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Populists are Popular

July 3, 2016

I’ve seen mentions of populist movements or populist politicians frequently in the news.  I gather from the context that it’s always used in the negative sense, almost like a swear-word.  Why is this?  Doesn’t populist just mean people.  Aren’t people the essence of democracy.  How can it be negative?

The Wikipedia article is instructive.  Populists claim to represent ordinary people.  Don’t all politicians and all parties make this claim?  They speak for the middle class (everybody believes they are middle class) or for the silent majority.  Of couse, they need a wide appeal to win the next election.  In any case, we can’t use that claim to identify populists.

The article also states that populists rail against an evil corrupt elitist group.  This could be the current government, corporations, or some other small group of people.  It’s a conspiracy theory, that’s what it is!  There’s a small group that’s exploiting the majority.  It’s a common enemy, that’s what it is.  It’s something that is easy to claim, easy to believe, but difficult to prove.  Here we have something better to identify populists, but it’s not perfect.  It may be the best we have.

This article also reports that a referendum is a favourite tactic of populists.  It’s something that will demonstrate how much popular support they can command.  Referendums are also controversial.  Some people say they are direct democracy, the best form of democracy.  Others say that the politicians that we have elected to lead us should be making decisions on our behalf.  Probably both are correct to some extent.  After all, referendums are used by traditional political parties too.

When do we need populist movements?  They seem to appear when a political party has been in power too long.  People always believe the worst about politicians.  All they need are rumours of bad behavior to vote them out of office.  It could be corruption.  It could be repression of opposition voices.  It could be heartless treatment of ordinary people.  At that point, it doesn’t really matter.  It’s just time for them to leave, and be replaced by another party.

Now, the supposed evil corrupt elitist group may be imaginary, identified by a false story.  It could also be real.  Sometimes there really is an abusive leadership.  They might be engaging in undemocratic practices, such as suppressing the opposition.  They might have subverted democracy itself.  How do we decide?  There’s usually no reliable proof.  We generally have only rumours, accusations, and denials to go on.  We may have only one person describing their treatment at the hands of this group.  Who are we to believe?  I suppose we have to make up our own minds on this question, rather than just doing what everybody else is doing.


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