Populism in Practice

In our previous two articles in this series we have considered the phenomenon of populism, how it operates and what gives rise to it, and how the current state of the developed world has led to the current surge in populist parties and policies.  In this article we look at how those governments which are either overtly populist, or which while orthodox are pursuing populist policies and agendae, are faring and are likely to fare.

We start by reiterating our observation in the first of these articles:  it is not necessary for a populist party to triumph at the polls for its policies to prosper.   While the number of overtly populist governments in the world is relatively small still – in the developed world one might include the governments of Poland and Hungary, possibly those of Slovakia, the Czech Republic and (though it is unclear exactly how to characterise the Trump administration) the United States – there is a rather longer list of countries where the orthodox parties have been forced to adopt a more populist stance by the action of fringe opposition parties.

In nearly every case the resulting political discourse has some common features.  Firstly, the upwelling of populist sentiments usually stems from real grievances.  Secondly, the source of the problems that gives rise to those grievances is usually identified as coming from outside.  No matter how divisive, corrupt or plain incompetent the domestic government, and how much the challenges facing it are home-grown, society’s problems are blamed on foreigners.

The most obvious example at the moment is Venezuela, where the Maduro government is all three of divisive, corrupt and incompetent.  True to form every ill is blamed on foreigners, with increasing desperation as the crisis in that country deepens.   Venezuela is not alone in this though, and from the USA to the Brexiteers in the UK, from Hungary to the Ukraine and in any number of third world countries, society’s problems are never the fault of the local politicians, of poor past choices made by the electorate.

Thirdly, the proposed solutions are almost always over-simplified.  Don’t like illegal immigration?  Build a wall!  Don’t like the rules of the EU?  Leave!  And the common theme running through them is usually a withdrawal from interaction with the outside world.

As we have said, at one level the populists are often correct.  There are genuine problems which do seem to arise from the more global, more interconnected world we live in, and governments are having to tackle a range of complex issues which originate from outside their jurisdiction.  To list just four, we could for example consider

1) Global disease, and the increased risk of pandemics spreading well beyond their normal area of activity as air travel moves infected people across the globe

2) Global climate change, both a warming climate (still not universally accepted) and the more volatile and extreme weather many parts of the world are experiencing (which is an observed phenomenon)

3) Global migrations, whether running from something (eg poverty, failed states, war) or to something (eg food, jobs, security)

4) Global terrorism.

A more considered analysis shows though that none of these four are new phenomena.  With regards to the first, there were repeated waves of the plague across Europe from classical times onwards, with no country able to escape them;  with regards to the second, the “mini ice age” in the 14th to 17th centuries chilled the known world and probably caused the extinction of fringe societies like the Norse Greenlanders;  on the third, migrations westward into Europe caused the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and continued to wreak havoc down the centuries as Asiatic peoples such as the Huns, Magyars and Mongols pushed west, forcing the people in their path into Europe; and as for the last, whatever the headlines may suggest the developed world is today safer from random violence almost than it has ever been.

What is new, however, is that we now have the tools – specifically, multinational bodies and inter-state co-operation – to address the causes of all these problems where they occur rather than merely the symptoms where they cross our boundaries.  But populism eschews this approach for the simpler and more direct policy of seeking protection by isolation – in other words, “if we remove ourselves completely enough, maybe we won’t be bothered by this issue”.

But that is an approach which did not even work in the much less interconnected world of the past – as we have observed, in the Middle Ages, no European country avoided infection with the plague, however much they tried to isolate themselves and cut themselves off – and in today’s globalised and interconnected world it has no chance of success.

Indeed it is a paradox that the more populism and its bedfellows nationalism and protectionism (or “isolationism” to combine all three in one leitmotif) seek to protect the nation state from danger and strengthen it, the more in fact each small society is weakened and more prey not less to the global forces roiling our world.  And the resulting disconnect between the approach required to address the issues facing society (which populists have often correctly identified) and the over-simplified, xenophobic solutions being adopted by them in response is we think the next dynamic to be played out.

There are two possible directions that a populist administration may go when it first starts to find that the world is not as simple as it has claimed, and that isolationism is not the answer to global issues.  The first is for the administration to double down and heap more suffering on its own people and more blame on the wicked foreigners.  This is the approach Mugabe adopted in Zimbabwe, and Maduro is currently following in Venezuela.  The second (and much the more likely in a democracy, where some element of retaining the support of the electorate is still necessary) is a long and difficult climb-down:  policies are tried and abandoned, red lines are repeatedly breached and redrawn.

Two current examples of this second approach are President Trump’s retreat from his more aggressive policies on immigration (the Wall has not been built and almost certainly never will be, the ban on travellers from certain countries has been heavily watered down) and health care (where his more ambitious plans to roll back the Obama administration’s legislation were withdrawn), and the slow dismantling of the dreams of UK Brexiteers for a quick and clean break from Europe.

This latter is a classic example of the problems populists have when their oversimplified view of the world comes up against reality.  As we observed in our article on Brexit (“The Brexit Negotiations move to phase 2”, 20.01.18), over the 18 months since the UK’s referendum, Brexiteers have had to make one concession after another, as the pure vision of a clean break with Europe has come into conflict with the messy reality of modern inter-state  dependencies.

Had the most ardent supporters of leaving the EU been presented with the package as finally agreed in December last year all in one go they would have refused it, but by dint of the various compromises – some would say realities of the situation – having emerged slowly over the months, at no point has the pain been enough for Brexit believers to cry “Enough;  we cannot accept this”.  And so they have ended up far away from the original isolationist solution, and the populist agenda of Nigel Farage and his supporters has to a very considerable extent been defeated.

It would be wrong, however to conclude from this either that populist movements have no merit, or that they are always bound to fail.  It is not enough for the established political class, the liberal order, to sit back and say to itself “all this will pass”.  How the liberal order should respond to populism will be the subject of the concluding article in our series.

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