The problem with populism

The voters may not cotton on until late in the day, akin to the frog in the pot that is now well and truly boiled.

23 November 2018 ·   8 min read

The problem with populism

Populist political regimes usually end badly, sometimes in violence, sometimes with a whimper, nearly always in economic calamity and social division, exactly what they purportedly set out to eliminate. The problem with populism is not that it promotes ideas with which the elites disagree or to which they have become unresponsive. This can be productive in a normal, competitive process on which democracy depends. Populism’s flaw is partly in method, given that populist politicians make claim to represent virtue in a struggle against a tainted elite; that the ends thus justify the means.

Anna Diamontopoulou’s office in her Athens’ Diktio think-tank is virtually next door to the gates of the ancient city, midway between the 800 metres separating the Acropolis and the Pnyx, the site of the Athenians’ popular assemblies and one of the earliest forms of democracy, not far from Syntagma Square, the epicentre of the modern capital.

The square around the Greek Parliament was a battleground between police and rioters in a series of demonstrations and strikes in 2010 and 2011 against government plans to cut public spending and raise taxes in exchange for an international bailout to solve the country’s debt crisis. The centre-left Pasok and centre-right New Democracy parties, which had traded power for more than 40 years, became the political scapegoats as power shifted to the extremes.

Diamontopoulou, a minister in two socialist-led governments and before that the EU Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, says that Greece is definitively in the throes of a populist moment.

“While we had prosperity over the last 40 years, since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, the political system was still immature, and our institutions still superficial, despite our entry into the European Union.

“This, plus a failure on the part of the Greek people to take responsibility for their own plight, created” what she describes as “the perfect landscape for populism”.

Four traits, she says, define this shift, which has seen a collation of the far-right Independent Greeks (Anel) and the Coalition of Radical Left (Syriza) – a party of former student activists and far-left intellectuals that had hitherto struggled to win more than 4% of the vote – win power in the January 2015 election.

“First,” she says, “the creation of an enemy outside in the Germans” with the revisiting of old scores from World War II, attempting to justify the payment of debts in the form of reparations. Second, “the creation of an internal enemy in the form of the previous political system and the economic elite”, where the government sought to wrest control of the state media. A third element was in the offering of outlandish promises to the electorate, “not to decrease but to increase salaries and pensions”.

“There were,” she notes, “no limits to anything”. And the final tactic was the seeding and widening of social divisions, “a we-and-them” approach which left no middle ground, “no space in the political centre”, with the aim also of “delegitimising” and demonising their political opponents.

She is joined in this assessment by Thanasis Bakolas, a strategist for the leader of the opposition, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of the centre-right New Democracy movement.

“Greece is the first country [in Europe] to be embroiled with and taken over by the forces of populism.” The country is, he notes, “a textbook example of a populist regime”.

“You have a party of the radical left in a coalition with the populist right, a symbiotic relationship which has become the strongest in Greek politics bound not by ideology or a plan, but simply by their quest for power.”

They got into power, he says, because Greeks were in a “state of trauma, shocked and angry that their pensions were cut, that they had lost their jobs, that their way of life had been disrupted”.

“The political dialogue, which had never been of the highest state anyway, deteriorated further, giving rise to a populist government whose aggressive message had appeal to a people who were hurting,” Bakolas says with a smile.

Defined as a response designed to appeal to ordinary people who feel ignored by established elites, rather than liberate, populism usually ends up servicing a new elite intent on excluding rival political voices and economic claims, capturing the state for their own purposes.

This is especially notable among contemporary left-wing regimes, those which adopt a Gramscian “hegemonic” strategy, gaining control over the economy to exercise political leadership over the “subaltern class”. In the case of President Lula da Silva’s Brazil, for example, this included the co-option by the state of big business in a series of messy corruption scandals epitomised by Operation Car Wash, where Worker’s Party apparatchiks colluded with the very oligarchic elites that they once criticised.

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When such indirect “state capture” fails to deliver, there is a resort to more direct means, including preferential funding for political supporters, intimidation, repression and even violence. Democracy slips to authoritarian democracy and unless confronted then, inexorably, tyranny.

This populism of this “new left” has not, however, liberated the masses, no matter the sincerity of their intentions. It simply entrenches a new, different elite. Just ask the Venezuelans fleeing the empty shelves in their homeland in their millions across the border to Colombia, a result of a deadly combination of populism and socialism.

Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, have proven what Uri Friedman describes as “textbook populists”. Their policies — which included price and currency controls, nationalisation, and party control of food distribution — set the stage for cronyism, corruption and collapse.

Such collapse is a result of the short-term thinking and impulses which drove the election of populists in the first instance. This lends itself to stimulating growth through redistribution rather than attempting to manage deficits, balance budgets, temper political promises and manage inflationary pressures. The result: runaway inflation and crisis as social popularity trumps economic logic and short-term spending shades long-term investment. In the case of Venezuela, the country ran budget deficits even at the peak of its oil boom in the 2000s.

Chavez and Maduro are not alone. This trend is apparent most notably in the personality and words of Donald Trump. As the contender noted in his campaign:

“We are going to put America first, and we are going to make America great again. This election will decide whether we are ruled by the people, or by the politicians.”

Such language reflects, in part, some of the great economic disruptions that these economies, particularly developed ones, have had to cope with, from increasing automation, robotics and labour cost competition. According to the World Economic Forum, for example, the real wages of most US workers have not budged in real terms in decades. Today’s average manufacturing hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power it did in 1978, following a long decline in the 1980s and inconsistent growth since.

Such stresses and strains are coming inevitably to other geographies.

Populism remains alive, if not so well, in the “new left” regimes in Latin America, including those of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the ruling Marxian Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and his neighbour Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.

Until the election victory of Mauricio Macri in Argentina in 2015, populism ruled through the Peronist regimes of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner. And then there is a rise of the populist right, including Brazil’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, the Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte, governments in Poland and Hungary, and, of course, in Trump.

The appeal of populists grows with mounting public discontent over the status quo, which is exacerbated by fears over security and terrorism. Certain politicians, notes Kenneth Roth of Freedom House, flourish in this environment, scapegoating “refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities”. As a consequence, he reflects: “Truth is a frequent casualty. Nativism, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia are on the rise.”

But there are two different sorts of populism, and we do ourselves a disservice by lumping them together. There is one guided by “normal” politics, and another where populists seek to alter the constitution and place themselves at the centre of power, hanging on by whatever means possible, including authoritarianism.

In the case of the former, that of robust politicking, basic civil rights, including equality before the law and freedom of expression, it retains constitutional legitimacy and protection. Such is the case, for example, in the US.

In the case of the latter “constitutional” variant, the populists see themselves as the voice of the disenfranchised, as expressing the will of the people. As Chavez declared ahead of the 2006 election:

“You are not going to re-elect Chavez really, you are going to re-elect yourselves. The people will re-elect the people. Chavez is nothing but an instrument of the people.”

It is difficult to live in a democracy when it’s not headed by democrats. Populists, whether left- or right-wing, can damage liberal democracy and its rule of law and checks and balances on executive power. Instead they believe in the power of elections and referenda, promoting a brand of politics that denigrates their opponents as “enemies” or “evil”, as Diamontopoulou notes, operating against the people and contrary to the will of the majority.

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This includes rolling back media freedoms, as in Venezuela and across Africa, tampering with election processes, blocking the internet, packing the courts with party hacks, and stripping away the powers and authority of the legislature and administration. This does not necessarily happen immediately, but can be a slower, corrosive process, twisting and twirling the population around fake conspiracies, externalising threats, and justifying measures in the interests of national unity and security.

The voters may not cotton on until late in the day, akin to the frog in the pot that is now well and truly boiled.

A referendum to determine whether Greece was to accept the conditions of an international bailout was held in June 2015, and resoundingly rejected by Greek voters, as advocated by the leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, doubling down on these terms. Greece lost economically while he survived politically.

The month following the referendum Tsipras had to reach agreement on new bailout terms with even harsher austerity measures. He delivered exactly the opposite of what the populists promised, proving that what follows populism is usually more extreme populism and then… nothing, as Anne Applebaum observes. This leads invariably “to apathy, exhaustion and a deep conviction that all politics is corrupt”.

Thanasis Bakolas argues:

“The first way to address populism is by not being afraid of them, and speak the truth. You need to offer a positive reason for people to vote for you. It’s not enough,” he says, “to call them out on what they have done.”

But it’s difficult to present an alternative, centrist narrative in such a polarised and polarising environment. Anna Diamontopoulou observes that the “centre does not have a convincing narrative even now”.

“To do so, you need to define a clear national goal, a common good, which will ensure that people don’t only stay in the country, but stay engaged in politics,” she says.

Ironically, the biggest accomplishment of the Latin American left in terms of the reduction of inequality is down to a combination of growth and welfare redistribution, both of these factors dependent on conservative macro-economic policies. Liberalism, at least economic liberalism, has no credible rival. Thus, the combination of populism plus socialism seems invariably to end badly.

This is not the only irony. For all of its populist lingo and jingoism, the left in Latin America has routinely defaulted to age-old authoritarian tactics of demonising its opponents, attacking the media and restricting economic opportunities to a cosseted elite no matter its preference for Louis Vuitton scarlet.

While democracies are weak and vulnerable to such playbooks, they are not entirely helpless. Technology is invaluable in the fight against corruption, whatever its dangers of over-intrusion. Media is also a crucial source of oxygen and oversight in protecting values and norms, even though autocrats have learnt quickly to use this tool against democrats, with armies of bots and trolls.

Support for Parliamentary processes is similarly crucial, as South Africa has shown in the fight against State Capture, but that is a responsibility of the public at large, not just political representatives.

In this way, the world is divided not between populists and conservatives, but liberal and illiberal worlds.

President Trump is populism’s Spitting Image, a lightning rod for concerns over its excesses. But confronting authoritarian ambitions demands consistency in squaring up not just to right-wingers, but left-wing regimes too, including in the United Nations and other multilateral fora, whatever the risks of appearing “preachy”.

The need for a less cynical approach is especially true for those, like South Africa, who profess a commitment to liberal human rights as a pillar of their values and dialogue as their preferred political method.

This article was originally published in The Daily Maverick.