Populism Defeated

  • In spite of recent victories, populism usually fails, mainly because of its inherent contradictions
  • But this does not deal with the underlying causes of populism
  • The liberal order can triumph, but not by attempting to ‘out-populist’ the populists or by treating voters as ignorant fools

Previous articles in this series have attempted to understand what populism is, and in what circumstances it can arise in a mature democracy.  We have also offered the opinion that far from being a purer form of democracy, it is in fact a direct threat to democracy. Here, we aim to show that the victory of populism is not foreordained. In fact, it is rather the defeat of populism that is given. But it won’t happen automatically, nor is it easy. And within that defeat, there will still be some victories.

The first article showed that outright populist victories in major established democracies are highly unusual. More to the point, assuming democracy is retained, populism eventually tends to be abandoned, even in countries where it is deeply entrenched, as in a number of Latin American countries.

The key reason why populism ultimately fails, is because of its inherent contradiction. Populism offers simple solutions to complicated problems. To generalise – close the borders to stop immigrants and domestic employment will rise; raise tariffs to stop imports and domestic activity will rise; boost inflation and public spending, and economic activity will rise; spend more on X (e.g., the British National Health Service) and its problems will be solved; and so on and so forth. However, while these policies sometimes have a short-run effect, they not only do not work in the long run, they actually make the economy worse. Ultimately, the main losers tend to be the very supporters that the populists rely on to keep them in power. This is a pattern that has a repeatedly been seen in Latin America, which for many decades was the ‘ground zero’ of populism (and in some cases, e.g., Venezuela and to a lesser extent Bolivia and Argentina, remains so). An initial burst of growth is followed by widening imbalances, a rise in bottlenecks and eventually higher inflation. This is then usually followed by attempts to rein in inflation (occasionally under the influence of the IMF) which also would cause growth to halt and possibly even reverse. Frequently, the country ended up with the level real GDP below where it had been at the start of the process. But the policies necessary to reduce the imbalances and bring down inflation, are also the ones most likely to hurt the populist core supporters, eventually leading to a renewed surge of support for more populism (not least of the austerity was implemented by another party).

However, there are problems with this. First, the process can take a long time. This is even more the case of the populists can dismantle some of the democratic framework and so cement their grip on power. A typical current example of this is Venezuela, but, arguably, the same pattern is visible in Russia or Turkey, to name but two. Second, and more importantly, it does not deal with the underlying causes of populism, either by removing/curing them or by neutralising the populist movements. Perhaps the best example of this is Argentina, which returns time and again to populism, only to see it fail every time. In the meantime, the economy and civil society both suffer substantial damage.

So how can populism be neutralised or defeated? Perhaps the question is wrong; maybe it should be, how can the liberal order survive?

One thing seems clear: The liberal order will not survive by attempting to “out-populist” the populists. The populists, by the nature of their movements, are prepared to be more extreme than their opponents. To take a current example, many Democrats in the USA feel that the reason Donald Trump won the presidency was because they did not put up their own radical populist candidate, e.g., Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. They may be tempted to see this as the solution to how to win back the presidency in 2020. Or, perhaps by going with a non-political candidate in the Trump mould, but much more moderate and decent, e.g., Oprah Winfrey. Neither is likely to work. A hybrid main-stream/populist candidate will still feel the need to reach out to moderate voter groups. By contrast, a ‘full-blooded’ populist will primarily concentrate on reaching the core base and rarely see the need to present a ‘moderate’ face. This enables them to portray themselves as ‘genuine’, as well as to accuse their opposition of being duplicitous.

Nor will treating voters as ignorant fools make them abandon populist parties.

Instead, defenders of the liberal order have to try to convince voters, first by reconnecting with them and listening to their concerns. These may or may not be real, they may or may not be justified; but they are perceived to be both real and justified, and that is what matters. But politicians also need to purvey a positive message. This is more complicated. It involves a number of different approaches. Overall, a key aim must be to restore trust in the integrity of politics, and perhaps even more so, of politicians. This includes dealing with corruption. Corruption may be less widely spread in democracies than in dictatorships, but repeated stories of politicians feathering their own nests and acting as if they were above the law (ranging from parliamentary expenses scandals in the UK to Swedish politicians illegally allocating choice apartments to themselves) show that it is not entirely absent.

Connected with this is the importance of reaffirming the commitment to rule of law and equality of rights. Politicians must also show that the liberal society really is capable of improving the lot of all of its citizens. We take it for granted that the liberal society provides stronger growth than a non-liberal one; and that this benefits all who live in it. It does; but part of the price is that in time of innovation – and innovation is another strength of liberal society – inequality rises as entrepreneurs capture the initial benefits of their innovations – and those most closely associated with the old way of life suffer until they can adjust (e.g., manual labour during a period of automation)

It may also be that the need to make voters feel empowered involves changing the way democracies today function, where voters express their views once every so many years and have to elect politicians based on one set of ideas, who may then have to deal with completely different issues once in power.

And perhaps most importantly, liberal politicians need to recapture patriotism and nationalism from the populists. This is more of a right-wing than a left-wing populism issue. Liberal politicians have all too often tended to move away from nationalism and pride in one’s own country, by default leaving this to the right wing. But nationalism is extremely powerful. True nationalism is not necessarily exclusive – in fact, it can be very inclusive. Moreover, it is a natural and normal feeling. As Benedict Anderson points out, national monuments, e.g., memorial to the unknown soldier or to soldiers fallen for their country, are found almost everywhere. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a monument to ‘the unknown Marxist’ or the ‘unknown liberal’. As long as liberal politicians show a disdain for patriotism, they abandon a symbolically and emotionally powerful field to the populists. This is not just a tactical consideration. As Dan Korn puts it “If you see the world in black and white, without the shades of grey between these extremes, then you fail to see that the evil side of nationalism, the chauvinistic and warlike nationalism, opposes integration – you want an enemy that you can hate – but that the good side of the same phenomenon, that is to say the subdued nationalism, that some call patriotism, is necessary for successful integration.”[1]

All of this takes time; and it may mean taking on some populist ideas. But if the liberal order is worth saving – and we posit that it is – then this is some of what politicians will have to do.

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles written together with John Nugée and published jointly on this website and on the Laburnum Consulting website .

[1] Dan Korn, Kalle Anka på kräftskiva, Timbro, 2017, p 446.