The scam of populism — and why we fall for it


It is popular to hear it said that ‘populism is popular’. Is it really? While it may be popular in that it has caught on and seems to be driving powerful, political global agendas, it is far from popular in a far more important sense: its import for us all. Jesuit priest, Anthony Egan calls us to become acutely aware of the scam that we seem to be buying into all too easily. Read on.

From the United States to South Africa, from Brazil to the Philippines not to mention Europe (including Britain until Brexit sets up the ‘Water Curtain’), populism is…popular, one might say. This populist pretence, like its cousin the totalitarian temptation, is also a political scam — a fraud which we fall for time and again. So what is it and why do so many embrace it?

Let me interrupt this article, Dear Reader, with an apology and a challenge. My apology is that this will be quite long, not simply because I am verbose but because the subject is complex. My challenge to you is to read it to the end, where — having hinted at it all along — I will reveal the prime reason why many of us fall for the populist delusion. 

Populism is a form of politics, more accurately an ‘anti-politics’, which unscrupulous or philosophically bankrupt elitists foist on a public who feel powerless and disillusioned with the democratic process. Unlike despots —enlightened or otherwise — who do not hide their rejection of democracy; populist politicians use the democratic process to advance their own agendas by appealing to the ‘masses’. They promise quick-fix solutions to problems that cannot be easily solved. Their simplistic solutions often offer a short-term ‘feel-good’ effect that has symptoms akin to intoxication: a brief high followed by a long-term hangover.

These ‘solutions’ are rooted in difficult situations that admit no easy answers and generate in a public deep insecurity, fear and resentment. These fears and resentments are more often than not real. They include economic instability or inequality, high levels of violence and crime, the real or perceived threat of terrorism and the end of job stability. Included above all is the perception of a populace that they are becoming economically, politically and culturally marginal. Do these phenomena resonate with you? They should. The promise to ‘solve’ these problems were partly, or fully, the campaign platforms of Hitler and Mussolini in the twentieth century, those of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and of Brazil’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro in the present era.

One sees the latter tied to the shift towards greater cultural equality and inclusivity. Ideas that were taken for granted about family, gender and race for centuries — the male-headed nuclear family, the subordination of women, the normativity of heterosexuality, the superiority of whiteness — are no longer taken as a given. Indeed they are challenged at every turn. Add to the mix the post-colonial collapse of the idea of a white Western concept of global civilisation, the rise of mass immigration and multiculturalism, the ascendancy of China and India as global forces. And the reason for populist reactions like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump may begin to make sense.

Read about these shifts, try to understand why they have happened.

We should be clear here. The people drawn to populism are not delusional, the problems are often all too real. What they miss, however, is a proper understanding of the situation.

A more careful and logical analysis based on accessing information that is usually freely available would reveal the underlying complexity. An ailing economy for example is often rooted in many factors: resource scarcity, lack of a sufficiently skilled workforce, under-productive labour, poor infrastructure or simply poor state policy. This requires new thinking and new policies to re-skill workers and re-position an economy so that it becomes more competitive – and more productive in sectors where it can maximise growth.

Economic isolationism, anti-immigration and withdrawal from regional and global systems is a populist pipedream because economics doesn’t work that way. Painfully difficult though they are to read, ploughing through analyses of these developments helps us to get a sense of perspective.

Read history. History should be our teacher. Empires and civilisations rise and fall or they often evolve into something different. On closer examination culture has always been more complex than we might imagine. Human society evolves like the rest of nature, adapting to new circumstances sometimes incrementally, sometimes in leaps, even occasionally shifting backwards.

History also teaches us that — despite the rhetoric of the far left and far right — broader economic models based on comprehensive nationalisation or neoliberal privatisation don’t achieve greater equality or prosperity. In both cases: elites, party or corporate, benefit while the rest of a population stay poor. In fact they get poorer.  Economics too is evolving. Economic experiments come and go. If something works for a time it is used before it is replaced.

In short, we live — have always lived, I suggest — in a world of complexity. A world more complex than any of our theories and practices is able to organise. Life is a problem, a puzzle that keeps changing where solutions are by their very nature interim answers to the question. At present conventional politicians and government seem to lack either, or even both, the ability and/or the will to solve the problem.

The genius of populism lies in offering solutions that seem quick and decisive, ones that, they claim, address popular fear and resentment. Since extreme positions expressed with eloquence and grandstanding are ‘sexier’ than conventional politics and easier to reduce to soundbites, they are easier to communicate to followers.

Clever populists are self-serving cynics. They know their solutions can’t work but apply them all the same to grab power, to feed voracious egos and to enrich themselves and their cronies. Stupid populists actually believe their delusions, introducing them when in power — and denounce all but themselves when their countries unravel before them.

And unravel they always do, because simplistic solutions are unworkable. Whether deliberately or from delusion populists: solutions miss the mark. They are either short-term and unsustainable, like destroying the environment to either create jobs to win popular favour and benefit their own economic interest groups, or they amount to politics of scapegoating and reaction.

Persecution of minorities considered threats or taking away the rights of women and sexual minorities will always generate a reaction. A new class of angry and marginalised people will resist or revolt in the long term.

So — if populism is ultimately futile why do we buy into it?

Dear Reader: thank you for reading so far. Here comes the Big Reveal.

However reasonable it may be, fear and resentment is not helpful or healthy. But if we have not properly informed ourselves of a difficult situation both will fester. Without a proper and thorough understanding of a situation we will jump to wrong conclusions — or simply clutch at whatever straws are offered us.

To understand we must be informed. To be informed we must read. And we must read critically and widely.

We don’t do this, despite having the greatest amount of and access to information at any time in human history. We see this in the United States arguably the most information-rich country on Earth.

When we read, what do we read? Do we read the critical stuff, the reasoned and fact-based material? Or do we make our judgments based on potted tweets and uninformed opinions in social media? All a populist or an ally of a populist needs to do is flood your reading with false facts and hate speech — and you’ll elect [insert the name of the populist of your choice here].

Remember too that the first casualty of a populist dictator is knowledge. History teaches that tyrants enjoy burning books — not reading them.

Next, they start to burn people.

Once again, Dear Reader, thanks for putting up with me. In wading through this article you have already bucked the global trend.

Keep reading. Keep bucking the system. Keep up the fight against populism.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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The scam of populism — and why we fall for it

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