Populism isn’t all it’s cut out to be

When a government or a single politician goes over the head of the institutions to appeal to the public directly, do we call it populism or rabble-rousing?

The difference is usually determined by how we feel about the result of this stratagem. If we hate it, it’s rabble-rousing. If we like it, it’s populism.

The difference is clear enough, but it’s a subjective difference. Objectively, populism and rabble-rousing are the same thing in their unadulterated form.

In both instances politicians appeal to the base instincts of the mob, for the simple reason that the mob has no other. This was brilliantly shown back in 1895 by Gustave Le Bon in his book Psychology of Crowds, and confirmed by many scholars, not to mention empirical evidence, since then.

No matter how lovely the people in a mob are individually, the mob itself has neither collective morality nor collective reason. The American comedian George Carlin once expressed this in a quip: “You know how dumb the average person is? Well, I’ve got news for you: half the people are even dumber than that.” (Cf. Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”)

That’s why, when Lincoln orated about government for the people, he was being sensible and appropriately idealistic: this is indeed what government ought to be. But when he talked about government by the people, he was spouting pure demagoguery.

Seventy-odd years earlier, Edmund Burke encapsulated the way a representative government should work. Parliamentarians, he wrote in his Reflections, should be people’s representatives, not their delegates. They should act according to people’s interests (government for the people), but not according to their wishes (government by the people).

That’s why Western countries have wisely, and Britain extremely wisely, over centuries created an intricate lattice of institutions designed to translate people’s interests into action. This is the essence of parliamentarism, practised with various modifications by all Western countries.

The vigour with which it has been practised, however, has steadily abated over the centuries, for reasons too numerous and complex to go into here. (I write about this at length in my Democracy as a Neocon Trick.)

More and more, politicians have begun to give people what they want, not what they need, while peddling the self-serving lie that the two are identical. Our modern government by focus group is a bright example of this political perversion, with governing spivs (the dominant type in modern politics) acting not as statesmen but as sales executives.

This is akin to doctors basing their treatment on what the patient desires. If a patient thinks his cancer can be cured by eating dried apricot kernels, then that’s what the doctor prescribes.

That populism is on the rise all over the West is testimony to the failure of the people who man our traditional institutions, not of the institutions themselves. These institutions were lovingly put together by generations of sages who put public good before their own and, even more important, knew what public good was.

Their only serious mistake was to expect that situation to continue in perpetuity. They didn’t envisage the avalanche of the Tony-Gordon-Dave-Theresa-Jeremys (or their equivalents from any other Western country you care to name) burying traditional government at the bottom of an abyss.

Hence the rise of populism all over the West, with the mob feeling hard done by, and with all sorts of ‘leaders’ appealing to the mob for all sorts of ends, some advisable, some less so, some downright wicked. Hence also the rise of plebiscitary democracy, replacing representative government with a direct appeal to the mob.

When the result pleases us, we applaud, as we did with Brexit. Few of us realise that there’s a downside even to such an obvious upside.

All good and sensible people should despise the EU. There’s every rational reason to feel that way, and not a single rational reason to think otherwise.

The trouble is that many people who feel the right way do so for the wrong reasons. They are neither good nor sensible, and nor are they capable of rational thought.

Good and sensible people are opposed to a loss of sovereignty and too much immigration because such abominations lead to irreversible changes in the nation’s government, demographics, economy, culture, laws, social life and even language: all those things that make up a nation.

Empowering such people may not be a bad thing, for they can be counted on to use their power prudently and wisely.

People who are neither good nor sensible may feel about the EU and immigration the same way, but mainly because they hate other races and foreigners in general. They aren’t patriots, like the other, smaller, group, but jingoists.

A patriot loves his country, a jingoist idolises it and usually hates or at least despises all others. Empowering such people, even on an ad hoc basis, is not only dangerous but potentially catastrophic: once they’ve gained power, they seldom relinquish it – and they’re likely to use it for nefarious purposes.

True enough, decent people have joined forces with diabolical ones throughout history. Witness, for example, the wartime anti-Hitler alliance between the Anglophone West and Stalin. One can argue in favour of it with greater conviction than against.

However, while that alliance defeated Nazi satanism, Soviet satanism was extended to half the world, and it’s still exerting diabolical effects posthumously. When supping with the devil, no spoon is ever long enough.

That our institutions are tottering is beyond doubt. But if we have faith, as we should, in the sound principles on which they’re based, then our efforts must be aimed at restoring them, rebuilding if necessary. Destroying them by rabble-rousing for the sake of an immediate political gain is the kind of cure that’s worse than the disease.

For that reason, even though I’m happy the Brexit referendum came out the way I myself voted, I grieve rather than cheer the rise of ‘populism’ all over the West. “If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan ‘orses will jump out,” as Ernest Bevin once said with the rhetorical flourish one expects from socialists.

The Trojan ‘orses galloping around the West now have a distinct piebald tint, with brown spots strewn about lavishly. The rabble has been roused by an appeal to its resentments and hatreds, which is never a good thing – even if good people happen to hate and resent the same things.

The recent wave of protests against mass immigration has brought on its crest governments either run or greatly influenced by faschisoid parties. Hungary, Czechia, Poland, Italy, Germany, France, Slovenia, Sweden, Austria all fall into that category.

In common with all parties that derive political capital out of hatreds, these groups are clear on what they wish to destroy, but hazy on what they’d like to build in its stead. A febrile animus towards not only the ugly contrivance of the EU but also against Western tradition is easy to discern.

Witness the fact that all such parties adore Putin and his kleptofascist state. What exactly do they have in common? Do they think Putin is their fellow populist?

Surely even they can’t be so ignorant. Putin and his KGB Mafia run a gangster state, and criminal organisations don’t care about the public. They may manipulate it by using totalitarian zombifying propaganda to whip up mass enthusiasm, but they don’t count on it for electoral support. They have no elections other than sham ones.

So why this affection for Putin? Some ‘useful idiots’ no doubt buy the image expertly peddled by Putin’s Goebbelses, of a Russia that’s “the only conservative, religious and patriotic country left in Europe,” in the words of my favourite columnist who has few equals in the strident idiocy stakes.

But most, I guess, detect a kinship based not on common loves but on shared hates, with the traditional West taking pride of place among them. Their nerve endings thus excited, they’re prepared to throw out the baby of Europe with the bath water of the European Union.

They don’t realise that, while they may distinguish between the two, Putin doesn’t. The psychosis of hatred for the West being whipped up in Russia now outstrips by a wide margin everything I saw back in the old days.

Those fascisoid parties are greatly helped by assorted PMs and presidents who may love the EU, but are cravenly prepared to do the Faustian deal with Putin, trading their souls for a few barrels of oil. Putin’s hydrocarbons flow into Europe’s economies like heroin mainlined into an addict’s vein, and the euphoria of votes follows.

Hence the West’s commitment to punishing Russia’s crimes with sanctions is growing from tepid to stone-cold. Already Italy’s ‘populist’ government has come out in favour of repealing them, and young Manny Macron, though no populist, is moving the same way.

To refresh their memory, the sanctions were imposed following Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, her waging ‘hybrid’ electronic war against the West and trying to subvert its political institutions (we can do it ourselves, no outside help necessary thank you very much) and practising gangland hits in the West.

So what exactly has changed? Has Russia withdrawn from the Ukraine? Called a truce in the hybrid war? Forsworn ‘whackings’? Stopped helping Iran and North Korea develop their nuclear and ICBM arsenals?

Trump opened the G7 meeting with the regret of not having Russia there, and Macron closed it with the wish to have her at the next one. Why? Expelling Russia was a response to her refusing to act in a civilised manner. Logically she should only be readmitted if she changes her ways. Surely Messrs Donny and Manny don’t think she has?

When talking about Trump’s relations with Putin, the word ‘collusion’ has been bandied about so freely that it has become devalued. Without coming down on either side of the debate, I’d like to point out that everything Trump has said and, more important, done seems to promote Putin’s policy of divide and conquer.

So far Trump hasn’t uttered a single word against Putin, though he has said a few perfunctory ones against some of his policies. Trump was opposed to imposing sanctions, and would certainly have vetoed them had Congress been unable to override the veto.

While Trump’s criticism of the European Nato members is justified, it’s clear he has misgivings about keeping up collective security anyhow. That system is far from perfect, but it has worked so far. Does he not want it to work?

Trump’s first shots in the trade war with Europe are music to Putin’s ears: sowing discord within the West is the crux of his global strategy. And Trump as good as invited Putin to enter the Syrian civil war, on the pretext of combatting terrorism.

At the risk of sounding like a scaremonger, I think’s it’s possible that Trump may be prepared to strike a Yalta-like deal with Putin, dividing the world into spheres of influence. To the populists’ cheers, Europe may well find itself under Putin’s aegis.

They may not realise that, but such a fate would be incomparably worse than anything we can suffer under the EU. It’ll take some more doing, but these chaps may eventually succeed in turning me into a Remainer.

7 thoughts on “Populism isn’t all it’s cut out to be”

  1. I voted Leave myself because I thought it was the right thing to do. But quite honestly, I cannot see what has been achieved. Do you have a picture of Mr Hitchens on a dartboard at this point? Perhaps a voodoo doll?

  2. ” Parliamentarians . . . should be people’s representatives, not their delegates. They should act according to people’s interests (government for the people), but not according to their wishes (government by the people).”

    My state representative [USA] actually had a governmental philosophy based on input from a thousand or so voters he called “Echo Group”. This representative openly stated that in some instances often he listened to both sides of an argument and could not decide how to vote. In such circumstances he would poll the Echo Group and vote as they wished. Not in all instances but in some.

    Fancy a politician asking a citizen how he [the politician] should vote on an issue.

  3. I’m in two minds.

    On the one hand, I feel personally insulted that the likes of Diane Abbott, or even, dare I say Theresa May, is considered eligible to sit in the House of Commons as a ‘representative’ to (to quote Burke) ‘exercise their judgement on our behalf’.

    On the other hand, the Spectator recently posted this Twitter video of some of the women from ‘Love Island’ having a ‘political’ discourse about Brexit.


    As I mention in the BTL comments, it is a 44 second argument against universal suffrage!

  4. Suffrage in any form, ‘universal’ or not, has always been a sham because parliament has always retained the power to make decisions on our behalf (at least since Royal input was abolished). That parliament can restrict its decisions to ones favouring vested interests is a matter for reform.

  5. Many of the politically ignorant people do not bother voting, so that is not really an issue. What you do not address, however, is how we are to restore or rebuild the institutions. If those in power will incarcerate you for exposing or criticizing them, what choices do you have other than rabble-rousing? You and probably most of your readers are prosperous enough, if they need to, to simply move to another country, but what do the local working or middle classes do? If the choice is between assisted suicide or a populist revolution, that is a no-brainer.

    1. I’m not sure why assisted suicide is the only alternative to a populist revolution. Anyway, most of those produce a bloodbath, so people might not have to bother killing themselves. The mob will do it for them. But you’re right: the situation is fraught. Restoring and rebuilding the institutions is harder than destroying them. I could propose any number of steps (in fact, do propose them here and there), but few of them would be politically feasible in today’s climate. The climate has to change, and experience shows this only happens in the wake of some catastrophic event, military, financial or some such. Just think of how different the world became after the Black Death (not that I wish for something like that).

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