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We the People: the charms and contradictions of populism

Donald Trump is often described as a populist leader. Reuters/Carlo Allegri

These comments on the topical subject of populism have been gathered by the University of Sydney’s Sydney Democracy Network and its Democracy Futures team. SDN is a global network of researchers, journalists, activists, policy makers and citizens concerned with the future of democracy. The comments form part of a longer series on populism for The Conversation.

Populism is on the rise around the world. Why is this happening? The following dossier of brief contributions by leading global scholars and analysts of populism asks: why are the peddlers of populism proving so popular? Are there deep forces driving the spread of their style of politics, and what, if anything, has populism to do with democracy? Is it its “essence”, as some maintain? Is the new populism therefore to be welcomed, harnessed and “mainstreamed” in support of more democracy?

Or is populism on balance politically dangerous, a cultish recipe for damaging democracy by bringing to life what George Orwell termed the “smelly little orthodoxies” that feed demagogy, big business and bossy power?

As US voters consider whether to vote for Donald Trump, and Filipino citizens live with the fall-out of Rodrigo Duterte’s populist rhetoric, leading commentators and scholars from Australia, Britain and the United States analyse the phenomena behind populism’s ascent in 2016.

Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s populist Prime Minister. The Telegraph

Stephen Coleman, University of Leeds

The problem of contemporary democracies is not that citizens trust politicians less than they did in the past, but that leaders’ attempts to make themselves appear accountable have become increasingly implausible. Their scripts are stale, their gestures ritualistic, their evasions transparent, their artlessness palpable. Enter Donald Trump: so unbalanced in his affair with political form that he permanently teeters between a mesmerising dance of solipsistic decadence and staggering off the stage. Following a long line of populist form-busters from Silvio Berlusconi to Viktor Orbán, Trump performs as if he had just seen Peter Handke’s 1960s production Offending the Audience, and concluded that every previous performance had misunderstood what audiences were for. Handke said that he aimed to do “something onstage against the stage, using the theatre to protest against the theatre of the moment”. This is precisely what Trump does well; he uses the political stage to denounce the political stage. He enters the temple, but only to blow away its walls. Here lies the lesson for democratic politics. Just as obsolete forms atrophy slowly, lingering until the last drop of affective vitality evaporates, so new political forms often emerge as pre-figurative contortions, only discernible through the trace lines of oddity. Trump might not be the New Normal, but neither can his performance be dismissed as the Old Crazy. He is a spectre of things to come: of political performance in an age of projection rather than representation.

Mark Chou, Australian Catholic University

At first glance, Trump’s presidential persona and appeal aren’t hard to place. A populist anti-politician, Trump is a Washington outsider who swears and hurls insults at the “enemies” of predominantly white, male, working-class America. He entertains even as he reassures a fearful and angry demographic who’ve lost out to globalisation, low-wage immigrant labour, and free trade. His named enemies help his supporters to see him as their saviour. But for a man who couldn’t be more different from the people he claims to champion, it’s beyond puzzling how so many of his supporters have come to see in “the say-anything billionaire an image of their aspirations” (George Packer). To the baffled, I say this: don’t discount Trump’s theatrics. Intellectuals may have knocked his reality television credentials as a distraction, but it’s his bombast and stage presence that offer an insight into his popular appeal. Here, theatre buffs may have detected in Trump and his campaign some semblance of melodrama, a theatrical genre known for its overly dramatic portrayals of good and evil, where moral and political discrepancies are hyperbolised for emotional impact. The name he’s given this populist melodrama is “Make America Great Again”. So far, it’s been about building the wall, keeping Muslims out, demonising China, provoking IS, and championing the rights of “everyday” Americans. But here’s the thing: however popular and provocative Trump’s show has been in 2016, it’s no more real than any of his previous reality productions.

Marine Le Pen singing La Marseillaise, Paris, 19 November 2011. wikipedia

Adele Webb, University of Sydney

The flipside of the populism coin is voter ambivalence with “democracy” as we know it. Populist candidates often derive great appeal because voters are unconcerned by, and perhaps even attracted to, claims by candidates that they will circumvent or completely override democratic processes. If such candidates pose a potential threat to democracy, aren’t their supporters and their ambivalence towards “democracy” also its gravest transgressors? Think of the way Trump supporters, Brexit “leave” voters, Pauline Hanson’s followers, not to mention the many middle class Filipinos who voted for the seemingly crude cowboy Rodrigo Duterte, have been portrayed through media and within the discourse of intellectuals. The point that is missed in these treatments is that democracy is always “on the move”. The deep tension between the tendency of an oligarchy to concentrate wealth and the desire to redistribute political power ensures democracies are always on a journey towards a destination they never reach. This is the genius of democracy. But we are now reaching the end of a long century when “democracy” was fixed in a particular constellation of institutions and procedures. Not only has this turned “democracy” into a legitimating discourse for practices of power that actually undermine democracy, but the expectation that “the people” will respond to excesses of wealth and power has also disappeared. Democratic ambivalence, as registered in the appeal of populist candidates from the US, to Europe, the Philippines and elsewhere, is thus a warning sign from “the people” that the current system of democratic governance needs recalibrating.

James Loxton, University of Sydney

Few regions in the world have as much experience with populism as Latin America. From Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s, to Alberto Fujimori in Peru in the 1990s, to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in the 2000s, the region has experienced wave after wave of outsiders who mobilised poor voters against the entire political and/or economic establishment. What effects have they had on democracy in Latin America? They have been mixed. On the one hand, populists have helped to incorporate previously marginalised groups, such as the working class in Argentina or the informal sectors in Peru and Venezuela, into the political system. On the other hand, populists have often used their power, and the anti-system mandates they received from voters, to undermine checks and balances, and to tilt the playing field in their favour. The result has been what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call “competitive authoritarianism”: regimes characterised by regular but unfair elections. These regimes have provided material and symbolic benefits to their supporters, but they have simultaneously skewed the playing field against their opponents to such a degree that they ceased to be democracies.

Henrik Bang, University of Canberra

Today, popular democracy’s true enemy is not Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Beata Szydło and Viktor Orbán, but the mainstream mix of neo-liberalism and populism. A new ruling cartel of parties is emerging. It endorses neo-liberal austerity and reform measures combined with populist exceptionalism and border controls. Democracy is reduced to strong and decisive leadership, nudging individuals to adjust to the “necessary” economic policies and moulding energetic and obedient people from the clay of a rigged system. Politics after Brexit features the end of popular democracy as a constitutive part of representative democracy. Some politicians, like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Uffe Elbaek and Pablo Iglesias, realise the dangers and are trying to stem the anti-popular tide ignited by the neoliberalism/populism dynamic. But their attempts to reconnect elite democracy with popular democracy are simply dismissed by mainstream media as anti-parliamentarian populism. This successfully frames the difference between liberalism and populism as society’s new core dichotomy. In these new circumstances, people must connect and reclaim democracy. They must prevent leaders from making themselves the masters of disciplined, reflexive individuals and homogenised ignorant masses. People need to show them what the self-governance of active citizens implies for identifying and solving our common concerns.

Christine Milne, University of Sydney

Two convergent trends are making populism a potent negative force. First, democracies have morphed into unrepresentative plutocracies that lead growing numbers of people to feel shut out and voiceless. Knowing their children will become even worse off, citizens are ready to follow someone who speaks for them. Those who stick it into the elites make things simple, lay blame and are willing to overthrow the status quo. A second trend favours success for Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Xenophon and Hanson populists. Media have undergone such a revolution that their business model is now based on social media and clicks, not facts. Clicks depend on theatrical performance, stunts, celebrity, entertainment and conflict. The combination of clicks with filter bubbles, or algorithms imposed by vertically integrated digital platforms, produces serious distortion. Truth and facts now mean what the populist chooses them to mean. Their meaning becomes self-reinforcing as like-minded groups who receive them are never exposed to opposing views. Those “facts” become the competing views of rival tribes, and they vote accordingly. Overcoming populism requires giving people a voice with proportional representation and rejecting neo-liberal economics and plutocracy. But it also requires factual, public interest journalism. We need to find ways of giving facts and evidence a common meaning, of restoring respect for them as the basis of national conversations and getting rid of the filter bubbles that create self-selecting online tribes.

Laurence Whitehead, University of Oxford

Why has “populism” become a recent term of abuse? Well, it can be a cover for chauvinism, xenophobia, and discrimination against minorities, especially when the focus is on immigration. But too many comfortably placed liberals and cosmopolitans have deployed these labels as a substitute for social solidarity, disrespecting their co-nationals and wrapping themselves in an abstract universalism sheltered from the messy social realities around them. “Populism” can be used as a code word for economic illiteracy, foreshortened time horizons, a denial of basic social arithmetic, and an unwillingness to grapple with the complex policy choices that experts can advise on. But then, many economic experts have been captured by establishment groupthink, or pursued hidden agendas, or have claimed more authority than their knowledge would justify. Or these experts have simply let us all down on such matters as financial deregulation, the realities of trade deals, or the dynamics of growing inequality. Such so-called expertise should meet the tests of open debate, and public monitoring. No doubt “the people” are often inattentive, sometimes misled, and all too easily frightened. But ordinary voters are not necessarily more stupid, or more misguided, than those who seek to rule over them. What voters need are not more sound bites, but more respectful engagement and genuine dialogue. Obviously, populism takes many forms, and comes in many shades. Although some of its tones are darker, others can be hopeful, and even emancipatory. That’s why its use as an undifferentiated term of abuse should be resisted. Who is doing the labelling? Ask first who is denouncing “populism”, then why they should be trusted to know better than the unwashed masses. Critics of populism only deserve a hearing if they themselves show they know how to listen, as well as to condemn.

Norbert Hofer, Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) candidate for the country’s presidency.

Jan-Werner Müller, Princeton University *

In Austria, where a presidential election is soon happening, it is often misleadingly suggested that there are growing numbers of populist, or “anti-establishment”, voters on both sides of this conflict, and hence they must share crucial political or moral characteristics. But only one side denies the pluralism of contemporary societies altogether. Only right-wing populists claim that they alone represent what they call “the real people” or “the silent majority”. As a consequence, the defenders of openness and increasing pluralism must somehow be illegitimate. Norbert Hofer confronted Alexander Van der Bellen with the statement that “you have the haute-volée [high society], I have the people behind me”. Farage declared the outcome of the Brexit referendum a “victory for real people” (thus rendering the 48 percent who voted to stay in the EU somehow “unreal”). Donald Trump has said so many offensive things over the course of the past year that one remark at a rally in May 2016 passed virtually unnoticed, even though it effectively revealed the populism at the heart of Trump’s worldview. “The only thing that matters”, he said, “is the unification of the people - because the other people don’t mean anything”.

* A revised excerpt from the New York Review of Books, with permission.

Nicholas Rowley, University of Sydney

Performance and “feeding” the media have long been skills required by those aspiring to derive authority from the people. The Romans knew how to put on a show; Goebbels and Speer were masters of the backdrop; and John Kennedy ensured Jacques Lowe had photographs of every sailing trip off Cape Cod. All were vital ways for political actors to become “popular”. Today, by contrast, there is no need for circuses, flags, Nuremburg rallies or gifted photographers. Contemporary populism is a machine with a new and potent fuel: a social media able to communicate constant, concise, simple opinions and solutions to millions in seconds. Populism is thought to be synonymous with Le Pen, Duterte, Wilders, Farage, Hanson and Trump and other right-wing nationalists. Yet populism is not defined by what it aims to achieve. Think of Jeremy Corbyn, a leader who left a parliamentary meeting of all Labour MPs articulating their concerns, to speak to an adoring crowd. Populism is more than a politics focused on simplicity and packaging over content. It scorns elites and experts. It supposes that the purpose of politics is to act on the will of the people, and it proposes simple solutions to complex problems that require serious and effective policy responses. For populists, sadly, politics equals compromise, defeat and betrayal.

epicenter/Harvard University

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