The defeated Greek government, was it socialist, populist, or both?

Greece will have a new Prime Minister and a new government. Its conservative party has defeated the leftist party headed by current Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

I doubt that anyone is surprised by this result. When we visited Greece last Fall, we scarcely met a Greek (outside of Crete) who didn’t complain bitterly about the economy. From the ancient taxi driver who had to fight his way through brutal Athens traffic at an age when he should be enjoying retirement, to the taxi driver in Thessaloniki whose perfect French surprised us until he said he’s a laid-off French professor, no one had anything good to say about the economic condition of Greece.

Last week, anticipating the defeat of the leftist government, the Washington Post tried to spin the impending result as a rejection of “populism.” Here is the headline:

Greek elections are expected to bring a populist experiment to an end.

The Post’s Michael Birnbaum explained:

Elections on Sunday are expected to award a decisive victory to the same center-right party that held power before the populists. Greece’s probable future prime minister is a former banker who drinks his coffee out of a Harvard University alumni mug — hardly anyone’s idea of a rabble-rouser.

“Greece was the first country that experienced the peak of populism. And then it was deflated,” said George Pagoulatos, a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business.

“Populism” is an elastic concept. It’s often used, but seldom defined. Thus, one can fairly characterize Tspiras and his government as “populist.”

However, their most salient characteristic isn’t populist, but rather hard leftist (or socialist). Birnbaum acknowledged this feature at the beginning of his article when he described Tspiras and his crew as “a band of radical leftists.” However, as the headline suggests, he then went on to treat the election as a referendum on populism, not radical leftism.

What does Greece’s successful conservative opposition stand for? According to an AP article in today’s Post, it stands for “cutting taxes, attracting investment, and improving the job market.” Who else stands for this? Donald Trump, widely considered an American populist.

The Greek election is an unambiguous rejection of ruinous left-wing policies that exacerbated Greece’s economic woes. It has to do with “populism” only in the limited sense that a hard-right populist party fared poorly. You can create an economic crisis through anti-capitalist, redistributionist policies. You can’t dig your way out of one in that fashion.

As always in a democracy, this weekend’s Greek election isn’t the final word. It’s not clear that Greece’s new conservative government will be able to dig the country out of the current mess. If it can’t, voters will probably look for another way out.

Any party — whether conservative or socialist, left-wing populist or right-wing populist — is likely to lose power, not just in parlous economic times, but whenever the economy disappoints. Socialist/left-wing parties are more likely to deliver disappointing economic times, which is one reason why they are more likely to jettison democracy. However, short-term domestic policies are only one determinant, and usually not the most important, of a country’s economic condition at a given moment.

In an age when economic disappointment seems to be the default attitude, all governments of whatever party are unusually vulnerable to electoral defeat, I believe. But that’s no excuse for misdiagnosing the defeat of a particular party, which is what the Post has done with Greece, in service of its “anti-populist” line.

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