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While I’ve not become a born-again populist, a sea change in the tenor of political discourse has led me to explore some uncomfortable terrain: What might be usefully be learned for the task of democratic renewal from the resurgence of populism in country after country?

I have come to understand that the health of societies and polities depends on modes of discourse which raise the stakes beyond what a narrowly pragmatic way of engaging with the world can offer. As Harvard economist Dani Rodrik put it:

Any model of political economy in which organised interests do not figure prominently is likely to remain vacuous and incomplete…. But a mapping from interests to outcomes, depends on many unstated assumptions about the ideas of political agents”.

The way populists use ideas is far more potent as a call to political action than a narrowly pragmatic pre-occupation with material interests. Populists frame politics as:

the people in a moral struggle against elites”.

Moral, emotionally charged language fits uncomfortably with the (seemingly) reasoned discourse with which many of us are most comfortable. However, as Berkeley professor George Lakoff  has emphasised, “political thought begins with moral premises”. Rather than recoil, the challenge for non-populists is to engage in ‘moral struggles’ in ways which can support democratic renewal, fostering hope rather than fueling rage.

This post distills some ideas how this might be done, organised around  four questions suggested by the logic of populism:

  • Who are the ‘people’?
  • Against what do the people struggle?
  • For what do the people struggle?
  • How do the people struggle?

Who are the ‘people’? The notion of the ‘people’ is (as per a recent book by Columbia University’s Nadia Urbinati) a “stubborn ambiguity” at the heart of political discourse–one which populists are adept at exploiting. The ‘people’ can be characterised variously as those who enjoy legal standing (i.e. those in whose name laws are made and enforced); as the socio-historical body that lives in a specific territory (i.e. the ‘nation’); or as some subset of the broader legal or socio-historical entities. Populist leaders set themselves the task, as Urbinati puts it, of:

the extraction of the ‘true people’ from the empirical people… Their notion of the people corresponds to ‘the right people’: this is the only people they plan to speak for.”

Rather than separating out a sub-group (the ‘true people’) from everyone else, a very different way of mobilising ‘the people’ for a moral struggle is to embrace  an inclusive vision of “we the people”, of an active citizenry.  South Africa’s ‘united democratic front‘ which mobilized against apartheid South Africa offers a powerful, recent example of a, “we the people” struggle by an inclusive, active citizenry.

‘Active’ entails more than voting in national elections; it includes engagement at local, state and national levels; in civic organisations; and, crucially, in political parties. ‘Citizen’ entails a sense of shared obligation, a willingness to play by rules shared with other fellow-citizens—and a clear, broadly accepted framework which lays out eligibility criteria and mechanisms for transitioning from non-citizen to citizen status. (yes: immigration policy….). A sense, as a synonym for active citizenship, of civic patriotism.

Against what do the people struggle? For populists, the moral struggle is against the peoples’ enemies—those who exploit the people, humiliate them, deprive them of their just patrimony. The fuel comes from anger: vanquish the enemy, and all will be well. But once an oppositional framing has been introduced, the demon of us-versus-them polarization lurks exceedingly close to the surface—and (as I explored in an earlier post in this series) the consequences of its unleashing can all-too-readily become a catastrophic downward spiral.

Viewed from a non-populist perspective, the struggle ‘against’ need not be personalised, but could aim instead to combat entrenched asymmetries of power which undercut equal rights and opportunities of citizens, both economically and politically.  The World Bank’s 2017 World Development Report, Governance and the Law laid out some hard truths about power asymmetries and their consequences with surprising frankness. As the WDR put it:

The unequal distribution of power—power asymmetry—can influence policy effectiveness… the negative manifestations of power asymmetries are reflected in capture, clientelism, and exclusion”.

For countries with a strong-enough institutional platform, a struggle ‘against’ could usefully focus on a revitalization of anti-monopoly policies, and reform of the rules governing the financing of political campaigns (including limiting the role of ‘dark money’ in politics).

For what do the people struggle? For populists, the struggle ‘for’ generally is the mirror image of the struggle ‘against’–fuelled by a false promise that once the enemies of ‘the people’ are defeated, all will be well.  By contrast, the struggle ‘for’ is central to a non-populist vision of a thriving democracy. It is a struggle for equal opportunity and equal dignity as citizens—for a polity, economy and society within which all citizens can work to shape their own lives, and participate peacefully in the shaping of their societies, according to their distinctive visions of freedom and justice.  It is a ‘moral struggle’, built not on resentment, but on a foundation of empathy and mutual obligation among citizens.

Central to the non-populist struggle ‘for’ is the classic tension between markets and the public sphere. Markets offer economic freedom and a platform for accelerated economic growth—but left unchecked are likely to be accompanied by rising inequalities and power asymmetries. An active public sphere not only sustains a level playing field, it also is the locus for economic and social policy reforms aimed at strengthening inclusion and opportunity for all citizens:

  • Strengthening ladders of opportunity, via additional public investment in early childhood development; primary, secondary and tertiary education; technical and vocational education; and on-the-job learning.
  • Support to help those left behind to navigate change, including strengthened social insurance; a minimum safety net; and active labour market policies.
  • Pro-active efforts at redistribution, including capital endowment and income support policies, and tax reforms which expand fiscal revenues and enhance the progressivity of the tax system

There is ample scope to debate the details of each of these, to broaden (or contract) the list. Whatever the details, what is needed is an openness to far-reaching innovation, responsive to 21st century challenges to inclusion and equal dignity—globalisation, accelerating technological change, the rise of network industries, information (and dis-information) abundance,  and ongoing climate crises.

How do the people struggle? Both for populists and for non-populists, ends and means are inseparable. All-too-often, populist leaders present themselves as ‘tribunes of the people’, who uniquely manifest the peoples’ will—and then target democracy’s guardrails as the mechanism through which the elite establishment frustrates the achievement of what the people need.  Compromise with the enemy establishment becomes betrayal.  Concentration of power in the leader’s hands becomes the natural way to realize their vision.  The erosion of norms and institutions of restraint is a feature, not a bug.

For non-populists, by contrast, both ends and means a point in the direction of institutional stewardship, fostering co-operation rather than fueling conflict. This is well-captured in how two Nobel Prize winners, Douglass North and Oliver Williamson, define institutions, namely as:

“…humanly devised constraints which govern human interaction…. an effort to craft order, thereby to mitigate conflict and realize mutual gains.”

As means, institutions provide the necessary foundation for an inclusive economy and society, capable of offering equal opportunity and the prospect of a better life for all their citizens. As ends, commitment to equal dignity is inseparable from waging a moral struggle in ways which respect guardrails of restraint on the abuse of power.

Where respect for institutions is central to the way in which non-populists struggle, it seemingly poses a dilemma—requiring them to struggle against toxic populism with one hand tied behind their back. Might it not be better to defeat toxic populism by fighting fire with fire? Perhaps surprisingly, as the last post in this series will explore, the answer is an unequivocal “no”.


This blog was originally posted on ‘Working with the Grain’.