Passing Bull 79 – What is populism?

There has been a lot of chatter – some call it white noise – about populists. What are they?  One of the problems with this word is that people who use it rarely say what they mean by it.  For example in today’s AFR, John Roskam of the IPA says that the reaction of the ‘elites’ to wins by ‘populists’ amount to threats to democracy.  The IPA rarely misses an opportunity to miss the point.  The author does not define any of those three terms, but it is hard to imagine any definition of ‘elite’ that would not embrace the IPA and AFR.

The OED, at least in my version is no help.  (The OED on line gives this citation for ‘populism’:  ‘your populism identifies with the folks on the bottom of the ladder’; and for ‘populist’: ‘she is something of a populist—her views on immigration resemble those of the right-wing tabloid press’.  The two are not the same.) If you go elsewhere on the Web, you will find references to ‘ordinary’ or ‘regular’ or ‘common’ people against political insiders or a wealthy elite.  These vague terms don’t help – to the contrary.  What do they mean? Is dividing people into classes a good idea in Australia now – or anywhere at any time?  And if it is simply a matter of the ‘common people’ wresting control from a ‘wealthy elite’, who could decently object?  Would this not be just democracy triumphing over oligarchy?  Or is the world perhaps not quite so simple, or quite so black and white?

Populus is the Latin word for ‘people,’ with pretty much the same connotations as that word in English.  Do populists therefore appeal to the people for their vote?  Well, anyone standing for office in a democracy does just that.  The most famous political speech in history concludes with the words ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’.

But the word populist is not used to describe anyone standing for office.  It is used to refer to only some of those, and the difference seems to be in the parts of the people that are appealed to and the way in which that appeal is made.

So, what kind of people do populists appeal to?  Well, the people who use this word say that the people appealed to are anything but the ‘elite’ – those who have got on well in life because of their background or education, or both.  In both the UK and the US this feeling about the elite – which might look like simple envy to some – is linked to a suspicion of or contempt for ‘experts’.  People do, however, tend to get choosy about which experts they reject. This rejection does not extend to experts who may save their life or their liberty, but it may explain the curious intellectual lesion that many people of a reactionary turn of mind have about science and the environment.

Another attribute of people appealed to by populists is said to be that they have missed out on the increase in wealth brought about by globalised free trade and changes in technology.  These movements obviously have cost people jobs and are thought by some experts to be likely to cost another 40% of current jobs over the next ten years.

A third attribute of people appealed to by populists is said to be that in their reduced condition, they value their citizenship above all else, and they are not willing to share it.  They are therefore against taking refugees or people whose faith or colour threatens their idea of their national identity.

Now, if people who use the word populist are describing politicians who appeal to people with those attributes, they may want to be careful about what pub they are standing in before they articulate that meaning.  The picture that emerges is one of a backward, angry, and mean chauvinist, the loser with the definitive chip on the shoulder.  That picture is seriously derogatory, but in my view it adds warmth and not light to the discussion.  If that is what people mean when they refer to populists, then it’s just a loose label that unfairly smears a large part of the population.  The term does then suffer from the vice of labelling that we have identified.

In truth, this meaning calls up another Latin term vulgus.  This means the mob or herd or ‘the folks on the bottom of the ladder’, who are very commonly people whose ‘views on immigration resemble those of the right-wing tabloid press’.  These sorts of people have been typed for the ages by Shakespeare in Coriolanus, and the inability of the hero to bend his knee to the mob costs him his life.  It is from here that we get our word vulgar, and that is a seriously insulting term.

It may be more helpful and honest to identify the opinions that some politicians appeal to and then comment on the reactions, rather than trying to lump a large and diverse group of the populace under the one pigeon-hole.  Then you might get something like this: People who believe in the promises of Farage or Trump are not too bright.  People who support Farage or Trump in venting spleen against those who are not so well off on the ground of colour or faith are not very nice – at best they are ungenerous.  And any American who believes that there may be one iota of communion between Donald Trump and Jesus of Nazareth is hopelessly deluded to the point of being diagnosably insane.

And if you think that any nation can be governed other than by reliance on ‘experts’ and ‘insiders’, then you are in Fantasyland.  Do you recall when Mao unleashed the Red Guards in the maternity wards?   Or just look at the mayhem in federal parliament caused by idiots, amateurs, and ego-primers that are all hopelessly out of their depth.  Have we ever seen a more depressing circus than the display over backpackers’ tax?

I would myself prefer to drop the word ‘populist’.  In whatever meaning it is used in, it will provoke the routine incantation of inane mantras like identity politics or class warfare or elitist snobbery – that are all just bullshit.

This discussion is I think correct, or at least, arguable as far as it goes.  But it does not deal with the principal fear of people about those who are called populists. The fear is hinted at in the two OED online citations.  Let us look at two dead ones – Mussolini and Hitler.  What frightens and repels us about these terrible people is that they directed their powers of persuasion to vulnerable people in order to bring out the reverse of the ‘better angels’ of those people and entrust the persuaders with power (which would never be given back).  They went straight for the gutter and they stayed there. The ‘liberal elites’ who thought that the ‘populists’ could be reined in later were cruelly deluding themselves.

What might be described as the failure of the better people of Italy has been described by a biographer of Mussolini in terms that could be transposed word for word to the Germans and Hitler.

Mussolini still needed their [the moderates’] help, for most of the liberal parliamentarians would look to them for a lead.  He also took careful note that chaos had been caused in Russia when representatives of the old order were defenestrated en masse during the revolution:  fascism could hardly have survived if the police, the magistrates, the army leaders and the civil service had not continued to work just as before, and the complicity of these older politicians was eagerly sought and helped to preserve the important illusion that nothing had changed.

The liberals failed to use the leverage afforded by his need for their approbation.  Most of them saw some good in fascism as a way of defending social order and thought Italians too intelligent and civilised to permit the establishment of a complete dictatorship.  Above all, there was the very persuasive argument that the only alternative was to return to the anarchy and parliamentary stalemate they remembered….Mussolini had convincingly proved that he was the most effective politician of them all: he alone could have asked parliament for full powers and been given what he asked; he alone provided a defence against, and an alternative to, socialism.  And of course the old parliamentarians still hoped to capture and absorb him into their own system in the long run; their optimism was encouraged by the fact that his fascist collaborators were so second-rate. 

How is that relevant to recent events?  That is a matter of opinion, but Mussolini was, rather like Berlusconi, seen as an ‘absurd little man’, a ‘second-rate cinema actor and someone who could not continue in power for long’, a ‘César de carnaval’, a ‘braggart and an actor’, and possibly ‘slightly off his head.’  The only difference to the next President of the US is that he is ‘an absurd big man.’

Perhaps two generalizations may be offered about populists.  Their reign may be short. They don’t know what they are doing; they are untrustworthy; and they are much bigger on protesting than on governing.  And the possibilities of breakdown of trust at either end between them and their supporters look to be endless.

Poet of the Month: Vergil (Georgics)

In the early Spring, when icy waters flow from snowy hills,

and the crumbling soil loosens in a westerly breeze,

then I’d first have my oxen groaning over the driven plough,

and the blade gleaming, polished by the furrow.

The field that’s twice felt sun, and twice felt frost,

answers to the eager farmer’s prayer:

from it boundless harvest bursts the barns.

But before our iron ploughshare slices the untried levels,

let’s first know the winds, and the varying mood of the sky,

and note our native fields, and the qualities of the place,

and what each region grows and what it rejects.

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