In an age where politics is at the forefront of every conversation, we have to wonder whether populism is to blame? (Image Source: David Parkins/Electoral Integrity Project)
The term “populism” is fraught with ambiguity and is often described as meaningless and overused.
The word is associated with emotional and simplistic rhetoric, in an attempt to find simple solutions to complex problems.
This is ironic, considering the definition of populism itself is incredibly complex and highly disputed.
In 2004, political scientist Cas Mudde published The Populist Zeitgeist, which proposed a new definition of populism that’s now become highly regarded in academic populism research.
Mudde explains the political approach of populism in two parts: first, populists believe there is a division between “the people” and “the elite”—the latter being corrupt and out of touch with everyday society.
Secondly, populism suggests that there is a “general will” or shared common goal held by “ordinary people” that those in politics should spearhead.
This is the definition that will be referred to when debating the potential, modern-day manifestations of populism and its repercussions.
Dr Brad West is a sociology lecturer from the University of South Australia, whose research focuses on the changing characteristics of national identity.
Dr West noted the difficulties in defining populism, as Mudde explains it as an ideology, while others see it as a political movement.
Both understandings of populism, however, have similarities.
“It [populism] revolves around a rejection of representational politics and deference to expertise, seeing that the world is divided between the general, ordinary public as representing the good, and elites and institutional practices and principles as a barrier to the good,” Dr West said.
“Certainly in relation to the agreed upon characteristics of populism, Trump and Johnson fit the bill.”
The problem with defining populism is that it doesn’t remain static, it “piggybacks” other ideologies, exacerbating whatever ideology it’s attached to.
A populist “people” can attach itself to anything, such as an ethnic identity, and then identify its respective “corrupt elite”.
In the case of some populist manifestations, immigrants and racial minorities can be targeted and accused of being given special treatment from the “elite” to disempower the majority “people”.
There are dangers in reducing a complex and highly diverse society into “good” and “bad” groups.
It can deceptively mislead disenchanted constituencies, desensitised to scandal, into believing overly simplistic policies in hopes for a new kind of narrative.
Dr David Radford is also a sociology lecturer, specialising in mobilities, identities and social change.
Dr Radford investigates migration, diversity, and interculturality in regional and urban Australia.
He agreed that the term ‘populism’ is ambiguous, and explained how this can arise in certain definitions.
“It’s about appealing, as much as anything, to heightened anxiety among large portions, and I think this is where populism becomes ambiguous,” Dr Radford said.
“While populism is about challenging elites, it is also about…appealing to a certain set of anxieties, and stirring up fear of the ‘other’.
“In the [Mudde] definition, it’s the ordinary people versus the elite. But the ambiguity about that is that it’s not only about elites in power, it’s about who can be blamed for the problem.”
A New Kind of Politics
While US and UK voters do not condemn democratic politics, there is a clear desire for a different kind of politics as demonstrated by the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and 2019 election of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Voters are increasingly seeking “anti-political” leaders who will champion their interests.
“Anti-politics” is often used to describe a growing distrust in politicians, a hatred for biased politics, and a dissatisfaction with the current workings of democracy.
President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson are supposed to be the “authentic” leaders that do not look or behave like politicians, and will thus expose and destroy the corrupt elite.
“It’s appealing to those who want this ‘strong leader’, and we excuse character deficiencies because of this supposed goal or aim,” Dr Radford said.
“People when they have heightened anxiety, heightened level of fear, are willing to support a leader who appears to address those concerns, even if they might say or do and behave in ways that they ordinarily wouldn’t agree with.”
The problem with these “authentic” leaders is that they frequently use homophobic, racist, sexist and imperialist statements to appear less scripted.
Politics is transitioning into a form our generation is unfamiliar with, but it is questionable whether these new manifestations of populism and “anti-politics” are beneficial to society.
“There is no doubt that populism is a dimension of fascism, but not all populism is fascist,” Dr West said.
Populism is not exclusive to extreme right wing politics, as there are various cases of left wing populism in non-Anglo Western countries.
However, the US and UK, as reflected in the appointments of Trump and Johnson, are experiencing an extreme right wing manifestation of populism.
“…It is dangerous that populism is not driven by any stable rational position in relation to politics and rejects progressive projects on the basis that they are the sinister conspiracy of elites rather than their intent or contribution to a good society,” Dr West said.
President Trump recently told US Hispanic, Muslim, and congresswomen of colour to “go back” to the “places from which they came”, while Prime Minister Johnson compared Muslim women wearing niqabs to letterboxes.
Such divisive and offensive rhetoric does not encourage healthy or respectful dialogue between differing ethnicities in the incredibly diverse countries they lead.
“It is the giving of permission for the really extreme elements — to have license to behave and talk in ways that they otherwise would not. That kind of leadership that Donald Trump appears to be exercising certainly promotes that increasing divisiveness,” Dr Radford said.
Brexit Promises and US-Mexico Border Wall: Appeals to emotion, but not to financial realities
Now, we have slogans like “Believe in Britain” and “Make America Great Again”, and populist policies that rarely engage with political realities.
In other words, populist leaders promise immense change and appeal to emotion, but may not be able to follow through when the facts are considered.
For example, The Guardian broke down one of the Brexit party’s latest policy announcements: an investment of “£200bn in the regions by scrapping HS2 (a high-speed rail project), halving the foreign aid budget, and refusing to pay Brussels £39bn [for outstanding EU budget contributions]”.
Mr Campbell also made the point that refusing to pay Brussels, halving the foreign aid budget and reversing the HS2 project, and assuming there would be no additional costs involved for reversing it, would only equate to half the £200bn promised.
This is a UK example of how divisive rhetoric and appealing to emotion can gather support, but not necessarily result in a solution.
There are no simple solutions to complex problems and it is misleading to suggest otherwise.
Trump supporters justify his divisive and offensive behaviour by saying he delivers on his campaign promises.
BBC News compiled a concise list of campaign promises Trump has delivered, partially delivered, and abandoned.
Some fulfilled promises include lowering the corporate tax rate, exiting the Paris Agreement, and exiting the Iran deal.
One of the main campaign promises he made, however, which gathered much support from the Republican Party, was his promise to build a wall along the US-Mexico border.
Congress has approved $1.7bn in funding for the controversial wall, but the estimated costs required range from $12bn to $70bn.
This is a US example of how appealing to emotion—in this case, fear of immigration—and offering a simple solution can gather support.
The wall at the US-Mexico border also exemplifies how simple solutions are not always simple in practice when finances are concerned, nor appropriate when ethics are engaged with.
Are we getting better or worse?
Not every academic theorist believes or agrees with the existence of populism, and as explained before, its definition is highly deputed.
However, following the definition provided by Mudde, Trump and Johnson use populism to further their ideologies.
Phrases like “let the people govern” or “many people agree with me” remove accountability and give the illusion that the policies being furthered are the will of the nation and not the will of the political parties or leaders.
“…At this point in time, I don’t think these nations consider themselves immune at all to populism,” Dr West said.
“If anything there is a great fear of its influence and that the regulatory system is not in place to handle this shift. This is why the establishment of a federal corruption body is so significant.”
“This is where history is really important. History shows us that we are as bad as that or we have the potential to be as bad as that…Good people will allow bad things to be done if we feel that it will give us security, sustainability, wealth for ourselves…even if it means at the expense of others who become the ‘other’,” Dr Radford said.
“We all want stability. We want good economic growth. But it’s also how we envision society. What kind of society do we really want? How do we want to get along and at what price? What cost?”