Come in Spinner: Why is populism so popular with politicians?

With an election looming one thing we can be certain about: populism will be more popular with politicians than almost any other form of political activity except alliteration.

What makes populism popular is that it gives the appearance of responsiveness to the populace while simultaneously making sure the public puts up with policies which are against their own best interests.

As with much else that is malign in modern politics, the latest form of populism was largely invented by the Republican Right in the US. Admittedly, populism has been around for as long as voting and rioting. Cicero, Caesar and Andrew Jackson were probably as good at it as Karl Rove, John Howard and Ronald Reagan. But it takes different talents in a modern system with almost universal voting. One of the best guides to how it works is Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with America? (Secker & Warburg 2004) which charts the Republican Right’s 30 year campaign to use populism to create a common man’s revolt against a supposedly liberal establishment and unnatural alliances between blue-collar mid-Westerners and bankers and workers and bosses. A logical extension of this is when elites re-define themselves as populists in the vanguard of the revolution. So Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest (The Billionaire Liberation Front as Lindsay Tanner called them) take to the streets to protect the people from the dangerous elite socialist eastern States establishment.

However, for Australians the best example of how it works is John Howard, who deliberately adapted the Reaganite wedge-tactics to prise blue-collar workers away from the ALP. One can expect more of the same from Tony Abbott in forthcoming weeks and, probably, quite a bit from the ALP as well. Part of the difference between the two, of course, will be how it is framed. Already the new Prime Minister has rejected a big Australia policy, framing it within the context of a sustainable Australia. That’s a perfectly legitimate and sensible policy, but it also just so happens to resonate with populist anti-immigration feeling. Good policy, bad reasons. With Tony Abbott, however, it may well be more a case of bad policy for bad reasons.

Nevertheless, there are generally some limits to how far they’ll go. Every politician knows that the single most popular issue in Australia is bringing back capital punishment. This is something which, with a few exceptions, even populist politicians have avoided. They edge close to it by not being quite as enthusiastic as they might be about Australian policy of opposing the death penalty for Australian citizens in other countries (drug dealers in particular) and welcome the execution of terrorists by others, but generally they have been restrained and avoided the populist button. It would be almost impossible to imagine even the most died in the wool conservative populist in Australia doing a Bill Clinton or George W. Bush and ordering the execution of an intellectually-disabled person in circumstances which could be argued to have been influenced by electoral calculations.

Now the populists can put their hand on their heart and swear that they are just following the public and protecting them from undemocratic elites. Elites are, of course, OK if they are in an elite military unit or an elite sporting team – but not when the only qualifications they have got are expertise, experience or knowledge. Like many crikey readers for example. This example is not serious by the way, just a demonstration of how flattery is a technique used by elites to persuade listening masses that they are special.

The new UK PM, David Cameron, is a member of the English elite in every sense of the word – just as Tony Blair was. But both specialised in using populism to shed their elite status and appear as folks just like you and me interested mainly in football and/or wearing hoodies.

In fact, as the maverick UK Tory, George Walden, has argued the key terms of democracy, elites and the masses have all been re-defined to mean something else altogether – something inherently undemocratic. It means giving people what they want, what research says they want and what the populist deems they want – whether it is actually in their interests or not. Now pointing this out, and deploring it, is always dismissed as snobbish or elitist. Yet it is sometimes the sorts of people who would, once upon a time in the past, have railed against the ‘mob’ and the ‘masses’ (except when organising them into the odd pogrom or lynching) who now supposedly treat them as a coalition of demi-gods and hope to keep them scared, ill-informed and misled. Doing so is helped by tabloid media – press and TV – which condemn dodgy salespeople, public servants, refugees and anyone a bit different – while being immensely circumspect about the real power elites. Accusations of elitism and snobbery simply serve to distract attention from this real issue.

Walden (New Elites Gibson Square 2006) says: “In the longer term populist policies are doomed because their promises are a mirage. The public will always ask for more, and will always be disappointed.” He goes on to quote Nietzsche (from another context) that ‘they think they are leading the people but when they look around they find they are chasing them’. The rise of ultra-right nationalist parties throughout Europe is one result of this failure.

As some readers will know I am always keen on thought experiments. Walden provides a very interesting one. He quotes John F. Kennedy as follows: “I look forward to a world that will not only be safe for democracy and diversity but also for distinction. (emphasis added)

Imagine a similar speech in the forthcoming election campaign. An ALP candidate could probably get as far as democracy and diversity. A Coalition candidate might well baulk at diversity and want to insert something about choice. Would either be comfortable about ‘distinction’ – even if they knew they were quoting JFK?