The fall of populism

Feb 11, 2019
Populism seems to have taken hold across the world, but can it sustain itself outside of the spread of social media?

There has been apparent chaos in so many democratic institutions recently – from the US government shutdown to a dysfunctional Parliament in Westminster to the violent protests of the Gilets Jaunes in France against fuel tax hikes. You could be forgiven for thinking that somewhere along the way, the traditional political parties which usually comprise the backbone of elected governments had stopped listening to their citizens. Instead of the conventional ideologies of left- and right-wing politics, populism seems to have taken hold instead.

The core idea of populism is that there is a ruling elite which, in some way, is separated from the concerns of, for want of a better expression, “ordinary people”. It is neither necessarily “left-wing” nor “right wing”, but rather “my wing and not your wing”. It seems to me that this is a barren philosophy with little in it ultimately for anyone other than its most strident adherents. Perhaps of more interest is not the rise of populism, but the circumstances in which it is coming to the fore. 

Over the centuries, ruling elites of all types have often been suspicious of any spread of knowledge or better communications among those whom they rule. Scholars distrusted the printing press, clergy showed hostility towards church services being conducted in the vernacular. Government of all types have long cherished the belief that the popular message should be disregarded.

But in this era of mass communication, the popular message refuses to be disregarded. Among the consequences is the emergence of populist leadership – Trump in America, Bolsanaro in Brazil, Duerte in the Philippines and so on. In Europe, we have seen the rise of the German AfD, UKIP, Orban in Hungary, the flurry of support for Marine Le Pen in France and the extent to which Italy’s Five Star movement now holds sway. It does not seem to matter that their political messages have little by way of long-term viability. 

What remains to be seen is whether the messages of populist thinking, often spread through the convenience of social media, will have the same enduring impact as political thinking developed from the grind of committee meetings, election campaigns and town hall rallies. These require serious effort over an extended period of time by the promoters of the political ideologies and commitment and stamina from those who support them. For example, the US civil rights movement was not born out of a social media hashtag campaign. It has endured since the 1950s and is still of relevance and has much still to achieve. In 70 years’ time, will we be saying the same thing about the Gilets Jaunes?

Even if social media can help win over hearts and minds, it may not be sufficiently powerful to retain them. UKIP has already faded out of mainstream politics because it has nothing more to say. The French National Front has rebranded itself as the National Rally. Populism in its current incarnation only survives as long as it can keep communicating effectively. 

Yet, there is little sign of any re-evaluation of the liberal, conservative, environmental or socialist values which have long informed the policies of traditional politics as a way to address populism. Unless political parties of every hue reassess the policies they use to attract support and win power, we will all be stuck within a cycle of short-term fixes and protectionism – border fences, trade wars and backstops – until all the populist ideas eventually run out of steam. That reassessment should start by political leaders tuning in to the messages from their own elected representatives, and tuning out the messages from the quangos, the special advisers and the spin doctors.

Dr Brian Keegan is Director of Public Policy and Taxation at Chartered Accountants Ireland.