The Perils of Populism

I may have been a little unfair when i laid blame at the feet of Liberals. The true curse is populism. We seem to be a world of peak populism, with votes for Brexit and Trump. Bizarrely both of these campaigns focused their attacks on the establishment, which in itself is a populist construction. so, really the argument runs that the solution to the problem of populism is er… even more populism. The facetious populist claim of the ‘will of the people’ is really the will of populism.

As an outsider I generally do not value popularity. Some popular people i know are popular, through sheer luck, rather than from a desire to be popular. Perhaps it is the desire to be popular that is what is wrong with populism. Where there is popular [majority] support, that is not populism, that is consensus.

Anyone who spends a significant amount of time musing over politics, eventually runs into the thorny problem of populism. Allow me to describe the individual’s political progress:

Politics is essentially a subject. A subject that concerns theories of how society and the economy work with a view to exploring ways to make things better. After some time exploring politics in this academic way most people coalesce around a political position or political philosophy. What fascinated me, and I believe most people who think about politics is that everybody reaches their own consensus about the best way to improve things, but we all end up in different places, but share many things in common. you then start to notice subtle differences in how other people think which leads them to different political places. Whilst we may vehemently disagree with someone we nonetheless enjoy the rigorous debate and often friendships are formed. These friendships unite around the shared disdain for populists.

Of course, having done all this fevered thinking and finally reaching reasonably robust conclusions, we would like to actually put it into practice and make our economies better. For many politically minded this involves becoming active in political parties. Often democracy is seen as a sensible way of finding consensus and solutions that work reasonably well for most of a population. At this point the politically minded discover that they themselves are a minority, that most people do not concern themselves with politics, that democracy doesn’t really work terribly well. Because most people haven’t taken an interest in politics and flit from one position to another as the superficial ends of arguments that agitate around the general public sphere.

For example,  immigration, the issue which dominated the Brexit and Trump campaigns. High levels of net immigration are not good for an economy. They are a symptom of a poorly functioning economy. The populists focus all the attention on immigration rather than the root causes of the problems and by doing so create the impression that the immigrants are the problem , rather than innocent pawns of a bad system. There are two main reasons why immigration is a problem. Firstly lack of resources, in a bad economy resources become more difficult to obtain and these resources are essentially to a well functioning economy. The immigrants merely highlight the problem of a lack of housing, education or healthcare, as they need to use these scant resources too. The immigrants appear to make a bad situation even worse. Secondly this lack of resources means that the native population lack the ability to perform economically crucial roles, hence immigrants move into that society to plug the gaps instead of the real issues being tackled. Hence the political person will be aware of the real causes, whilst the populist will focus on the symptoms.

The trouble is often that the populists win, they win elections, they get to hold office. However we hold them is disdain because they are inconsistent, they have no solid political framework or political creed that links all their positions, they are charlatans. We become particularly intense when they claim to be ‘one of us’, from our political neck of the woods, so we seethe with frustration, that they are not truly one of us and more importantly that they besmirch the name of our political philosophy. For example, Tony Blair was regarded as a Social Democrat, so his governments record is often attacked as exemplifying why ‘Social Democracy is wrong’. The issue being that Blair wasn’t a Social Democrat at all, he just disguised himself in the clothes. The same is true of Conservatives who disdain those who wear the clothes of the right and Socialists disdain those who wear their clothes.

The thing is that in the UK, the populists have been in charge. The thing is the political class have long realised that in order to win an election that they must wear the populists clothes. Instead of advertising how they would improve things the focus is on being seen to be on the side of the populist argument, even when the populist argument is merely treating a symptom, which then allows the real problem to surface elsewhere in the economy. This lust to win power then takes over policy. Traditionally populism was merely for the campaign trail and the sensible thought through evidence based consensus policies would be implemented in government. However in modern times, populism has infected policy, so policy no longer tackles the underlying issues. Party politics has become a game about winning power, rather than using power to makes things better. And then come Brexit, where the UK government seek to satisfy the perceived popular will, for somethign they didn’t even have a poorly thought through policy for in the first place and merely ride the populist tide, forming positions retrospectively.

Something has to give, the populist bubble has to burst or we end up with even more extremes of populism than Trump or Brexit or bust.

For me the solution is bottom up democracy and proportional voting systems where democracy actually functions as it should, rather than society following the whims of the populist swirl and those who can best manipulate them for their own ends. As i’ve said before for me, from my long political journey, from root causes the answer is autonomy for regions like Wales and not the frippery of a symptomatic nationalism, that divides us from ourselves.



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