Populism is on the rise, but I’m not worried.
What’s actually wrong with ‘populism’? (Seriously. Asking for a friend.)
More and more I’m hearing this term bandied about. It always comes as an insult. But it doesn’t seem to have any consistent political flavour.
Supporting gay-marriage? Populist. Being anti-immigration? Populist. Supporting minimum wage increases? Populist. Supporting tax cuts? Populist. Supporting new coal mines? Populist. Supporting clean energy targets? Populist.
It’s all over the shop. Seems that any politician or any piece of policy can be populist.
So at it’s heart it seems to be about a style of politics – a style where personal convictions and the “truth” are put aside in favour of whatever sells.
Sounds terrible right?
Only thing is, that’s what I thought politicians were supposed to do. In theory at least, politicians aren’t supposed to be following their own whims. They’re supposed to be ‘representing’ their constituents, and taking direction from them on the issues of the day.
The whole system is, in theory, populist. Or it’s supposed to be.
It’s like I laugh every time something is put to a conscience vote – where each member is free to vote with what they think is right.
But what are they doing the rest of the time? Backing policies they don’t think are right just because that’s what the party told them to do?
That sounds like a pretty flawed system.
I’d prefer my politicians to represent my interest thanks.
But don’t get me started. The modern democratic system is a total cluster-fuddle.
But still I’m interested in this idea of ‘populism’. It seems to me it’s a bit of trying to have your cake an eat it to.
Like, you’re saying, I support democracy, except when the majority are wrong. In that case, I’d like my own personal opinions to be implemented, thanks. In that situation, I’m a fascist.
And I think this is one of the weird truths that underpin our democratic system. We like to think that we support the idea of one person, one vote, but deep down, we know that a simple of majority of people can support some pretty stupid things.
The mob, with torches and pitchforks, can go pretty rouge pretty quickly.
And so I don’t think any body trusts 50+x% of the population to consistently come up with good decisions. It’s a recipe for mob rule. For the tyranny of the majority.
And so I think, secretly, we kind of hope that some sort of enlightened elite has got the reins. Like some sort of political Avengers, strong enough to resist the will of the mob, and do what’s right.
Secretly, we’re all fascists.
(Actually, tbh, I don’t really know what that term means. It’s probably not exactly what I think it is, but you get my point.)
And so I thought this chart here was interesting. It’s from a group called “Bridgewater”. It looks at the global share of the populist vote right now.
Each nation is weighted by their population shares, so it’s a bit rough, but the general trend feels about right.
But note that the authors admit that when they’re talking about ‘populism’ they’re really talking about “anti-establishment” parties – parties that are capitalising on an appetite for change and proposing radical alternatives to the status quo.
(They also include Trump in this sense, even though he’s representing an establishment party.)
They argue that the populist vote is now as strong as it was in the days leading up to WWII.
They argue that it’s kind of a scary prospect.
What do you think?
I’m not so sure. I think it does say some interesting things about where we’re at as a society. Remember the 1930s was a very rough patch that followed the great stock market crash. The past ten years has been a rough patch that followed the GFC.
I think there are parallels.
Generally, we’re secret fascists when the enlightened elite is doing a good job – when our economies prosper and hopes for the future are high.
But when the economy falters and hope dries up, then we start looking for alternatives. We become populists again.
So I think there are some parallels.
But I think there are some important differences.
The first is that modern populists parties are much fluffier than their 1930s predecessors. Even the nastiest can barely hold a candle to the Italian fascists or the German Nazis.
Say, for example, Australia implemented a policy that allowed you to kick a person of Greek heritage in the shins every Friday.
I would feel oppressed. But I could craft a pretty heart wrenching video on social media, and I think enough people would stop and go, you know what, that isn’t right.
Oppression relies on a disconnection from our basic humanity. German Nazis were persuaded to stop seeing Jews as people.
But that’s a huge deceit that takes years of carefully controlled social engineering.
Someone might try to do something similar with Greek Australians, but I don’t think it would get off the ground. It just couldn’t get the space it needs. The internet would quickly serve up witty and funny and touching counter points that would bring people back to their fundamental humanity.
And deep down, I trust that people are good.
So all this populism – all this anti-establishment feeling – I say bring it on. The system isn’t working and it could use a shake up.
But I don’t worry about us descending back into the horrible dark days of the 30s and 40s.
I think the internet protects us from that.
Like, how good is that? What a time to be alive.
What do you think? Am I taking things for granted?