How did ‘populism’ become such a dirty word?

A left-wing journalist offers some thoughts.
Denyse O'Leary | Apr 12 2017 | comment  



Mick Hume, best known for his work at Spiked, recently published Revolting, an informative reflection on Brexit and Donald Trump.

Hume’s analysis converges closely with traditionalist/conservative streams of thought, especially in criticising claims that  fake news determined election outcomes such as Brexit and Trump. The underlying assumption of many pundits is that the public cannot be trusted to make reasonable judgments in the face of fake news, and that a government/corporate crackdown is therefore in order.

The problem is, from time immemorial, we have been inundated by fake news in the form of hype, rumour mills, tabloids, cost-free predictions, trendspotting claims, and many other artifacts of the human imagination. If democracy works at all, it works despite the constant and inevitable presence of all these factors all the time. Many predate the printing press and some predate writing. So, to what extent is the ongoing meltdown over Brexit and Trump fuelled by the intellectual elite’s distaste for democracy in general?

Hume thinks that their distaste is the driving force. As a Brit, he reflects mostly on Brexit but his analysis would apply across the channel as well.

First, he notes, the European establishment did not really think that there should be a referendum. Referenda, they say are a bad way to govern.

Reality is a bit more complex, as he notes. Referenda are a good way to begin to govern, provided that a question can be reduced to a simple Yes/No: Should Britain leave the EU? Should Scotland secede? Should Quebec have special rights in Canada? The referendum, in such a case, establishes a direction for policy. The details must, as always, be left to negotiation.

But Brexit, apart from shocking the conventional analysts, unveiled a deeper issue. The British establishment had long used the highly bureaucratic EU to sidestep democracy at home. They had assumed that the public was comfortable with that, so they assumed that Remain would win. They assumed it with the same certainty that, across the Channel, pundits assumed that Hillary Clinton would win. The reaction to Leave, which Hume outlines, makes quite clear the anti-democratic assumptions of the the British elite, echoed in traditional media.

“Post-truth” became word of the year for 2016 at Oxford Dictionaries, as if dancing with facts were a  brand new thing. More disturbing was the Establishment’s use of shopworn accusations of “racism” and the “politics of fear,” or “galloping populism.” “Populism” became a term of abuse. But why?

The underlying assumption can only be that most people are not capable of making a reasonable decision given the facts. Could that assumption derive from widely held opinions that humans are not special and did not evolve so as to understand reality? The history of the English-speaking world suggests the contrary. Broadly democratic systems can produce stable outcomes over the long term, given a chance. The last war fought in North America north of the Rio Grande, the Civil War, ended in 1865. It died without successors.

Yet books like Against Elections and Against Democracy are now fashionable in the faculty lounge. From the blurb for Against Democracy:

Brennan argues that democracy should be judged by its results--and the results are not good enough. Just as defendants have a right to a fair trial, citizens have a right to competent government. But democracy is the rule of the ignorant and the irrational, and it all too often falls short. Furthermore, no one has a fundamental right to any share of political power, and exercising political power does most of us little good. On the contrary, a wide range of social science research shows that political participation and democratic deliberation actually tend to make people worse--more irrational, biased, and mean.

We would not likely have  heard these sentiments if the public had voted with the Ivy League on Brexit or Trump. Hume, who rightly identifies Brennan’s proposed “epistocracy” (rule by the educated elite) as authoritarianism marketed as social justice, notes that power has now shifted from capitalists as such to a knowledge class (epistocrats?), who want the same sort of control.

As it happens, the academic and bureaucratic elite (Hume calls them the “clerisy”) offered the best argument against their case for power by their own behaviour: Pollsters in the United States called the 2016 election wrong because they were imbued with the faculty lounge mindset. Few reckoned that books like What’s the Matter with Kansas? or Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comments would matter much. Let alone that the Democrats’ 2012 campaign, which deliberately tacked away from the traditional working class, would be remembered four years later.

On the contrary, many "epistocrats" still obsess about fake news, the alt right, and Russian interference in the U.S. election to explain what simple, unvarnished demographics can easily account for. Abandoning and then insulting likely voters is not good strategy.

And the epistocrats' post-election behaviour is not a good argument for Brennan’s proposed epistocracy. It’s heartening to see that independent thinkers left and right agree on the main problem: making democracy matter again.

See also: Are polls scientific? Well, what happens when human complexity foils electoral predictions?

Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.



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