‘We can combat populism.’

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By Imogen Parker,a first year student at King’s College studying International Relations.

 Populism, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, is a belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite.

David Cameron’s remarks on the need to “combat populism” have been met with outrage by media outlets, such as the Telegraph and Guardian. But ignoring his inflammatory language, was he so wrong? Populism, as it is manifested in today’s politics, is no more representative of the people’s will than the ‘political elite’ it aims to counteract. Populism carries the ability to be a force for good, and a force for evil. In its current form populism will not change the way that politics is enacted. Whilst ever populism is carried on a wave of misinformation and deceit it will only serve to change the face of the ‘elites’ who control nations. For example, Donald Trump has been a part of the ‘elite’ for decades, yet was elected on a populist, anti-elite surge.

The idea of populism is inherently good for politics, it encourages public engagement and involvement in the political process. However, populism needs democratising. On its current trajectory populism will allow opportunistic, self-obsessed individuals to capitalise on the misinformed, reactionary masses.

We can see populism triumphing across the world with the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, the election of Donald Trump, the ‘No’ vote to the referendum in Italy, and 2017 promises to provide us with more examples of populism at work with the imminent French and German elections. The problem isn’t in the outcomes of the aforementioned votes, but rather the manner in which victory was grasped. Political opportunists were more than happy to harness the power of the populist psych, manipulating the fears and concerns of the population to political advantage and propelling them to victory.

But is this not the way our politics operates? The answer is a simple yes. For decades politicians have manipulated voters, for example David Cameron promised to give households more ‘money in our pocket’ before the 2015 election through tax cuts if the Conservatives were re-elected. What is different in 2016, is that the effects of populism are often far more extreme than tax cuts. When people criticised Cameron for wanting to “combat populism”, they replaced ‘populism’ with ‘democracy’. Cameron was not trying to argue against democratically listening to the voice of the people, but instead arguing for the democratisation of populism. Populism needs to become more representative, less reactionary, and more informed.

The social media age gives rise to undemocratic populism. People gather most of their information from the unrestricted, ungoverned and, therefore, free internet. However, internet freedom is a myth. There are algorithms that tailor users’ preferences, this is harmless in advertising where the user only sees products that they are interested in. However, in the realm of politics, it is far more dangerous. Unbeknown to users, news preferences are also tailored. The internet makes it easy to get caught up in a web of similar minded users, fueling each other’s ideas with emotive posts, creating a strong, vocal, but blinkered, community. When these ideas are simplified and projected onto the national stage undemocratic populism is born.

Populism also expects immediate results without the appreciation that change takes time. Sudden, dramatic change is no better for a nation than remaining with the status quo. This urgency is a further by product of the social media age. Twenty-four-hour news channels, live videos, tweeting etc. allow news to be instantaneous. People who engage with this media, expect all aspects of life to be immediate – including politics. Yet one of the virtues of our political process is the time it allows for thought, analysis and scrutiny. It is not brash and reactionary. Undemocratic populism threatens this. People who don’t understand the complexity of the issues at hand, because their horizons have unknowingly been shortened due to the internet and opportunists, vote without consideration of the full impacts.

Without the democratisation of populism politics becomes fashion. The job of the politician becomes one of a showman, advertising their viewpoints to the internet-nation, grabbing attention with flashy gaffs and clever soundbites. The element of ‘celebrity’ becomes far more important than the traditional exercise of government. Whilst this style of politics is more engaging, it is not more informative, people trust that they comprehend the larger picture but the reality is far from that. Policies are broadcast with the aim of utilising emotion, creating a media storm that could generate a hashtag and have large impact in media circles, rather than advertising the depths of policy.

It cannot be denied that the populist movements that have won referenda and elections have a mandate. Populism has cleverly captured the electorate and the reward is a mandate to govern. However, it is not to say that the process by which the populists achieved a mandate was democratic, nor will it change the ‘elite establishment’, a factor that so many of the recent votes has boiled down to. The notion that Donald Trump or Nigel Farage are less ‘establishment’ and more representative of the average citizen is nonsense. They are a fundamental part of the establishment.

There will always been a separation between the people and the government, but that does not mean that the governments don’t govern for the people. However, true representation takes time. Politicians who are women, ethnic minorities or working class cannot be conjured out of thin air – their development takes time and changes have to occur. Westminster and Washington need to be more accessible, the stigma surrounding ‘sleazy’ politicians needs to disappear, and there needs to be more political education. Only through these means can the general will of the people be portrayed in politics, only then will populism be democratic rather than opportunistic

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