Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Populism, cynicism and “the people” by Tom Crook

Scholars continue to labour over the ideological credentials of “populism.” At best, populism is ideologically emaciated; at worst, nothing more than a style of politics—a mode of posturing, speaking, signifying. But few dispute that a core part of its appeal is an ability to mobilize popular cynicism about the conduct of mainstream parties and politicians, left and right. Even self-consciously minimal definitions insist that a defining feature of populism is its depiction of “elites” as essentially self-serving and self-interested. As most liberals would agree, it is entirely right that we should be sceptical, even cynical, about those who govern us. But populism thrives on something more extreme and visceral: an often rage-fuelled conviction that we’re all being ripped off, lied to, preyed upon, ignored and neglected by the establishment. “Drain the swamp!” the crowds yelled at Trump’s rallies back in the autumn of 2016, capturing one of the few readily identifiable ideologicalor stylisticprops of populism.
This is not all, of course. The other key element of populism is “the people,” which is pitted against a corrupt elite and in whose name the populist leader operates. The two operate together, making for the master distinction of populism. As is often pointed out, if criticizing elites was the hallmark of populism, then most political actors, of whatever ideological affiliation, would qualify as populist. But the populist leader goes further and adds a crucial anti-pluralist twist by claiming that he and he aloneand it’s commonly a male protagonistspeaks for “the people.” The democratic appeal of populism is thus easy to grasp. Democracy has somehow been subverted and captured by self-interested, liberal elites, when really, as democracy dictates, power should reside with the people—and it’s this situation that the populist leader claims he will reverse, returning power to where it rightfully belongs.       

More might be said about this crucial facet of populism, however ideologically grounded or not. Who, after all, are “the people”? Are they really as homogeneous as the rhetoric would imply—is it not just a fictitious referent? There is a rich literature now on the sociological mystifications of populism. Nonetheless, it is here where the cynicism of populism is said to stop. Some scholars indeed have argued that populism turns upon a peculiar idealization of “the people,” which, defined in more or less exclusive nativist and/or class-based terms, is held up not just as the true source of sovereignty but of a fundamental moral decency and common sense. Small wonder, perhaps, that some have sketched the conceptual roots of populism back to Rousseau’s notion of “the general will.”

It is true that populism thrives on a distinction between a corrupt “elite” and a morally wholesome, if perhaps naïve, “people.” But it doesn’t necessarily follow that populism is any less cynical about those it claims to defend and represent. Nor again that it is any less cynical when it comes to the conduct of politics, or even the very meaning of politics.

This is most apparent in the way “the people” functions as one of populism’s core referents, which involves a two-fold manoeuvre that is at once overtly cynical and more subtly so. In the first place there is the altogether limited way populists conceive of “the people” and their grievances, where there is a striking absence of any sense that “the people” have, or should have, any additional responsibilities or democratic capacities than they already possess. Instead, they are presented as those who have, in one way or another, suffered because of the apparently rampant self-interest of others, principally immigrants or elites, or some combination of the two. It follows that what “the people” want is not the better mediation of interests or their distribution and managementthe old-school “elite” solutionbut the swift and brutal assertion of their own much-neglected self-interests, whether in the form of their cultural resources and identity, access to welfare, or share of national wealth. In policy terms, what populists offer can often be boiled down to a simple formula: life must be made much harder for those who are not truly of “the people” (immigrants, minorities and elites) and much easier for those who are—a cynical, low-grade politics of spite and revenge on the one hand, and entitlements and material comfort on the other.

Perhaps this is not too unusual. After all, tax cuts and enhanced access to welfare have long been part of the politics of established parties. But populism is distinguished by a second and more subtle, if again quite cynical, manoeuvre which completes the first and, in a remarkable twist, seeks to dignify it. This, too, concerns the people, and in particular the way populism seeks to reduce democracy to a matter of mere counting. Crudely, “the people” are the numerical majority and therefore, as democracy dictates, in a position of political authority: their interests and needs carry the most weight. And yet, this very same people, so populism suggests, is also defined by an aversion to politics and democratic association. It is this latter facet that completes the picture, for this is also what endows “the people” with an unassailable moral goodness: composed of average, ordinary and common folk—so-called “real people”“the people” have no desire to engage in the dirty and convoluted world of politics and collective deliberation, beyond voting in secret now and then. Put another way, what populism offers is indeed an “anti-political” politics, as scholars suggest; but more than this, it quite cynically asserts its superior democratic credentials on the basis of an altogether impoverished conception of democracy as the aggregation of self-interested selves.

The above is but a sketch and a crude and abstract one at that; and there are of course multiple other manifestations of the cynicism of populism, not least its casual conspiracism and dismissal of uncomfortable facts and counterarguments as the product of biased, self-interested perspectives (“fake news”, etc.). But the key point is that this pervasive cynicism might help to explain why populism is so ideologically thin and superficial, and why scholars grasp after paradoxes in order to characterise its peculiar qualities (as in an “anti-political” politics).

At any rate, “the people” of populism are decidedly not the same as those imagined by Rousseau’s “general will,” which envisaged a perpetual becoming of patriotic, engaged citizens. Nor do they bear any resemblance to “the people” idealized by interwar fascist and communist movements, which invoked transformational images of a “New Order” and a “New Man.” Rather, they are much closer to Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” whose moral authority lay not just in their majority status, but also in their quiet silence and subservience: they were unsullied and uncorrupted by politics and a desire for more expansive forms of citizenship.

Tom is currently writing a history of political corruption in modern Britain. He co-organised (with Barrie Axford and Rico Isaacs) the “Populism 2.0” symposium held in January of this year.

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