“We need to penetrate the echo chamber of populism with plain facts and good British common sense”, wrote the respected commentator, Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash in a recent article in the London Guardian. A strong “remainer”, still reeling from the result of the Brexit referendum last year, he goes on “…it takes time to burst the populist bubble”. Ignoring the implied insult to the British voters that arguments for leaving the European Union were devoid of “plain facts”, or that voters lacked “good British common sense”, it is reasonable to ask if populism is just a “bubble”, or is it a new feature of modern politics?
But what is the meaning of populism? Rather like the old joke of getting five answers when you ask four economists a question, so populism means different things to different people. In essence, populism fills the gap between unpopular establishment political parties. Take, for example, the recent unexpected victory of Donald Trump. Voters in the United States were clearly dissatisfied with both the Democrats and Republicans. By using a fig leaf of respectability, Trump used his populist approach to win the Republican nomination and then went on to garner the support of both dissatisfied Democrats and Republicans. This was a deliberate and well researched tactic, as illustrated by Trump’s piece in April 2016 in the Wall Street Journal: “The only antidote to decades of ruinous rule by a small handful of elites is a bold infusion of popular (sic) will. On every major issue affecting this country, the people are right and the governing elite are wrong.” Bernie Sanders tried this approach from the left in his attempt to gain the nomination of the Democrat party, but was steamrollered by the powerful Clinton machine. Trump outmanoeuvred the Republican traditionalists and illustrated clearly that populism appeals to both those on the right and on the left; both variants are flourishing today. Populism sees itself as speaking for those ordinary people who think they have been forgotten, and often imagines itself as the voice of genuine patriotism.
Take a look at politics around the world and you’ll find some striking contrasts in the success of populism, which might give an insight into its cause. In Europe, there has been a steady and strong rise in populism almost everywhere. France, Germany, Spain and Austria have all seen an increase to various degrees, with Norbert Hoffer, the Austrian candidate for President, being narrowly beaten in a re-run election. “You have the high society behind you, but I have the people with me”, he challenged his establishment opponent. Pop over the Atlantic to South America, however, and you will find populism in retreat with the disastrous performance of left-wing populist parties in Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina, which ran their respective economies into the ground over the last decade. With this failed experiment in populist economics so clearly evident, why are so many people in the West supportive of the new credo? There is clearly an economic element in their thinking as anti-globalisation is so often quoted as the rationale for believing that populist candidates will solve all the problems of the working class. Marine Le Pen is driving home the France First message in her campaigning, just as Hoffer promoted Austria First. With wide-spread factory closures as production moves to cheaper labour in the East, a clear outcome of globalisation, supporters of populism have little difficulty in making their voices heard. Governments are struggling with low economic growth in most Western countries and are therefore unable to meet the social aspirations of the population. This gives rise to growing fiscal deficits, with growing debt levels having to be financed from an increasingly small working sector as an ever-growing ageing population makes the problem more difficult. This scenario can only worsen as robotics and Artificial Intelligence are introduced over the coming years, thus depriving workers of jobs, at the same time boosting the potential of populism if establishment parties fail to solve the problem of unemployment.
An additional factor which might explain the rise of populism in the West is immigration. There appears to be a strong correlation between public fears and the pace of immigration. When countries have managed immigration better than those who have failed to heed or address the concerns of its citizens, there is far less populism. Canada is a good example, where there has been very little public backlash at the large number of immigrants and a substantial number of refugees. There is imperceptible populism in Canada. Contrast this with the frenzied anti-immigrant message being promulgated by Hoffer in Austria, Le Pen in France and Frauke Petry in Germany, whipping up their populist movements on the back of rising immigration.
So, is there populism in India? An outsider looking in sees a popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading a country with popular policies. The recent astonishing victory of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, largely attributable to Modi, is the stuff of dreams of most western politicians. Some commentators have described this as a victory for populism, but is it? In global terms, populism is mobilisation led by a political outsider, something Modi is clearly not. Also, a populist leader uses this outsider status to generate appeals which attack the existing establishment for not responding to the needs of the ordinary citizen. As Prime Minister, Modi is part of the establishment, not outside it. Finally, a populist leader deploys these anti-elite appeals in order to establish direct links with voters. With 28m Twitter followers, Modi certainly has an effective link with his followers, just as Trump, and this is one area where he could be accused of populism. He would argue, however, that this is only the use of modern technology to put over his message. It is easy to confuse popular policies with populism, but such policies are the essence of democracy giving the voters what they want. Those who accuse Narendra Modi of populism are wrong. He is simply popular.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently a consultant in the private sector.