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.


The problem with Liberals

On these pages I have often described myself as a Social Democrat and not a Liberal. These two political doctrines to the outsider appear quite close, yet I feel there is fundamental difference between the two. This difference is why I have a problem with liberalism.

Social democracy and Liberalism share some common world views. Perhaps most importantly that society should work for everyone, it is worth repeating, everyone; black or white, rich or poor, man or woman. However the two doctrines differ in how this society is to be realised. Social Democracy advocates working out what the centrist position is from first principles, whereas Liberalism finds the centrist position more relatively, based on prevailing public opinion. This relativistic stance is to me the weakness of Liberalism.

However, as human beings we are relativistic creatures, how we think, how we behave and what we value is determined socially. This social determination is guided by our families, our social peers and the communities we grow up in. The views of the world we hear around us, shape us. There is natural desire to compromise with prevailing views in a society, to ‘fit in’ and find our own space. To be able to compromise, you have to be able to understand and be prepared to be persuaded by arguments if you test them and find them convincing.

In many ways Social Democracy is the tougher discipline as it prescribes picking apart all this social fabric to get to the fundamental issue. Social Democracy is thus a cold discipline, relying on logic and reason,  can seem devoid of feeling. Yet it isn’t cold as the aim is to provide something for everyone. This criticism also applies to Liberalism, whilst the Liberal will listen, they may lack empathy as they are trying to work out where the centre is, rather than understand each individual.

Both the Liberal and the Social Democrat are a little jealous of those away from the centre on the left and right wings, the Socialists and Conservatives. Jealous, because the wings don’t have to think so much. To the wings political positions come easily, certain arguments just fit naturally with how they think and the opposite arguments seem alien and incomprehensible. Centrists often run into this problem that they don’t always get a reasoned argument for something. So often an argument will rest on an appeal to a common sense that runs true with how they think. The problem with such rhetoric is that is doesn’t extend beyond like minded people, to the centre or the ‘other’ wing. There seems to be this rise in division and the recent development of Nationalism in Europe and North America that raises serious concerns. I blame the Liberals.

Partly it is because the Liberals have moved from the centre, where us Social Democrats still are, towards the right as it has appeared that society has moved to the right. Electoral success has been the reward of this drift. Tony Blair, was essentially a Liberal, as were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Here in the UK, the Liberal Democrats found themselves in a coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, for the good reason of providing stable government. However, the Liberal Democrats failed to do their job as a coalition partner and went native with the Conservatives, to the horror of Social Democrats and Socialists, the ‘Liberals’ had let us down, again. It was not unexpected, Liberals, with their mode of drifting to the centre ground, working everyday with predominantly right wing Conservatives would lead you to shift your perception of the centre quite far rightwards, which is what happened.

Liberalism may he partly the cause of the recent rise of Nationalism, of Brexit and Donald Trump. Once you start drifting in a certain direction currents often speed you on in that direction, because nationalism is very good at subverting human nature.

<Slight tangent in case anyone is getting confused, I am supporter of Welsh independence, or “Welsh Nationalism” as some like to call it. We are not “Nationalists”, it’s just not the same thing, ok? (maybe I’ll expand on this next time!)>

The problem with Nationalism is that the worldviews and opinions of the people who surround in our lives, in our communities, our desire to fit in and to work to make things better are essentially positive. For social animals everyone doing their thing and working with the people around us to improve society is simply a good thing.

However, the sly fox of Nationalism achieves it’s end of replacing the ‘good of the community’ with the ‘good of the nation’. So instead of being inspired to improve our communities, we are inspired to work to improve our nation. This is not the same thing. Nations are somewhat artificial constructs and do not seek to help people, they have a life of their own and play around with our notions of self and community. Nationalism when it arises, often has a scapegoat, a group to blame for the nation not being as mighty as it could be, be it the Jew in 1930s Germany, the Socialist, the immigrant or the Muslim in recent times. This right wing nationalism, relishes competition, which is actually bullying as it slowly works it way through society, the narrative subtly changes until you find yourself in a totalitarian state, like in George Orwell’s ‘1984’. The Liberal just adapts in this environment, the Liberal remains in the social centre, even though this social centre is now way off balance. For the Conservatives, they don’t notice the true horror as to them at last society  is  chiming with their own worldview, they feel as though they have won something and even the Socialist may be happy as it appears that society is at last demonstrably ‘improving’. But, to those able to be Social Democrats and to those on the outside, it is a nightmare.

Whether we are truly caught in the  Nationalism trap in the UK and USA, is perhaps too early to say, but all the very worrying signs are there: There is stoking of fear of ‘foreigners’, the scapegoating of  minorities in particular Muslims, There have been elections won by populist extremists and possibly more to come in France and the Netherlands. and when we are told that these people win, so we now must conform to whatever they want to do, to be good “patriots”…

It just seems like that many people have forgotten the warning from history about Nationalism, that Orwell wrote about in ‘1984’. Even in Germany, the country that most painfully learnt the lessons of the perils of Nationalism, some 80 years ago, is seeing the rise of Nationalism. Remember ‘Ignorance is Strength’ & ‘We are at war with Eastasia, we have always been at war with Eastasia’.