What’s wrong with populism?

rallyQuite a lot, I’d suggest.

Nothing, goes Douglas Murray’s typically impassioned argument in The Mail. Populism is “the BBC’s new buzzword, being used to sneer at the ‘uneducated’ 17 million who voted for Brexit”.

This disagreement points at the inadequacy of political taxonomy in general. If an English conservative wants to preserve Western civilisation and a Russian conservative wants to destroy it, or if an Australian liberal wishes to limit state power and an American liberal wishes to increase it, then one may be forgiven for doubting the value of those terms.

Populism is a way to excite grassroots sentiments by appealing directly to the masses over the head of established political institutions. If so, the very fact that Brexit was settled in a referendum makes it an exercise in populism on either side of the watershed.

Hence our view of populism is in this context affected by how we feel about the referendum’s outcome. Since the BBC doesn’t like the result, it uses the term ‘populism’ pejoratively. Murray, on the other hand, is happy with the result, which is why his feelings about populism are warm to the point of being febrile.

The BBC makes its evaluation of populism contingent on the result it yields. But then so does Murray: when populism produces a Brexit, he likes it. Presumably, when it produces a Hitler, who goes on to kill six million Jews, Murray’s view of populism changes.

That means his heart is in the right place: all decent people believe that Britain must regain her sovereignty, and all such people deplore democide. However, one may doubt that such taxonomic relativism testifies to a particular depth of thought.

A fair argument can be made that unchecked democracy ineluctably degenerates into populism. That has been clear to political thinkers since the time Plato referred to democracy as ‘mob rule’ and, 2,000 years later, John Adams was terrified to see that the American republic he had co-founded was turning into a democracy.

However, modern democracy still tends to preserve some residual checks, in my view insufficient but still not nonexistent. Populism leapfrogs them and lands in the midst of the troubled waters of vox populi, which, upon examination, turn out to be a morass.

Murray’s ideologically neoconservative commitment to Democracy (always implicitly capitalised) prevents him from seeing that vox populi can be confidently expected to strike false notes more often than true ones.

The Germans were denied the opportunity to vote for Hitler after 1933, but, given the chance in, say, 1938, they would have given the Nazis a landslide. Moving from Past Subjunctive to Present Continuous, the Russians are supporting their criminal KGB junta in overwhelming numbers, and many Cubans are mourning the death of the worst tyrant in their history.

Staying with that grammatical tense, one can’t help noticing that Putin’s name is emblazoned on the banners of the European populist movements that are producing results Murray likes so much.

Bulgaria’s Ataka Party, France’s National Front, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, Italy’s Forza Italia, Austria’s Freedom Party are all locked in passionate embrace with Putin. And even some leaders of our own dear UKIP are known to admire Putin’s crypto-fascist junta.

This intercourse isn’t wholly disinterested: France’s NF, Hungary’s Jobbik and Denmark’s People’s Party are known to have helped themselves to Putin’s rouble. I don’t know about the others, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case with them too.

Even a good populist cause attracts bad people – to this law there are no known exceptions. For example, as the Crusaders were moving toward the Holy Land, all sorts of creepy-crawlies came along for the ride. Hence the murders, rapes and looting that cast aspersion on the Crusades in perpetuity – even though their cause was just and noble.

Populism always introduces an element of entropy into politics, when rabble-rousing may turn politics into mob rule. Any serious, and especially conservative, political thinker has to be wary of the resulting potential for disaster.

The subterranean tremors in European politics are producing tectonic shifts, and the long-term outcome is unpredictable. In the short term, the EU seems to be moribund, and, if so, hooray. But then what?

When tectonic plates smash together, eruptions ensue. What sort of lava will this particular eruption disgorge? I don’t know, Murray doesn’t know, and nobody knows.

The EU is a wicked contrivance lacking legitimacy on any historical, moral or intellectual level. In purely empirical terms, it’s mainly responsible for creating a social powder keg ready to go off at any moment, with assorted populists lighting the wick. For contrivances like that never just fizzle out – they go out with a bang.

But would we be happy with Putin’s Russians acting as feudals to Europe’s vassals? European anti-EU populism is already tinged with fascism – do we want it to reach tropistically for the fascist sun shining out of a certain portion of Putin’s anatomy?

Implosion of the EU is likely to create troubled economic waters, in which national-populist demagogues will profitably fish. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wish for that vile construct to disappear, but it does mean we should be on guard against populism – and take every measure to protect ourselves from its inevitable excesses.


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