, when the dream of riches seems unattainable, when the powerful seem not to care and not even notice us, then we rebel.
Culture impinges when we find other people are not following our social rules, and none more so than when swathes of immigrants arrive, bringing their own culture with them. It gets worse when they look different, with different clothing, skin or facial features. Religion is important, particularly when it takes precedence over national law. And, of course, we watch their approach to the vulnerable, from women to homosexuals, whose rights with us have been fought for and secured over many years.
The other issue with immigrants that populist politicians play on, aside from difference and their sheer numbers, is jobs. For centuries, immigrants have been seen as poachers of employment, ‘stealing our jobs’ and depressing salaries as supply exceeds demand. And if they do not take jobs, then they are seen as welfare spongers or thieves. No matter the truth of immigrants being very largely peaceful and hard-working, populism often makes them the enemy within.
The final C, complexity, is less a specific issue and more a generic feeling of being overwhelmed by external forces, from ever-changing technology to doom-laden global news of conflict, climate change and other woes. At root are two basic needs, for control and identity. Powerful others damage our sense of control as they rob and constrain us. Then elites and invaders challenge our sense of identity, making us feel unimportant and unsure of who we are. And complexity just makes both worse.
We yearn for simpler times, where choices were easy, we felt safer and we knew who we were. And this is the heart of what populism promises. Don’t worry, it says. We feel your pain. Trust us. We will speak the unspoken, unvarnished truth. We will make the unpopular decisions that others dare not, with their politically correct moral posturing, or their secret cabals and smoke-filled rooms where faceless backers trade in power and profit.
But this is politics and its heady mix of morals and corruption, where power plays and horse-trading are just how things get done. Populism may offer a fresh face but, behind the scenes, compromising will continue as a harsh reality. Great works need great amounts of money, and when money rears its ugly head, people rear theirs. Finance is far from free and invariably comes with tightly knotted strings. And no real answer has ever been found to the ‘immigrant problem’ other than means even uglier than financial shenanigans.
Is there an antidote to populism? The classic liberal approach, of careful reasoning, is good for some but sadly is less effective with those who are more susceptible to emotional appeals. Perhaps in considering argument we are looking under the wrong streetlight. Before people will listen seriously to you, they need to trust you. The reasoning approach says ‘listen, I’m the expert here’ as they bore you with detail. The populist says ‘Hey, I’m just like you’ as they voice your darkest fears. While liberals and others may talk about real issues, the populist speaks to their audience’s reality and thereby gains enough trust to sustain attention.
And here lies a key. Trust is the bridge to credibility and care is a critical plank of trust. To outdo the populist, play the other two planks, of reliability and honesty. In politics, this is not easy, yet delivery is the populist’s greatest weakness. While the populist may glibly win the short term, attacking their implementation will undermine their credibility.
Yet the bigger question is still there, like the dead elephant in the room that nobody mentions. Why now? What has triggered this populist explosion? The uncomfortable truth is that the populists are partly right. Inequality is growing. Migration is happening. Countries and religions are growing apart. And largely failed conflict is rippling back to our shores. Populists do not so much invent as amplify, making smaller seem bigger and mostly harmless people seen mostly dangerous.