We hear it all the time. Politicians who belong to the main political parties decry the rise of ‘populism’. When asked about the seemingly inexorable rise of insurgent politicians and insurgent parties everywhere, they largely fail to provide any form of coherent response. Instead they label these insurgents ‘populists’ as though by doing so they absolve themselves of having to address any of the fundamental political issues that Western democracies are grappling with – and which is fuelling the rise of political alternatives.
But what does ‘populism’ actually mean? And is it reasonable to use it, as many do, as a term of abuse? As something to hide behind when one has no answers of one’s own to deal with the earthquake we are all seeing in our political landscapes?
Well, I decided to look it up. Here is the definition: “Populism is a political ideology that holds that virtuous citizens are mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognize the danger and work together. Populism depicts elites as trampling on the rights, values, and voice of the legitimate people.”
So here is the crunch. Elites trample on the rights of ordinary citizens and they can be overthrown if the populace works together. It seems to me that such sentiments have been the staple of all revolutionary movements since times immemorial. Today nobody would deny that we have moved to a state of increasing inequality – not just in wealth but also in access to public services, education, ability to own one’s own home, employment opportunities and conditions of employment and many, many more areas. The “Elite” control most of the levers of power and sit in a privileged position relative to everyone else. Again, there is nothing new in this. Societies have always had, and will likely always have, an Elite that holds privileged positions. Revolutions (or their 21st century manifestation as populism) arise when such inequities reach a stage of manifest excess and the population will have no more of it – even if having no more of it requires embarking on a spree of destruction of the status quo without very much clarity about what comes after the destruction is complete.
We outline all of this in our recent book titled “The Death of Liberal Democracy?” We also argue that the defence against an established order controlled by the Elite used to fall to those who called themselves Liberals. So where are today’s Liberals? Why have they vacated the stage to leave it all to populist forces that have chosen illiberal approaches to overturning the current injustices?
The problem is that Liberals are today embedded in mainstream political parties – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats – that have themselves become apologists for the status quo. Captured by, and indeed an integral part of, the Elite establishment, such mainstream parties find it impossible to argue for radical change. True liberals within those parties are hemmed in and conditioned by the culture and general direction of their own parties and largely rendered impotent. The flow of money from big business, big trade unions or wealthy individual donors to the mainstream parties makes them ever-more dependent on propping up the established order. Hence the 180 degree change in US politics with Hilary Clinton, the representative of the supposed party of the people, is depicted as a creature of the Establishment in hock to Wall Street and other vested interests while Donald Trump has used the machinery of the party of the Establishment to create a platform of insurgency and of fighting the corner of ‘the little people.’
Some of today’s Elites set out deliberately to accumulate wealth and power for themselves at the expense of everyone else. However, in the main, the intentions were positive. Those who guided us in the post-war world order clearly believed that a globalised world of democratic, market-based economies with few barriers to trade and open movement of people would bring wealth, prosperity and happiness to everyone. And, by and large, this has proven to be the case. Until now. The problem is not that the official doctrines we have lived by were incorrect. Or that they were specifically designed to trample on the disadvantaged. Rather, the issue is that, having done much good, they have now more or less run their course and the accumulated disadvantages are outweighing the advantages.
One would expect that, in such circumstances, the mainstream would change course and set about discovering new, radical approaches that are unconstrained by previous ideologies. Again, history shows us that that is not how Elites behave. When Europe is crumbling, the ideologues call for ‘more Europe’. When free market ideology has clearly gone too far with disastrous consequences, many call for even more free markets. When our educational system is not succeeding in providing the desired social mobility, Theresa May reverts to the widely discredited policies of greater early age selection.
It is all reminiscent of the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Establishment argued that the problem was not communism but that they were not communist enough. Or, centuries before, a historian’s description of Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”
While such obstinate wooden headedness continues to pervade mainstream parties, there is only one viable outcome – bring on the populists.