Some months ago in the relatively small world of A Level Politics a furor broke out over the content of the new syllabus. Political ideologies had to be included in all the new courses, but which ones? Liberalism, conservatism and socialism were obvious ‘must haves’, but what about feminism shrieked some, nationalism bellowed others and even the corpse of Marxism looked likely to be brought back to life on the third day. Yet no one to my knowledge mentioned populism; a few months are truly an eternity in politics. Post Brexit and post Trump, both described as victories for populism.
What exactly do we mean when we speak of populism? The rest of this article will seek to offer some answers, not least in the light of the seismic events of the Brexit vote and Trump’s emphatic win in the US presidential election: emphatic in terms of the Electoral College that is – the popular vote showed him to be, well, slightly less popular. Corbyn’s victory (twice) and the insurgent advance of Bernie Sanders also have strong tones of populism, showing its radical left side. So what then is this political creed of the current hour? What comprises its chief characteristics?
|Peasants' Revolt, 1381|
Populism is fundamentally different from most other political ideologies. Arguably it is not an ideology or a set of clear ideas and political principles but rather a collection of emotions. Populism as intimated above is neither inherently left or right wing in the conventional sense. It is rather the politics of anger, of self-identified indignation. It is a rage against the political machine of the day. It is against the Brussels gravy train, the Washington insiders, the machinations of Wall St, the slick well-oiled New Labour project that is the preserve of the chattering classes. Go back a few centuries and we see aspects of it in the original Peasants' Revolt of 1381 led by Wat Tyler: anger at heavy taxes due to expensive overseas wars (against the French naturally), an institution (the Church) that had become focused on money not ministry, and finally anger at the landlord class who it was feared, would bring back feudalism: zero hours contracts plus, plus. Fast forward 150 or so years, and we encounter another popular revolt, the Pilgrimage of Grace: essentially a reaction against the destruction of smaller monasteries by Henry VIII misled by ill-informed, grasping, mendacious advisers. Unwelcome change, unwanted innovation, and led by Robert Aske a lawyer, organiser and effective orator. This was a popular rising from the remoter, left- behind parts of the kingdom against a largely London–based elite. Populism then, is in part a collection of emotions, of anger and frustration directed against an elite seen as self-serving and out of touch.
Yet populism is also nostalgic, it harks back to better days: when the USA not China made things, when Parliament was truly sovereign and when the social order was ordered justly and fairly. It is born out of a reaction to change that is unwelcome and unnecessary yet also reversible. The swamp can be drained, America will be great again, the king rid of his evil counsellors. The present is seen as a nightmare, but like all such nocturnal journeys, the bad dream will end, and the American Dream (or its national equivalent) will be reconstructed. The past was better, and if not quite a Garden of Eden, at least a little bit of paradise. To embrace populism is not to journey into a brave new world but to escape from one. The destination is reassuring and familiar if only from the story books and a romanticised historical narrative.
Populism also requires orators, those charismatic individuals who articulate on behalf of the dispossessed. Such men (and it is largely men, though perhaps Eva Peron counts, and Marine Le Pen too?) shout and rabble rouse, they have slogans and easy sound bites and simple policies: build a wall, extreme vetting and rip up the treaties – of Rome and of NAFTA. There is no subtlety or compromise: these are true believers, the prophets promising to guide us back to the Promised Land, to restore Eden and to make the trains run on time – state owned of course. The irony is that these anti-establishment leaders are frequently from that self-same establishment. Did Trump ever live off food stamps or Corbyn attend an inner-city comprehensive school? No, but they understand those who do, not like the rest of the inner circle. Populism breeds demagogues, so too does fascism and many varieties of Marxist-Leninism but in those cases, the ideas are about creating new utopias: racially pure or class-free. Populism looks back for its inspiration to a golden age. Their leaders are political alchemists not pragmatists and modernisers.
Their support base is primarily mass in the narrow sense of the word. Those left behind in the scramble to modernise and offshore, the equivalents of the skilled handloom weavers who lost out to the new machines and unskilled operatives of the Industrial Revolution. Modernity has inflicted no pain on Silicon Valley or the Notting Hill set, but has in Flint Michigan and Teesside. The economic benefits have not filtered down, they have been left behind, ignored and/or patronised by a metropolitan establishment. Enough in benefits to keep them off the streets, but not enough to shop organic or complain about the foreign au pair. They are remote, often rural in America, all too often looking for an easy way out. They normally eschew political participation (labor unions and the Labour Party have lost much of their credibility), but if the clarion call comes they might rise up and vote, and in surprising number. Yet populism reaches other parts of the body politic. The older segments of many communities, alarmed by change and the disappearance of traditional values and common courtesies. Despondent about the future for their grandkids despite their own good fortune and decent pension arrangements, and a free university education with the career for life that went with it. They have seen too much to be enthused by the polite progressive who embraces globalisation and multiculturalism because that’s just the way it is. Someone, somewhere has betrayed something unique and shared.
Populism is most frequently allied with a traditional patriotism, the damage has been inflicted on our country by those who should have known better. It is not explicitly race-based but it is about control and common values, and having a clear sense of national destiny. It’s about what is best for Britain or the USA, with a suspicion verging on paranoia about international commitments and foreign entanglements. This is not an expansionist movement advocating world domination or lebensraum, and rather one that respects national boundaries and politely requests others respect theirs. Foreign places are good for holidays if your climate is wet, and trading the goods we manufacture. Foreigners are inherently to be treated with suspicion, but if they respect our popular will, we will respect theirs and not ask too many questions about their human rights; that’s their business and not our war. Populism is protectionist because free trade and free movement mocks and manipulates, and twists the rules against us. Perhaps some of its soul is summed up in the words of that 19th century English politician and Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, ‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.’ A man of several mistresses and the bon mot, he might well have approved of DJT though he had a penchant for free trade. Or perhaps George Canning, British Foreign Secretary summed it up equally well when he said, ’Non-intervention; no European police system; every nation for itself, and God for us all; balance of power; respect for facts, not for abstract theories; respect for treaty rights, but caution in extending them … a republic is as good a member of the comity of nations as a monarch. England not Europe. Our foreign policy cannot be conducted against the will of the nation.’ Again an endorsement perhaps of Trump’s isolationist foreign policy utterances, or of Farage’s hopes for a new Britain?
One aspect however of modern populism is relatively unique. It has triumphed, come into office, and is triggering a divorce whether with Europe or Capitol Hill insiders. In the past it was either cruelly punished (note the fates of Aske and Tyler) or acted as a corrective, nudging a policy here and a concession there. This time in 2016, the anti-establishment has become the new king of the castle. Populism for a whole host of reasons (not least weak and flawed opponents) now has the keys to the corridors of power. The easy slogans and brash promises now need to be delivered, or else public despondency falls even lower with the democratic process. What is the point of choice if we cannot change anything and change it for the better? Perhaps we were better off before with the professional political classes who merely pretended to listen. Or perhaps not…. Time alone will tell
This essay has not sought to offer a comprehensive analysis of populism, still less an explanation for its current vogue, but hopefully the reader can now be a little better informed whether populism is a corrective palliative or a cruel curse; the ultimate double-cross or a return to democratic basics of ‘We the people.’
Mr Lemieux is Head of History and Politics and is not running for office (ever)