The Response to Populism

The previous articles in this series have discussed what populism is, and in what circumstances it can arise in a mature democracy.  We have also described how populist movements usually contain inherent contradictions in their standard assertion that complex and inter-connected problems can have simple and stand-alone solutions, and how as a result they often self-destruct over time as they come into conflict with reality.

Given this, one might assume that orthodox politicians only need hold their nerve and wait for populism to “blow over” before reassuming their rightful place at the centre of the political order.  In our view this is both mistaken and dangerous, for three important reasons.  Neatly, they span the three time periods before, during and after a populist movement’s existence.

Before a populist movement emerges, there are usually some genuine issues in society that cause legitimate grievances and require addressing.  Ignoring them is unlikely to make them go away.

During the time when populism is in the ascendancy, far from being a purer form of democracy, it is in fact a direct threat to liberal democracy and can do significant damage to the body politic.

After a populist movement has given way, the comfortable assumption that society will return to the status quo ante with liberal democracy once more in the ascendancy may prove mistaken.  Just as in the Arab Spring, where in too many countries the fall of dictators did not lead to a flowering of democracy but to chaos, so there is no guarantee that after a period of populist policies, more orthodox politics can resume as if nothing had happened.

This is particularly the case when – for the first time for a very long time – there is a serious alternative to democracy.  Not since the 1930s, when the Soviet Union was the fastest growing economy in the world and the democracies of Europe were one by one failing and succumbing, has the democratic world faced a rival way of ordering a society that is both demonstrably non-democratic and demonstrably successful.  But the remarkable rise of China, and the autocratic system of governance that Xi Jinping is creating there, cannot be dismissed and is a real challenge to those who assume that democracy is always and everywhere the optimal way to run society, and will always survive and flourish.

Given the damage that populism can do, how can it be neutralised or defeated?  And if orthodox politicians do not or cannot respond, perhaps the bigger question is, can the liberal democratic order survive?

One thing seems clear:  the liberal order will not survive by attempting to “out-populist” the populists.  The populists, by the nature of their movements, are prepared to be more extreme than their opponents.  To take a current example, many Democrats in the USA feel that the reason Donald Trump won the presidency was because they did not put up their own radical populist candidate, eg Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. They may be tempted to see this as the solution to how to win back the presidency in 2020.  Or they may choose to fight fire with fire, by going with a non-political candidate in the Trump mould, but hopefully less extreme, such as Oprah Winfrey.

Alas neither is likely to work.  A hybrid main-stream/populist candidate will still feel the need to reach out to moderate voter groups. By contrast, a “full-blooded” populist will primarily concentrate on reaching their core base and rarely see the need to present a more moderate or inclusive face. This enables them to portray themselves as “genuine”, as well as to accuse their opposition of being duplicitous.

Nor will the liberal order survive and prosper by treating voters as ignorant fools.  For one thing, if voters have to choose between populist parties that claim to hear and understand their grievances, and “the elite” who merely tell them that they are wrong, it is not difficult to foresee where their allegiance will lie and for whom they will vote.  But more importantly, as we have observed the grievances are nearly always based in fact and cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant or immaterial – least of all by those held responsible for creating them.

Instead, defenders of the liberal order have to try to convince voters, first by reconnecting with them and then by listening to their concerns.  It matters not whether these concerns are real or justified;  as we have said, in many cases they will have some validity, but even if they do not, they are perceived to be both real and justified by those that hold them, and that is what matters.

On top of this, politicians also need to purvey a positive message.  This is more complicated, and will probably involve a number of different approaches.  Overall, a key aim must be to restore trust in the integrity of politics, and perhaps even more so, of politicians.  This includes dealing with corruption.  Corruption may be less widely spread in democracies than in dictatorships, but repeated stories of politicians feathering their own nests and acting as if they were above the law show that it is not entirely absent even in the most established democracies.

Connected with this is the importance of reaffirming the commitment to the rule of law and equality of rights.  Orthodox politicians must show that a liberal society really is capable of improving the lot of all of its citizens, that even the least member of society deserves to have their concerns addressed.  It is taken for granted by most orthodox politicians that a liberal capitalist society provides stronger growth than a non-liberal one, and that this benefits all who live in it.  But while over time this may be true, it is not enough to say that “eventually” the rising tide will float all boats and everyone will be better off;  it has to be argued, it has to be demonstrated and those whom the tide is not at this moment lifting have to be helped and reassured  rather than ignored.

It may also be that the nature of the dialogue between the electorate and its rulers needs reviewing and strengthening, and that the need to make voters feel involved, listened to and empowered may necessitate changing the way democracies function.

This is usually portrayed as a choice between representative democracy, in which the people choose representatives at regular but not very frequent intervals to decide on a range of issues on their behalf, and delegate democracy, in which the people are more frequently consulted, eg via a referendum, and mandate (ie order) their representatives to implement a given decision on a single issue.

There is a tension here:  while on the surface there is surely nothing more democratic than asking the electorate a straight and simple question and then abiding by their verdict, it negates the role of the experience, wisdom and deliberation that elected representatives can bring to bear on complex issues.

Recent trends in developed democracies are towards more referenda, though it often seems that elected representatives have used them mainly to “pass the buck” back to the electorate on complex issues to avoid taking difficult decisions themselves.  Indeed it is ironic that this use of referenda is growing precisely as the issues facing society become more complicated and challenging – a move which is the exact opposite of what one might expect as the questions become less binary, and more difficult either for the electorate to understand or for the political class to explain to them. (This is even true in that home of delegate democracy and frequent referenda, Switzerland, where some recent decisions have created significant challenges for the country).

Given both the complexity of the decisions facing society – often too interconnected and complex for the simple binary tool of a Yes-No referendum to handle easily – and the ease with which such referenda can be manipulated (as any number of dictators have demonstrated throughout history), our view is that orthodox politicians would be better advised to re‑emphasise the strengths of representative democracy rather than succumb to the allure of more delegate democracy.

And perhaps most importantly, liberal politicians need to recapture patriotism and nationalism from the populists.  It is an old joke that “I am patriotic, you are nationalistic, he is a racist”, but partly because the natural and usually beneficial sentiments of patriotism can morph into the nearly always more damaging ones of chauvinism, xenophobia and racism, liberal politicians have all too often tended to shy away from nationalism and pride in one’s own country, by default leaving this to others.

But nationalism is extremely powerful, and the natural sentiments of pride in one’s country and a preference for one’s own culture do not cease to exist just because the liberal elite scorn them.  If the “Citizens of anywhere” do not listen to, do not try to understand and do not show a willingness to empathise with the “Citizens of somewhere” in such matters, then others with a harsher agenda will do so.

All of this takes time, and considerable effort.  It requires the political class to enter into a genuine dialogue with the electorate, not just once every 5 years at election time but continually.  It requires the electorate to be educated, to be treated as adult and to be told the truth about difficult global issues.  It requires honesty from the politicians, including the honesty to explain when cherished hopes cannot be met.  And yes, it may mean the orthodox political class taking on and addressing some of the populists’ issues, even if not (we hope) their methods.

None of this will be easy for today’s political class.  None of it guarantees their re-election;  some of it may instead hasten their deselection.  But if the liberal order is worth saving – and we posit that it is – then this is some of what liberal politicians will have to do to ensure its survival.