Populism and Popularity

I think we should be very suspicious of people who use the terms ”populism” and ”populistic” about people who promulgate ideas which do not fit in with the picture of our world presented by the ones who, for the moment at least, are in power. Another name for populism in politics would be the will of the people, a concept which many politicians today have forgotten.

Well, not forgotten. The will of the people is a concept of which today's politicians stand in fear, challenging as it does their sense of their own supremacy in determining the views we shall have and the decisions we shall appear to make. Politicians have for a long time relegated the will of the people to a back seat, so far back, in fact, that it is doubtful whether it has a place on the bandwagon at all.

There is this strange contradictory notion that populism in democracies is dangerous. If you want to have a true democracy then you have to let the people decide, even if the people decide to do stupid things. If you think that the politicians need to be able to think for the people and even go against their will then that means you do not want a democracy. Few people seem to see this contradiction.

”Popular” is an adjective with at first sight a positive connotation. It implies something which finds favour with a lot of people, perhaps even a majority. To counteract the tendency to assume that something which finds favour with a lot of people is to be striven for, the term ”populism” has been created with a decidedly negative connotation. Something which is populistic is intended to be seen as apparently favourable to a society, but actually harmful, if only its proponents were as wise and all-seeing as the users of the term populism.

As an exercise in the use of words to steer thinking, try substituting the word ”popular” for ”populistic”. Under this criterion Marine le Pen would be a popular French politician. Brexit would be a popular decision, as would the rise of Podemos in Spain and the election of Syriza in Greece. Although I have to admit that the popular election of Syriza was followed by the extremely unpopular reneging by the new government of everything they had offered the people of Greece, and which the people had voted not once, not twice but three times for.

Although he is called populistic I do not regard the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States as being along the same lines as the other examples I have given. Trump's pronouncements during the election process were so contradictory that it was not possible to determine in advance what his policies would be, with the exception of certain loud noises such as the wall along the Mexican border. I suspect rather that Trump was elected because he was seen to be not a part of the ruling minority.

Whatever the ruling minority might think, people are not stupid. Although we have forgotten that our elected representatives are placed where they are to server our interests, and we have come to see them as our rulers rather than our servants, they have made too many too stupid mistakes for their falsehood not to be apparent.

Take migration. Most people are in favour of helping their neighbours, without regard for the fact that their neighbours in this sense worship a different god and have different customs. But the people in the receiving countries see through the situation. They see for one thing that these migrants, just like themselves, would rather have stayed in their own homes, gone to their old jobs, sent their children to the same schools and received health care at the same hospitals. But the short-sightedness or greed or some combination of these has led to the destruction of their homes, their places of work, their children's schools and their hospitals. What option do they have but to leave? Stop the bombing and the migration will stop, for only a small minority of migrants are economic migrants. The majority are asylum migrants.

They see, too, that those in power in the receiving countries make a loud noise about welcoming migrants, for not to do so would be to be labelled as racist at the very least. But they make only a nominal effort to incorporate the newcomers into their new society. They see that the already strained resources in schools, hospitals, housing, which their leaders have made no attempt to build away, are strained even more. Here in Sweden we have welcomed enough people since the turn of the century to people a fourth major city, as large or larger than any of the other three.

They see that those with commercial power have shipped out their jobs to regions of the world where living and working conditions are on a lower level than here at home, exacerbating thereby the constraints on their welfare resulting from the strained resources mentioned above.

Which brings me to another point which will better be handled in a separate post.

© James Wilde 2015