POPULISM

Charles Simkins | Jun 28, 2016
This Brief is the first in a two part series and this Brief discusses populism.
 
 
Populism is a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people    -   Cas Mudde  
 
 
From Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to Brexit, from Marine le Pen in France to Viktor Orban in Hungary, from Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, populism is a force in contemporary politics around the world.  How are we to interpret this phenomenon?
 
1. Populism is hostile to liberal democracy.  Shinawatra argued to his audience during the 2005 election:
 
The bundle of liberal democracy – rule of law, freedom of criticism, human rights, oversight by parliamentary opposition, checks and balances – had done little for them in the past .
 
Unlike Shinawatra, liberal democracy sees the aggregation of interests as being mediated by rules – the constitution and law – and institutions – political parties, the press, business and labour organization, civil society.  Without rules and institutions, the will of the people cannot be expressed – indeed, it does not even exist.  In the 1950s, Kenneth Arrow proved that individual preferences cannot simply be added into a social preference without violating at least one of four common sense assumptions:
 
the social preference must not be the preference of an individual dictator 
the social preference must rank choices completely 
the social preference between x and y must depend only on individual preferences between x and y, and not irrelevant alternatives   
if every individual prefers a certain option to another, then so must the social preference .
 
A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly  describes the United States as suffering from chaos syndrome – a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. Occasioned by a weakening of institutions and brokers – political parties, congressional leaders and committees – that have historically held politicians accountable to one another.   Atomization and the disappearance of give and take politics are the result, creating the room for self-sufficient outsiders who do not need to care what other politicians think of them.  Political wildcatting plays into public hostility to politicians and political processes, and anti-establishment nihilism creates a form of populism.
 
2. Symbolic construction of ‘the people’ and their enemies is at odds with the concept of citizens with equal political rights.  Of course, in liberal democracies there are winners and losers as a result of political decisions.  But the equal political rights of citizens are maintained and new forms of political action, from which no citizen is excluded, can and do articulate alternatives and change policies.  In this sense, all political decisions are provisional, while the ‘people’ are a given. 
 
Populism, on the other hand, aims to construct ‘the people’.  It aims to remove categories of people from the political scene altogether: the ‘corrupt’, the ‘elite’, the ‘reactionary’, the ‘foreign’.  In justifying this aim, populists claim that they are absolutely and permanently right.  Populists think that there is no limit to what can be justified in the name of the people.
 
3. Populism should be distinguished from socialism and from revolution.  Population is mass based rather than class based.  It is also best regarded as a variant of democracy, rather than its overthrow.  Populism – through rallies, protests, strikes, blockades and other forms of organization -  mobilizes by appealing to a concept of ‘the people’ related to political ends.  
 
In power, it has some particular characteristics.  The first (episodic and top down) is the use of the plebiscite, with the intended aim of popular acclamation.  It is no accident that anti-immigrant sentiments in the United Kingdom found their most potent political recognition in a referendum.  The second (continuous and bottom up) is use of grass roots organizations which have deliberative and decision-making roles in policy making.  Characteristically, these organizations are not independent of central political control.  Rather they are an instrument of it.  This mobilization intends to extend and perpetuate mobilization.  Plebiscites and grass roots organization are not mutually exclusive and they can be used together.
 
Much has been made of the role of social media in political disintermediation and the rise of populism.  Crowdsourcing political crowds on to the streets has been observed in recent years.  In some cases, such as in Egypt, it has had political effects.  In others, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, the impact has been as ethereal as the electronic haze within which tweets float.  Insurgencies don’t have a plan – they are the plan, proclaims Benjamin Arditi , but because they don’t, bringing a government down with utopian (and inevitably disappointed) expectations about the future is as much as they can achieve.
 
4. Populism is associated with a crisis of representation.  Political representation may be shallowly rooted and inchoate during transitions toward democracy.  Some Latin American and Eastern European populism can be understood in these terms.  Political groupings may become ossified or fragmented, unable to respond to crises and dysfunctional in terms of interest accommodation – a form of elite failure.  Or party cartelization may create a closed governing group insulated from popular needs or concerns.  The problem that Donald Trump poses for the Republican Party is that he has mobilised a constituency – the white working and lower middle class – more thoroughly than in previous presidential campaigns, but on terms that make the party leadership distinctly uncomfortable.
 
5. Populism is anti-pluralist and therefore harbours authoritarian tendencies.  Populism forces homogeneity where it does not exist.  It claims to empower ‘the people’.  What it actually does is to invoke the people to empower a leader. Charismatic rather than legal-rational authority is the order of the day, with claims for unlimited authority brushing aside the procedural and substantive constraints and independent bases of power and influence.  And where authoritarianism comes into existence, corruption (ironically) is never far behind.  Populism starts with an appeal to the purity of the people.  It ends by being anything but pure.
 
6. The net effect of populism is often ambiguous.  Huey Long, the governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and a member of the US Senate from 1932 until his assassination in 1935 is a case in point.  Long won the 1928 election by mobilizing the resentment of rural Louisianans.  He quickly fired hundreds of opponents in state employment and filled the vacancies with appointments from his own network of political supporters. Every state employee who depended on him had to pay a portion of his salary into Long’s personal political war chest.  He began a large public works program, building roads, bridges, hospitals, and educational institutions.  An attempt to impeach him followed in 1929, but after a brawl in the Louisiana senate and probable bribery, the matter was dropped, and he became more ruthless with his political opponents. He clashed  with Standard Oil and had a new gasoline tax approved.  After election to the US Senate, he supported the New Deal, but then attacked it from the left after falling out with Roosevelt over patronage.  Roosevelt regarded him as one of the most dangerous men in America.  He was a flamboyant, but ineffectual, member of the Senate while remaining massively influential in his Louisiana.  His funeral was spectacular and drew great crowds. His style lingered on in Louisiana for decades. 
 
7. Except in cases of irredentism, populism thinks of ‘the people’ in nationalist terms.  Global institutions and foreign powers become part of the ‘them’ for populists.  It is no accident that populism in Europe has frequently defined itself against the European Union, or that populists in Latin America have inveighed against the ‘Washington consensus’.  Indeed, populism widely enough distributed, will work against both regional and international economic integration.  From an International perspective, populism fragments.
 
 
A second brief will consider populism in South Africa.
 
Charles Simkins
Head of Research
charles@hsforg.za