A Critique of Populism

by Liam Meade

Populism can generally be defined as a political movement that fights for the common person. Rather than a specific ideology, it is a style of politics that transcends the left-right dichotomy in favour of appealing to anti-elitist, anti-corruption sentiments.

While this in principle can be positive in the fact that it can place power in the hands of ordinary people and not potentially corrupt bureaucrats, the effects it can have in some areas of public policy can be detrimental if left unrestrained. More specifically, it can allow for the fostering of anti-intellectual sentiments based on the premise that the will of the people overrides institutional and expert opinion. This can mean advocating for scientific, economic, and cultural policies that are, first, not supported by the evidence, and second, can lead to the persecution of out-groups.

Populist movements, while mostly outside government, have seen success in some major countries, including the US with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. His disdain for the political elite was clear in his rhetoric, with him (often rightly) slamming both Democratic and Republican opponents whom he accused of outsourcing jobs and defending globalist international policies.

His anti-elitism was especially pronounced on issues like climate change, where his explicit denial of man made (anthropogenic) climate change signified an unjust skepticism of science and of academia. Why a significant portion of Trump supporters may buy into the denialist narrative is understandable from a psychological standpoint.

Whereas many potential bipartisan measures to address climate change may be costly and require institutional change and international cooperation, ordinary people find such an idea distressing, as this would effectively affirm the relative necessity of globalization and of economic investment that could detract from overall growth. In other words, uncomfortable truths are more difficult to stomach than comforting lies; especially when aspects of it challenge the nationalist values of Trump’s supporters.

On economics, many populists espouse perfectly valid points about the excesses of economic globalization. Bernie Sanders, often considered a left-wing populist crusader, has often lambasted the growth of income inequality and the stagnation of America’s middle class. These remarks have led him to support relatively protectionist trade policies.

The problem with protectionism in the modern economic climate is that it runs counter to the goals of the rest of the industrialized world. A US administration that opposes potential free trade deals and even opposes current ones, would be in permanent conflict with allied countries and trade partners. Reinstating tariffs would likely increase prices for goods and services, while lowering the overall supply of those same goods and services. Insofar as the rest of the industrialized world were to continue the economic status-quo, the United States would likely experience reduced economic growth and dwindling international support, leading to potentially hostile interactions.

It is therefore instrumental that populist lawmakers and leaders carefully assess potential decisions and the potential impacts. While simple and idealistic solutions can and do win votes, the eventual public realization that what they voted for was either not feasible, sustainable, or worse, detrimental to their quality of life, will quickly mean those same votes are not cast again.

Third, populists on the right often use religious, cultural and national pride for the purpose of uniting supporters against the “other,” which can often have negative consequences.

This can especially be observed among various right-wing populist parties in Europe, such as the Dutch PVV (Party for Freedom). Its leader, Geert Wilders, is frequently critical of Islam and Islamic culture. While he certainly has a right to, amid the rise of Islamic radicalization in the west, he takes this sentiment a step too far, by advocating the shutting down of mosques, and the banning of the Qur’an. Wilders has therefore utilized the Dutch liberal culture in his favour, by using the public’s vehement defence of liberal democracy and human rights as an argument in favour of effectively banning an entire faith, which ironically is in and of itself, a human rights violation.

The Dutch populist-right, as a result, has attempted to mobilize the public against the other, with the enemy being not just radical Islam, which would be commendable, but all of Islam and its adherents, which is not.

Whereas populists can positively affect political culture by reminding technocratic politicians to listen to their voters, they can also negatively affect that same political culture by embracing an anti-intellectual opposition to elitism which can lead to the formation of policies that are poorly supported by evidence. Furthermore, they can divide society on religious and/or cultural lines, leading to the effective persecution of groups seen as foreign.

While these tendencies certainly do not represent all populists or populist movements, they are tendencies that, nonetheless, should be pointed out and criticized when observed, in order to better the political system and to grant more legitimacy to populists.

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