Against (the concept of) populism

A spectre is haunting contemporary democracies – the spectre of populism. The major institutions of established democracies have entered an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre, centre-left and -right parties, serious print and broadcast media, Tony Blair and Christine Lagarde. But what is populism and what do they have against it?

Populism is a concept that I have never been able to take seriously but I am happy to agree that it is widely regarded as a bad thing, although as Maxine Molyneux and Thomas Osborne note on the openDemocracy website (22 November 2016), the term can be used in a positive sense. To understand the predominantly negative connotations of the term, it is useful to go back to the treatment of democracy in the history of Western political thought. For much of this history, as Jennifer Tolbert Roberts reminds us in her insufficiently appreciated Athens on Trial: the Anti-Democratic tradition in Western thought (1994) democracy has not been well regarded. Of the three forms of government distinguished in Aristotle’s Politics, by the one, the few or the many, the last was seen as most prone to distortion and thus a threat to the general interest – a view of the people that has sometimes been resisted by anarchists and Marxists, notably in Hardt & Negri ‘s celebration of the multitudeThis was because the poor and, for the most part, poorly educated people were seen as unskilled in the evaluation of argument and therefore as particularly susceptible to the unprincipled appeals of demagogues.

This generally unfavourable Western view of democracy changed over the course of the nineteenth century as the meaning of democracy itself shifted from government by the people themselves to representative government. In the late eighteenth century, the American Federalist Papers, while noting the importance of keeping the work of government out of the hands of the people in their collective form, nevertheless assumed that the people could be trusted to appoint those from a better class of person to represent them. In the same period, the English radical Tom Paine argued in favour of ‘representation ingrafted upon democracy’, which he preferred to pure democracy. Representative government offered a version of government by the many that promised to avoid the risks of corruption associated with government by the one or the few while also keeping the people ‘in their collective form’ out of the practice of government

By the beginning of the twentieth century, democracy, while still in some left-wing contexts, retaining its earlier meaning of government by the people themselves, had also come to designate ‘representative government’, a complex system of government by networks of elected representatives and unelected public servants, operating through combinations of representative, vaguely consultative and hierarchical institutions. The long-standing Western fear of the people is central to this second sense of democracy, which generally involves institutional arrangements – a free press, rule of law with a moderately independent judiciary, representative government with a system of ‘responsible’ political parties – expected to both promote popular participation and keep its impact under control. Grahame Thompson (openDemocracy, 22 November 2016) describes these ‘four institutional manifestations of a civilized democratic life’ as the principal targets of populist rhetoric. When the World Bank , international development agencies, and Western political leaders favour democracy promotion, it is usually this second understanding of democracy that they have in mind.

What does all this have to do with the contemporary discussion of populism? My sense in reading as much as I can bear of this discussion, is that the term ‘populism’ is used to condemn any appeal to the people that seeks to circumvent the institutional arrangements noted above, whose role is to contain the impact of the people on the actual work of government. Where Thompson identifies these institutional arrangements as the central focus of populist rhetoric, my point is almost the obverse: that political organisations or programs that attack these institutions get to be labelled populist. The condemnation of populism serves, in effect, to celebrate what we now call democracy. Populism is thus seen in: British, American and Australian attacks on the press and on what passes in these countries as an independent judiciary; Australian Governments’ efforts to undermine the Human Rights Commission and, in New South Wales, the Independent Commission Against Corruption; Donald Trump’s occasional threats during the 2016 Presidential campaign to rapidly (without due process) incarcerate or expel millions of hispanic migrants, to send his opponent to jail and not to accept the election result; the British LEAVE campaign’s pretence that a favourable referendun result could trump, no pun intended, the sovereignty of parliament; President Dutterte (Harry!) of the Philippines encouraging police to hunt down and kill drug traffickers.

All that unites these different populisms is that they are labelled as such by critics. While it is not always possible to choose the terms in which public debate is conducted, we should recognise that this labelling game is, at best, uninformative and, at worst, seriously misleading. We should not allow our dislike of many ‘populist’ attacks on parliamentary democracy, the party system, the press or the rule of law (Thompson’s four ‘institutional manifestations of a civilized democratic life’) to lead us into the view that there is little objectionable about these institutions as they stand today. While freedom of the press sounds good – anyone is free to start up and run a paper or journal – it has a significantly different meaning when, as in Australia and Britain, the press is dominated by a single proprietor. Or, imagine trying to explain the beauty of the rule of Law to indigenous peoples in Australasia and N. America, the many unfortunate souls trapped in Gitmo by a Republican controlled Congress or in what Australia euphemistically calls ‘immigration detention’ but not prison or, for that matter, to Chelsea Manning, condemned by the US military to solitary confinement, in effect, for trying to escape her punishment by taking her own life.

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