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Populism holds a mirror up to our societies

Populism holds a mirror up to our societies

Originally published on March 24, 2016. Updated February 24, 2017.


Populism is on the march across the world in recent years. The impacts of the rapid changes from globalisation and the digital revolution are driving it. National governments seem powerless to control these trends, and many people are fearful, frustrated and angry. There is an awakening feeling that someone signed off on a Faustian bargain, and that the Emperor has no clothes.

For many years now, the focus of many Western societies has been upon rights rather than responsibilities. We have (collectively) demanded that governments expand their scope because, frankly, we don’t want to deal with such problems ourselves. Life is now so comfortable for so many people that we actively avoid anything uncomfortable that intrudes into our bubbles. The rise of private schools and helicopter parents reflect this trend. The withdrawal of citizens from institutions and public life across many countries has opened spaces for people with vested interests.

The failure of politics-as-usual

As Waleed Aly says in this article (http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/malcolm-turnbull-in-the-middle-of-an-upheaval-of-conservative-politics-20160302-gn93e1.html), it is hard to balance traditional values with free market economics. When the free market hollows out a culture, the only things left to defend are symbols. Anyone not connected to those symbols becomes an outsider.

Many establishment parties of various stripes have spent years appealing to people who wish to hold onto the past. They have given ground on social issues in both directions, but have overseen the inequality caused by corporate capitalism. If parties believe in the free market, then they have to accept that it comes with consequences.

Schumpeter’s "gale of creative destruction" (http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/CreativeDestruction.html) did not produce only the (relatively) gentle winds of the long-post war boom. It was also responsible for the gales of the Great Depression, and the cyclonic impacts of the Industrial Revolution. 

Why does populism appeal to people?

Many voters feel life is turbulent enough, and may conflate many changes with personal loss. These people tend to be white, older, less affluent, less educated, and less likely to vote. This historically large group of voters has assisted conservative parties to hold power for long periods of time. But the approach speaks to the past, not the future, without helping people to adapt to a changing world. People who hope they don’t need to adapt find change all the more difficult to deal with when it arrives.

Parties promoting populism are doing well because they actually speak directly to what people are concerned about. And the style of many populist leaders is straightforward and simple, with few shades of grey. They say “this is the problem, and here’s what we’ll do to fix it”. Even if the proposed solutions are not viable or sustainable, this approach is very appealing to many voters.

The potential return of fascism

Researcher Matthew MacWilliams has uncovered a link (http://www.vox.com/2016/2/23/11099644/trump-support-authoritarianism) between populism and authoritarianism. Authoritarian leaders focus upon control of social and economic behaviour. They also clamp down upon anything that sits outside of their vision of the mainstream culture.

What happens if changing parties makes no appreciable positive difference to the lives of the majority of voters? Personally, I think that the energy historically confined within democratic politics, either goes underground or becomes more overt. What is mere populism today can potentially become fascism tomorrow if enough voters feel that their lives are not improving. Previous fascist movements often stemmed from people who felt powerless and unheard, and who were previously politically inactive.

What can we do to stop fascism arising?

One action we can undertake is to volunteer with those organisations who are dealing with marginalised people. People suffering from social and economic change need to feel recognised and valued, especially by the people immediately around them.

A second action is to take an interest in politics. All governments gradually decline into corruption and laziness unless held to account by active citizens. Therefore, turning up to local meetings and asking questions is important. Even if the topics are not of great personal interest or impact, there is a greater, long-term benefit at stake.

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