I must admit until I heard the term mentioned in yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Today program and, later coincidentally, I came across the term in a newspaper report, I hadn’t given the term “popularism” too much thought. However, given both presentations argued that popularism was on the rise and that some of the recent unexpected results in political elections were evidence that popularism was on the rise and can no longer be ignored.
According to Wikipedia: “Populism is a political doctrine that stems from a viewpoint of struggle between the populace and a ruling faction” and “is most common in democratic nations”. The matter is relevant, not just because Brexit and the Trump win epitomized populist sentiment but the two recent election results, in Italy and Austria, can both be put down to popularism holding sway among the respective electorates. What both results have in common is that the establishment lost out. In the case of Italy, the pro Europe, sitting Italian Prime Minister lost a referendum vote on constitutional reform and in response decided to stand down. In the case of Austria, the presidential election was won by a former leader of the Green party who said he would be an “open-minded, liberal-minded and above all a pro-European president”, this against a far right candidate. While there is an anti-EU sentiment across Europe, it should be noted that while Italy rejected a pro-EU supporter, in Austria it embraced one.
One of the things I observed in my own small neck of the woods was when back in May there was a local election for my ward. It happened there were three quite credible candidates standing, one promising but unlikely to get elected Green candidate, and an unpromising UKIP candidate, able to latch onto anti-EU sentiment. It turned out that one of the creditable candidates was an Independent and he won. The other two creditables represented mainstream parties and they scored roughly the same number of votes as the non creditable UKIP guy. While this is not overwhelming evidence to support the popularist cause, it was the writing on the wall for what was to come: Brexit and a Trump victory (see here).
Going back to the short, Today program discussion (2hours, 55 minutes in) both of those contributing made excellent points. Firstly, the two votes (Italy and Austria) despite seeming to endorse quite different visions of the future, was a resounding kick in the teeth to the mainstream establishment. Both seem to agree that anti-establishment might be a better way to define what is happening, especially given popularism has become a pejorative term used by many who should know better to demonise those who vote in this way as small minded, single issue individuals. What is happening is that the voting public are using their infrequent opportunities to kick against the established order by voting.
I like what one of the contributors said: “instead of saying their brains have been stolen by crazy politicians and lying media we should consider the public have real concerns”, which he elaborates. Rather than the establishment addressing these concerns they tweek around their rhetoric or describe the people as being wrong, which is a big mistake. The other contributor seemed more skeptical in that popularists tended to focus more on single issues, point to corrupt elites running the show, and failing to accommodate the breadth of opinion that exists in supposedly open societies, and that absorbing the energies and sentiments that “popularist parties” create is now a big challenge in current democracies.
It was a shame the discussion was less than five minutes as both contributors made excellent points which deserved more airing. But at least these were aired, and given the importance I am re-airing. What is evident, we are seeing a wind of change blowing through western democracies and a rejection of the status quo. Those with grave concerns are standing up and saying I do not like what we have and are demanding change. It is foolish of those who should know better to belittle those they class as popularist. All do well to listen. Where this leads is anyone’s guess – but watch this space!