Getting Populism Right

Modern democracies are said to be in the grip of “populism” that the dictionary defines as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” Most of the learned commentary from academia and the news media describe populism as a harbinger of the apocalypse, a threat to democracy, and the second coming of fascism, all stemming from racism and xenophobia.

But just how is populism to be distinguished from the legitimate democratic voice of a sovereign people, like the large majority in Britain that voted in favor of Brexit and, lately, for a Tory landslide whose message was “and we really mean it”?

My definition is simple: For the media and academia, populism is when the “wrong” people win an election; democracy is when the “right” people win an election. It is about that simple. (There’s a Yes, Prime Minister scene on exactly this point that I highly recommend. Key line: “Bernard, if the right people don’t have power, do you know what happens? The wrong people get it!” In other words—the “deplorables.”)

Hence it is refreshing to come across an academic look at the subject that departs from the party line, and such is National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin. The authors are British political scientists who depart markedly from the typical fascism-is-at-our-doorstep hysteria that emanates from the penumbras of most academic treatments of “populism.” For one thing, they look carefully at voting results and opinion survey data, and discover lots of anomalies from the conventional wisdom.

For example, take in this paragraph from the introduction:

This challenge to the liberal mainstream is in general not anti-democratic. Rather, national populists are opposed to certain aspects of liberal democracy as it has evolved in the West. Contrary to some of the hysterical reactions that greeted Trump and Brexit, those who support these movements are not fascists who want to tear down our core political institutions. A small minority do, but most have understandable concerns about the fact that these institutions are not representative of society as a whole and, if anything. are becoming ever more cut adrift from the average citizen.

Eatwell and Goodwin think that much of the mainstream analysis/panic over populism is too short-term in its outlook, ignoring (sometimes willfully) what has been building for years. The book debunks a lot of the current myths about populism, and is especially strong in its understanding of the nature and causes of the rising distrust of our institutions. One conclusion: our populist movement is just beginning, and is not merely a short-term reaction to the financial crisis of a decade ago.

If you don’t have time to check out the book, here’s a very nice summary presented recently (before the December 12 election) by co-author Matthew Goodwin (about 16 minutes long, but worth it):

(Hat tip: Clifford Angel Bates. And if you’re interested and have more time, here’s more Goodwin on the results of the December 12 election.)

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