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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 17-Jan-16


Sunday 17-January-16

Why Has Populism Become So Popular?

Populism, of late, seems to have got quite popular, in particular in the firm of political parties on the extremes of left and right. For example Syriza in Greece and Podemas in Spain play to left wing anti-austerity views, promising a utopian welfare state (though as Syriza has found, creditors are not that easy to ignore). On the other side, UKIP in Britain and PVV in the Netherlands play to nationalist and anti-immigrant bias. And, in the run-up to US presidential elections, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are doing remarkably well at either end of the scale.

So what is populism and why has it emerged now?

Populism in politics generally involves making statements and policies that appeal to a wide audience. Typically they take a problem experienced by many people, escalate it to a primary priority and then promise to solve it. The problem is that proposed solutions are either so vague they are largely meaningless or, if implemented, would cause more problems than they solved. But this is not a worry to populists. They arouse emotions to get votes and don't really fret about the practicality of solutions. Only once in power will they worry about such trivia.

Populism flourishes when people feel disempowered, vulnerable or oppressed, and where unfairness clouds their sight. As this becomes evident, politicians and parties play on these fears, giving them voice and whipping up the storm. Through their rhetoric they legitimize and promote collective selfishness, where 'our' needs are assumed paramount over faceless, culpable and demonized others, while big issues, such as global conflict and climate change, are roundly ignored.

Three C's can be identified as critical fears underpinning populism: corruption, culture and complexity.

Power corrupts, which we all know, and when we see money riding to the top, where fat cats gorge at the trough that somehow we seem to be paying for, we feel outraged. When smooth-talking, suited and smiling elites seem to think they have a right to oppress the masses, then hatred foments in our hearts. Some difference we tolerate. We don't mind hierarchies and gain vicarious pleasure in ogling celebrity lives. But when the balance tips too far, when the dream of riches seems unattainable, when the powerful seem not to care and not even notice us, then we rebel.

Culture impinges when we find other people are not following our social rules, and none more so than when swathes of immigrants arrive, bringing their own culture with them. It gets worse when they look different, with different clothing, skin or facial features. Religion is important, particularly when it takes precedence over national law. And of course we watch their approach to the vulnerable, from women to homosexuals, whose rights with us have been fought for and secured over many years.

The other issue with immigrants that populist politicians play on, aside from difference and their sheer numbers, is jobs. For centuries, immigrants have been seen as poachers of employment, 'stealing our jobs' and depressing salaries as supply exceeds demand. And if they do not take jobs, then they are seen as welfare spongers or thieves. No matter the truth of immigrants being very largely peaceful and hard-working, populism often makes them the enemy within.

The final C, complexity, is less a specific issue and more a generic feeling of being overwhelmed by external forces, from ever-changing technology to doom-laden global news of conflict, climate change and other woes. At root are two basic needs, for control and identity. Powerful others damage our sense of control as they rob and constrain us. Then elites and invaders challenge our sense of identity, making us feel unimportant and unsure of who we are. And complexity just makes both worse.

We yearn for simpler times, where choices were easy, we felt safer and we knew who we were. And this is the heart of what populism promises. Don't worry, it says. We feel your pain. Trust us. We will speak the unspoken, unvarnished truth. We will make the unpopular decisions that others dare not, with their politically correct moral posturing, or their secret cabals and smoke-filled rooms where faceless backers trade in power and profit.

But this is politics and its heady mix of morals and corruption, where power-plays and horse-trading are just how things get done. Populism may offer a fresh face but, behind the scenes, compromising will continue as a harsh reality. Great works need great amounts of money, and when money rears its ugly head people rear theirs. Finance is far from free and invariably comes with tightly knotted strings. And no real answer has ever been found to the 'immigrant problem' other than means even uglier than financial shenanigans.

Is there an antidote to populism? The classic liberal approach, of careful reasoning, is good for some but sadly is less effective with those who are more susceptible to emotional appeals. Perhaps in considering argument we are looking under the wrong streetlight. Before people will listen seriously to you, they need to trust you. The reasoning approach says 'listen, I'm the expert here' as they bore you with detail. The populist says 'Hey, I'm just like you' as they voice your darkest fears. While liberals and others may talk about real issues, the populist speaks to their audience's reality and thereby gains enough trust to sustain attention.

And here lies a key. Trust is the bridge to credibility and care is a critical plank of trust. To outdo the populist, play the other two planks, of reliability and honesty. In politics, this is not easy, yet delivery is the populist's greatest weakness. While the populist may glibly win the short term, attacking their implementation will undermine their credibility.

Yet the bigger question is still there, like the dead elephant in the room that nobody mentions. Why now? What has triggered this populist explosion? The uncomfortable truth is that the populists are partly right. Inequality is growing. Migration is happening. Countries and religions are growing apart. And largely failed conflict is rippling back to our shores. Populists do not so much invent as amplify, making smaller seem bigger and mostly harmless people seen mostly dangerous.

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