Populist rhetoric is readily dismissed. Is there a better way of responding to it?
Since the 2015 peak of the European migration crisis, populists from mainly the (far) right, but also occasionally from the (far) left of the political spectrum have been on the rise. Not only in Europe, where populism has been causing quite a bit of headache to the ‘mainstream’ European leaders and the EU as a whole (think Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, or Brexit), but also in the US, and more recently, Brazil.
Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump’s electoral victories, however, were not the first time populist forces prevailed in the Americas. Indeed, in the 20th century populism was a mainly Pan-American phenomenon; from the numerous populist governments across South America in the 1980s, to Ross Perot in the US (who achieved the best ever result for an independent candidate in the 1992 presidential elections). In the first decade of the 21st century, populism’s ‘centre’ shifted to Europe, where populist forces have become prominent political actors since the global financial crisis. The joint effect of the financial and the European migration crises have also led to the re-emergence of populist forces in the Americas, primarily in the shape of the aforementioned figures. From this short historical summary, it is clear that populism has been around for quite a while. Populist forces use the discontent of the people, condemning the establishment for whatever problems a country has. They also tend to have no (or few) real policy measures, and even those tend to be quite vague. “Make America Great Again” by improving economic performance and imposing tariffs to cut the US trade deficit (because “it’s not free trade; it’s stupid trade” according to President Trump).
Further, stopping migrants – accused of taking the jobs of Hungarians, making Hungary into an “Islamic migrant country”, and raping Hungarian women – from entering the country (policies that Orbán outlined as the most important in the 2018 electoral campaign). President-elect Bolsonaro promised to make “the necessary adjustments to guarantee growth with low inflation and job generation”, in reference to improving Brazil’s economic situation. Trump suggested a set of “real” policies, but he did not account for the consequences that his policies might entail, such as the current trade war with China. Orbán decided to push his narrative of Syrian migrants flooding Hungary, without engaging in any debate over – or coming up with policies that help solve – the most burning problems of the country, like the state of the public healthcare and education systems. Bolsonaro’s policies, similarly to Trump’s, do not say how exactly he would like to achieve the goals mentioned above, making them little more than vote-baiting promises.
So, if all populists are capable of is pointing the finger at the establishment, making unfounded claims and coming up with not-at-all-thought-out policies, why have they managed to stick around for so many decades? The answer lies in the way the establishment has answered populists, and its continuous failure to truly address the (real or imagined) issues of the masses.
Most establishment politicians, academics, and other experts tend to act quite dismissively towards populist politicians, and also, though rarely, towards people who vote for populists. This strategy has led to a vicious circle: populists emerge using slogans that say they are representing the people the establishment does not care about, to which the establishment responds that they are just using people’s naivety and ignorance to gain political power. The populists, in turn, can denounce the establishment as enemies of the people, using the elite’s comments against themselves. In this situation, the elite grows desperate, and tends to call out the populists for not engaging in any kind of productive debate with them. I have to admit, this is a fair point – but the truth is, the populists don’t really need to engage in dialogue with them to maintain their electoral support.
Their voters come from the parts of society which feel abandoned by the establishment or the current liberal economic system, the key features of which are relatively free movement of the factors of production, and relatively free trade. I would like to emphasise the latter as an important factor in populist voting; Trump voters are mostly disillusioned with free trade, while in the Brexit referendum, Leave voters were disillusioned with free movement within the EU. Thus, populist voters do not require their preferred candidates to engage in debate with an establishment they themselves do not value much.
What could the establishment do to prevent this vicious circle from forming? Firstly, they should be more engaging with the general population. This is showcased excellently by the seemingly endless stream of comments underneath recently elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Tweet about not being able to afford to rent a at in Washington, DC. Most comments praised her as one of the few politicians who actually know what everyday life is like for the average person, and condemned the majority of politicians as rich people who have no idea about how hard everyday life is for ordinary people. The case of the 2018 Hungarian elections is another great example: Orbán’s party won primarily because the state-owned media (including the most widely-accessible TV channels) and regional newspapers – owned by oligarchs closely dependent on the Orbán regime – were used as propaganda tools to spread the message of “just how dangerous the hordes of Muslim immigrants were”.
Now, if opposition politicians had gone to as many small villages and towns in the countryside (the socio-economically worst-situated regions) as possible to personally take stock of the problems the people living there face, and then form policies based on what they had learned, they probably would have achieved a better result. Secondly, it would be important to start trying to understand the populists’ arguments (or should I say, charm?). Most establishment politicians seem to be uninterested in the important message conveyed by populist rhetoric. This is directly related to the previous point about being more engaging: populists live off of popular discontent, so actually listening to what they are saying might be useful. Instead, what most ‘mainstream’ politicians do is dismiss the populist rhetoric as something that is a means to an end while not carrying a ‘useful’ message.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, the political establishment and society as a whole should seek to educate people. Now, I am not talking about a ‘classical’ education (don’t get me wrong, I am not underplaying its importance), but rather improving social cohesion. If one looks at populist rhetoric, the demonisation of a certain group is a key part of it. Be it Eastern European immigrants in the UK (Brexit), Latin-American illegal immigrants (Trump), or Syrian refugees (Orbán, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, AfD in Germany), scapegoating a group of people is omnipresent in populists’ speeches.
By improving social cohesion and educating each other on our cultural and religious values, we might help reduce the usually unfounded hatred felt towards people who differ from oneself. The relative weakness of populists in big cities, which tend to be more multicultural than those from rural areas, underpins this argument. Even if we take all the other factors into consideration, such as people living in cities having higher incomes and being better educated, the argument about multiculturalism shouldn’t be played down. To give a more balanced response to populism, the establishment and society as a whole must realise that they both have an important and direct role to play, rather than just verbally combatting populists or not voting for them. Once this happens, we could start to work on the specifics of how to permanently improve our socio-economic and political systems, so that the average person feels less abandoned by their own kind.
This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.