Populism: is it a good thing?
Back in the 30s Franklin Roosevelt was holding his famous ‘fire-side chats’. He was explaining to the nation what he was going to do to end the Great Depression. He was doing it to explain his New Deal policy that helped to drag America out of its worst crisis. It was probably some kind of populism but first of all, it was the best way to support the suffering people who had lost direction and hope.
In 1992 the Russian government didn’t bother to explain what it was doing. The Yeltsin-Gaydar government was doing the right things by saving the failed post-Soviet economy. In a matter of months the shelves were filled with food and goods, people could start their businesses or simply look around and check out what they could do in a new capitalism reality. But the changes were hard: people were losing jobs, inflation was eating out their savings, etc. The worst thing was that people didn’t understand what was going on and what direction to take: the new values were replacing the old ones and for many it was a disaster.
The lack of ‘right populism’ led to a dramatic fall of popularity both for President Yeltsin and his government. It led to the crisis of 1993 and the new parliament was filled with anti-reformist forces of all kinds of the political spectrum: nationalists and Communists, so-called ‘red-browns’. It was a shock, but it did happen, creating even more obstacles in the way.
I believe it was the Kremlin’s biggest mistake in the 1990s: losing people’s support. They could have kept it at a decent level but, unfortunately, lacked some smart PR policy. It led to Yeltsin’s exit at the end of 1999 and to Vladimir Putin’s arrival, who simply, over the years, cancelled many things that Yeltsin, his political father, was fighting for, eventually turning Russia into some ugly edition of the USSR 2.0.
So, based on this rather negative experience, I say: just like any medicine, populism might be a great tool to do important things. It can be bad if used for bad like Hitler did in 1933. But it may be a great remedy just like Franklin Roosevelt did it around the same time.
Populism – is it a good thing?
Not bloody likely
Almost anywhere you look around the world, you can find a leader who claims to act and speak for the “will of the people”, standing in direct opposition to the “enemy”; that enemy often being the system in use at the present time, and the people operating it.
It’s a society that sees two groups totally at odds with one another, so you get the populist “we-know-best-and-we’re-right” people and “the corrupt elite”.
This style of politics is totally “anti-pluralist”, and by that I mean it doesn’t recognise that there is any legality or legitimacy of any opposition – totally altering democracy as we thought we knew it. As far as my continent of Europe is concerned, we have just seen the demise of the centre left/right dominance that has been with us since 1945.
Where populism thrives, it gets its momentum from people opposing immigration, opposing any cultural liberalisation like easing attitudes towards homosexuality and minority groups, and from a perceived giving away of national sovereignty – I wager that if Britain’s Brexit referendum had been debated purely on economic arguments, there would have been a huge majority in favour of staying in the EU.
I’ve heard it argued that populist content is “made of negatives” – whether it is anti-politics, anti-intellectualism, or anti-elite. I agree. That’s one of its many strengths – versatility, the ability to adapt to virtually all situations. That makes it incredibly powerful. And in my view, extremely dangerous.
The complete lack of trust in the established system gives rise to “strongman” leaders like Trump, Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orbán in Hungary – I think the late left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made the case well: “I am not an individual – I am the people”. You can see where this is going, if you’re not with me, the people, then you are most definitely against us.
That’s why I am so suspicious of, and worried by, populist leaders of today. They all make us believe that they have an exclusive right to morally represent every one of us. That makes it so easy to turn leadership into an authoritarian state. Sod democracy. And you will find that they all promise to change things by making bold claims that simply cannot possibly be achieved.
I will finish by giving just three examples of where populism exists today in my continent.
Hungary and Poland both have populist leaders, and are trying their utmost to demolish free press, independent civil society, and constitutional courts. Both countries are seeing anti-Semitism rise, and are establishing their national identity by excluding people depending on their ethnicity and religion. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has accused the Jewish financier George Soros, a Hungarian for God’s sake, as the man responsible for the European refugee crisis. And, can you believe this, Poland has made it illegal to discuss publically its role in the Holocaust. Indeed, the Polish prime minister has literally popularised the theory that some Jews were collaborators in the destruction of European Jewry.
In Britain, Brexit was the populism of the day in 2016. It has systematically ruined the country, for all the reasons above, and will continue to do so for decades, probably. F–k populism.
Almost time for dinner.
When you first talk about the concept, populism sounds great! Who can be against more power for the average person? In fact, populism should unite a society and give us all a common goal, a value set to strive for.
Of course, as in most things, there is a wide chasm between the idea and how it is implemented. Donald would be an example; he is widely considered a right wing Populist. Trump calls himself a Republican in much the same way as the Soviet Union called itself Communists.
Trump is not a Republican and no real Communist nation has ever existed – ever. Yes, yes, I know, he is a party member and therefore a Republican. China is also a Communist nation. Whatever.
Trump’s rantings identify a weakness with populism: How can you be for the little guy and hate all little guys except angry white males? Unlike phase three Communism, there is no precise definition of Populism. Even neo-Nazis can and do claim to be populists. Liberals, conservatives, and dog catchers can all claim the label. Hey, everybody’s a populist!
The result of all this is that the name has now been successfully high-jacked by some overtly racist groups from numerous countries. It’s an old trick; ancient swastikas carved into stone are symbols of happiness. Those rich people are screwing us, so let’s get the darkies!!! The outcome is a sort of bizarre class warfare. The system is a rigged, deep-state conspiracy so we need to keep the Muslims out. It’s a twisted logic but millions love it.
The irony is these rich, powerful politicians shout about a conspiray while winning in nations they claim have rigged systems. The average person feels angry and cheated and has a right to. But to me, the current populism craze feels more like what I think the opening phase fascism would be like. Have we set the table for the next fascist leader to suddenly appear and demand a seat at dinner?
We won’t use the word fascist but we will use the word populist. And he will gladly accept the title Defender of The Common Man; which is exactly how Hitler came to power. Almost time for dinner.
To read more of the RUSUK friends’ views, please click here