By Thomas Sherlock
We live in the age of populism, or so it seems. Populism has been used to describe the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump last year, and is now being ascribed to Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. In all these situations the term is being used as an implicitly bad thing. But why?
The definition offered by the Oxford Dictionary does not seem negative in the slightest:
“1. Support for the concerns of ordinary people
‘it is clear that your populism identifies with the folks on the bottom of the ladder’
1.1 The quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people”.
The idea of listening to concerns of ordinary people doesn’t seem dangerous or alarming in any way. Isn’t the whole point of democracy to listen to people’s concerns? So why has the term garnered such negative connotations? What is it about modern populism that so appals commentators?
It’s tempting to write the usage of the term off as a form of political snobbery. Commentators writing off politicians or movements that don’t ‘fit’ into the standard political spectrum as rogue populist movements. How dare the Leave campaign not be a clear-cut left/right movement?! But this is too simple. Populism is not the benevolent movement the definition might suggest it is.
Populists are not politicians. That’s the line that populists love to profess as if it’s some noble qualification, Nigel Farage being the prime example: ‘“None of us conform to any of the rules by which politics is operating…And people like that!”’ They’re right, they’re not politicians. Politicians present their ideas with a plan to achieve them, the outcomes they profess are largely achievable (because they know if they set unachievable goals, their time in power will be short). Populists are tag-lines: ‘£350 million for the NHS’, ‘Make America Great Again’. How these are achieved are irrelevant to the populist. Take ‘Make America Great Again’, Trump was asked how people would be able to tell America was great again to which he replied: ‘I’m going to tell them’ and when pushed provided the answer: ‘Jobs. Jobs. You’re going to see it: jobs, military, strength, strong borders, good health care’ A brilliant plan there. The £350 million claim has the misfortune to not even be true, Britain does not send £350 million to the EU. Yet despite being proven as misleading numerous times, the figure stuck (perhaps being put on the side of a bus helps stick something in the public consciousness) and any attempts to disprove it were shut down with ‘Take Back Control’.
This is a real problem. Populist movements can be interpreted in many ways and aren’t ultimately clear in what they actually want. Trump’s grand policy after all those slogans is putting ‘America First’. But how does that work in practice? Does anyone know what exactly he’s going to do differently to previous Presidents when negotiating trade that makes it better for America? Brexit is another fine example. We’re leaving the European Union. That is clearly the will of the people. Great. But what do we do once we’ve left? Do we go for a hard Brexit and cut ties all – but completely or soft and keep some economic links? Ask three people who voted Leave and you might get three different answers. It’s this vagueness, this concentration on themes, whether that is to make more jobs or to reclaim sovereignty, which is not only frustrating but potentially dangerous. Take Marine Le Pen. In recent years she’s changed the National Front’s policies dramatically to improve its image from the state her father left it in-but who is the real Le Pen? Is she adopting these policies to genuinely change the party or just to appeal to more voters to gain power? Here lies the danger – how can you hold anyone accountable if you don’t know what they’re actually going to do once elected?
Another danger of populism lies, somewhat ironically, in its connection to the ‘ordinary people’. Populist leaders show an alarming tendency to take their popularity as universal. Brexit was ‘a victory for real people’ according to Farage, as if the 48% who voted against it don’t count at all. This attitude has carried on; apparently judges making a ruling that may inconvenience the Government in implementing Brexit are ‘enemies of the people’ according to The Daily Mail. Trump too has followed this course, already branding critics in the media as ‘enemies of the people’ and blaming protests on ‘professional protestors’ among other conspiracies, because of course real people all agree with him. This pattern is dangerous. The assumption of popularity is used to essentially shield them from any criticism and de-legitimise opponents. The best example is President Erdogan in Turkey, elected as a populist underdog, who addressed his critics with ‘We are the people. Who are you?’ and who has clamped down on political freedoms in the last year. This is a direct affront to democracy and is a consequence of populism. Populist leaders use their popularity as a shield all too often. Democracy demands the protection of minority opinions and the rule of law – this attitude is a clear threat. Whilst it’s obviously good for leaders to appeal to as many of the electorate they can, that should not de-legitimise criticism.
Populism as a concept is not a wholly negative idea. Actually listening to people’s concerns should not be a novelty in politics. But its how modern populism works that’s worrying. These movements are not cohesive plans-they’re just ideas, designed to be as appealing as possible. Give a populist leader power based on ideas and its nigh-on impossible to know what they’ll really do, and all-too frequently criticism of them is brushed off due to their popularity. What will Trump do to ‘Make America Great Again’? How will he build a border wall and get Mexico to pay for it? How will the British government negotiate Brexit? When a person is elected their plans should not be in the form of questions. To be elected is not only a job but a responsibility. Can you really trust someone who grandstands and offers slogans with the responsibility of actually governing?