Populism Is Not The Problem. It’s Part Of The Solution

How Best To Contain The New Wave Of Aggressive And Missionary Nationalism

By Professor Torbjör Tännsjö (Stockholm University)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Bryan Snyder/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture & An Obtuse Political Establishment.”

The words ‘populist’ and ‘populism’ have in many contexts turned into slurs. They appear in these contexts heavily loaded with negative emotive meaning, but with either little or no descriptive sense. For example, the Professor of political science Donald Brand says of this election that ‘a populist outsider has captured the pinnacle of power in the American system: the presidency. Trump’s success will encourage other populists on the left and the right to find a path to power’ (’Populism is the Congress’s Next Big Threat’, Fortune, 9 November 2016). This comment is typical of people who seem complacent with regard to the current economic and political status quo, but nevertheless accuse successful politicians with large leftist or right-wing public support of being populists. The obvious problem with this broad use of the term ‘populist’ is that there is little connecting the ideology of politicians on the right and on the left. There is little uniting the beliefs of Trump and Sanders, Farage and Corbyn, Syriza in their heydays and Golden Dawn respectively. They have only one thing in common — they are all targets of the negative sentiments of those who characterize them as ‘populists’— a label that they do not themselves readily accept.

Maybe this criticism of the cavalier way in which the concept of ‘populism’ is used is unfair. Could we not, on a charitable interpretation, find some descriptive meaning in this loose talk about populism? Here are a number of suggested ways to think about populism in very broad terms.

We sometimes hear that populists offer simple solutions to complex problems. But is not simplicity a virtue in politics just as it is in science? In science, given the available data at our disposition, we opt for the hypothesis that, other things being equal, the simplest explanation of this data will do. We make an inference to the best (simplest) explanation. In politics, once a problem has been identified, should we not, other things being equal, also opt for the simplest solution to it? I think we should, so the problem cannot be that populists offer simple solutions to complex problems. Perhaps the idea is that populists offer simplistic rather than simple solutions to complex problems. However, what measures are considered in their totality to be simplistic and what measures are considered straightforward is a moot question.

A person’s attitude or stance towards the status quo, will likely affect their view of what is considered simplistic or straightforward. If for example you are satisfied with the status quo as you conceive of it, and want to keep it that way, then all suggested reforms may sound hazardous and simplistic to you since they put in jeopardy what you cherish. However, from the standpoint of those who want to bring about transformative changes to their societies, a defence of the status quo is, in the present context, no less problematic or unhelpful in its simplicity than the various reforms they are trying to put forward.

We also hear that populists typically attack ‘the elite’. This may be true of both the political right and the political left, and it may seem to be something that unites them and differentiates them from those who find the existence of an elite class quite natural and highly desirable. However, the right and the left seem to react very differently to the elites they identify. The explanation for this divergence is that they use the same term but differ on the meaning of the term. The right focuses on culture and values while the left focuses on socioeconomic characteristics. In some cases, the two categories partly overlap. However, in many cases they don’t. It then transpires that the right and the left have very different approaches to what they characterise with the same term, ‘the elite’. From a leftist perspective, Trump is part of the economic elite, the 1% profiting in greater amounts from the perverse widening of wealth inequality that is concentrating scarce resources at the very top of society. From Trump’s own perspective, although he is indeed rich (and proud of it), he does not consider himself a member of the ‘elite’ class that is currently, and has been for many years, disconnected from the values and concerns of average working-class Americans. He is rich, and brags about it, but he doesn’t share the values cherished by those he conceives of as part of the technocratic elite (where one doesn’t brag about one’s riches).

Of course, if we look closely at the political platforms of Trump and Sanders there are some shared interests, but Sanders and Clinton have even more elements in common. We should not forget Nelson Goodman’s observation that ‘every two things have some property in common’.[1] What we need to focus on here is politically important and salient traits. It is not plausible to say that there are so many vital political principles which unite Trump and Sanders, in opposition to Clinton that they both ought to be characterised as ‘populists’. Moreover, what may at first look like common positions may well turn out, in the final analysis, to be very different. Even Sanders himself thought at first that he and Trump had a shared view on infrastructure investments only to have to note, as a second thought, on his blog on 21 November 2016:

“Unlike Trump’s plan, which creates new tax loopholes and is a corporate giveaway, my Rebuild America Act would be paid for by eliminating tax loopholes that allow hugely profitable multinational corporations to stash their profits in offshore tax havens around the world.”

These points of tension between Sanders and Trump seem to suggests that the journalist, John B. Judis, was on to something when he observed in an article for The Guardian:

“There is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called “populist”: the different people and parties that are placed in this category enjoy family resemblances of one to the other, but there is not a universal set of traits that is common to all of them.”

Does the inadequacy of the above criteria mean that we should give up on the term ‘populism’? Judis tries himself to distinguish between many different political movements within this family, and this is feasible, of course, but the explanatory value of the word ‘populism’ is then lost. Each of these movements follow their own logic. However, I don’t think we should give up on the term altogether. I think we should be bolder. We can indeed salvage the term by giving it a clear descriptive meaning, while doing away with its emotive overtones, without deviating from at least one common usage of it.

In what follows I will argue that the present political situation is in many ways critical. The US and the world faces, after the election of Donald Trump, what should be characterised as existential threats, not only from the possibility of nuclear war, but even more obviously so from global warming. At the same time, societies seem to be falling apart, torn by political movements we haven’t seen for decades. This means that we need to find new political means of handling the situation. In addressing the global civic unrest, and the resulting global political disruption, populism will turn out to be an asset rather than an enemy of democracy. Populism is not the problem of our age; rather it is part of the solution to our twenty-first century woes.

If despite what political commentators argue, populism is not the main problem confronting those still grappling with the shock of Brexit and the Trump presidency, what exactly is the crisis at hand? I agree with the diagnosis of one of the putative left wing ‘populists’, Yanis Varoufakis, in an article in The Conversation:

“The election of Donald Trump symbolises the demise of a remarkable era. It was a time when we saw the curious spectacle of a superpower, the US, growing stronger because of – rather than despite – its burgeoning deficits. It was also remarkable because of the sudden influx of two billion workers – from China and Eastern Europe – into capitalism’s international supply chain. This combination gave global capitalism a historic boost, while at the same time suppressing Western labour’s share of income and prospects. Trump’s success comes as that dynamic fails (14 November 2016).” [2]

Varoufakis observes, correctly in my view, that important segments of Western societies find themselves marginalised. The gap between the rich and the less well-to-do continues to widen. As fear and despair continue to spread, the soil is ripe for all sorts of radical political initiatives. But this means that there are both dangers and possibilities facing us.

The main danger comes from the political right. But here we need to be precise. The terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ in politics typically designate different approaches to social inequality. The more egalitarian you are, the more to the left you stand. On the other hand, the less you tend to consider inequality a problem, the more to the right you stand; at least on my preferred understanding of the terms. And if this is how we conceive of the left and the right, it is not right-wing policy as such that poses a special threat to democracy in our time, it is a version of right-wing policy with a particular nationalistic bent.

In discussions about populism we often hear that this traditional divide between the left and the right is now dated. It is associated with a materialist understanding of politics, where the working class is supposed to vote for the left and the upper classes to vote for the right. However, in today’s world, new political dimensions have become more important. And there seems to exist supporting research, mainly by Inglehart and Norris, to this effect, which is often quoted by the likes of, Fareed Zakaria, for example, in his ‘Populist on the March’, Foreign Affairs, 17 October 2016:

“Inglehart and Norris point out that this old voting pattern has been waning for decades. “By the 1980s,” they write, “class voting had fallen to the lowest levels ever recorded in Britain, France, Sweden and West Germany. . . . In the U.S., it had fallen so low [by the 1990s] that there was virtually no room for further decline.”

This observation is probably correct when it comes to voter patterns. However, the economic realities remain, and, as I will argue below, if we want to counter the present fears we need to return to this sort of ideological politics. This is what we need to do if we want to counter the nationalistic trend.

That being said, it bears repeating, we must be careful with how we understand our terms. The word ‘nationalism’ can characterize two main approaches to organizing a nation. On one understanding of the term, a ‘nationalist’ holds on to the universalistic ideal that each people should have its own state. This kind of nationalism could be characterised as liberal, and it was an important ideological source behind many European movements during the 19th century. It played a similar role during the second half of the 20th century, when former colonies fought for independence. We see a late (and probably) lost attempt to realise this ideal in the Israel/Palestine conflict with the idea of two nation states side by side. Few believe that this is feasible anymore and personally I don’t believe it is desirable either, but I will leave this issue aside in the present context.

There is another meaning of the term ‘nationalism’, however, where it designates an aggressive and missionary attitude to one nation in particular, wiz one’s own. This is not an universalisable ideal, it is pure national egotism. You support your own nation against all the others. And this is indeed a dangerous creed. It was once upheld by Hitler and the Nazis, and we hear it echo in Trump’s assertion that he will make America great again, and, even more so, in his idea of ‘America first’.

We sometimes hear talk about a new ‘nationalist international’ but this makes little sense. Parties with this kind of ambition can enter into temporary alliances but, because of their different and conflicting goals, such an ‘international’ will be inherently unstable. We should not expect aggressive and missionary nationalists to sustain a system such as the United Nations.

In the 1930s such nationalist parties overtly attacked democracy. This is rare in today’s world. However, what is typical of these movements is that they hold their own views about what Robert Dahl has called the ‘boundary’ problem. They want to close the borders and even expel some members from their own states, since they are not considered part of the nation. While genetic criteria were once used to delineate one’s own people, we now meet rather with ethnic and cultural and religious ones. The effect is the same, however. Some people don’t belong to the people and should not be included in – and should even be expelled from — the demos. The economic situation makes such a time as this ripe for this kind of aggressive and missionary nationalism. This means danger. So what is the solution?

The answer to that question depends on what you believe the problem to be. As I have explained before, some seem to believe that populism is the problem. Hence, to obviate the dangers from aggressive and missionary nationalism — and make the world safe for the elites — we should opt for the kind of democracy that is not populist. We should attempt to keep ordinary people out of politics. However, I actually think the opposite is true. We should include them.

In my book Populist Democracy. A Defence (London and New York: Routledge, 1992) I conceived of democracy as a method of decision-making, where the will of the majority (in a given demos) is decisive for the political outcome. In many contexts this ideal is realised through a direct method. People meet, put forward proposals, discuss, and take a vote. However, in nation states, let alone on a global level, this is not possible. But then it is possible to approach this ideal (if it is considered as an ideal) through a proportionate electoral system, where the people vote for their favoured parties, these parties get represented in proportion to the votes they gain from the people, and then form a sovereign parliament politically representative of the people. The parliament legislates in a directly democratic manner and it selects the government, again in a directly democratic manner.

This is roughly the kind of political system upheld in countries like Germany and in Scandinavia. Here it makes sense to think that the parliament reaches the decision the entire people would make, were it possible for it to meet (under the oaks, as Rousseau had it). Hence it is an approximation of the populist ideal (if it is seen as ideal).

I wrote my book in opposition to William Riker’s earlier Liberalism Against Populism (San Francisco: Waveland Press, 1988). I accepted the word ‘populist’ for the kind of democracy I defended — and he attacked, but I rejected the term ‘liberal’ for the kind of system Riker advocated. I still think ‘liberalism’ is a misnomer and I will come back to that. Instead I will bluntly speak of his favoured notion of democracy as an ‘elitist’ system.

Riker belongs to a tradition which originated in Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1942). On their joint favoured notion of democracy, democracy is not a system allowing the people to rule itself, it is a system where the people are allowed to decide who should rule them. This, of course, comes closer to the US reality than the systems I referred to in Germany and Scandinavia. So why should we prefer a system where the people’s role is restricted to the choice of rulers over a system where the people rule themselves? Why should we prefer the U.S model to the Scandinavian one?

Some of the arguments to this effect build on the claim that populist democracy is impossible. The very idea of a ‘will of a people’ is bad metaphysics and makes no sense. This was Schumpeter’s take on the issue. This is incorrect. There are clearly ways to operationalize the notion of a will of the people, otherwise political systems like the ones in Germany and Scandinavia wouldn’t exist.

Other arguments are to the effect that problems in the theory of social choice shows that often there is no unique will of the people. This was Riker’s take on the problem. The opinions form cycles where there is a majority of proposal A over B, of B over C, and finally of C over A. Hence, the idea that the majority will of the people should be guaranteed to translate into social choice, makes no sense.

However, there is a simple solution to this problem, as I have argued in my book. A decision method is democratic (in the populist sense) if and only if (i) it selects any one of the items in a (top) cycle like the one mentioned above and (ii) it is such that, had there been a unique Condorcet winner (a proposal that is preferred by a majority to any other proposal), this Condorcet winner would have been selected.

I conclude that populist democracy is possible. However, if it is, then it makes sense to ask whether it is desirable or not. I think it is. Both Schumpeter and Riker have argued that it is not. Their main argument why it is not, relies on the belief that while ordinary people may be good at tending to their private affairs, they are no good when it comes to political matters. Hence, they should be kept away from political deliberation and decision-making. Once they have elected their leaders, there should be no room for ‘political back-seat driving’. This argument has been developed in so many ways, but it boils down to this elitist view of ordinary people’s political capacity.

Now, if this pessimistic view of ordinary folk is true, then it makes sense indeed to say that it is a problem when ordinary people get engaged in politics, are tempted by different proposals from political leaders to the right and the left, and vote for them. They may all be heading in the wrong and even disastrous direction.

I doubt that this elitist view of ordinary people is correct. And we must hope that it is incorrect. We must hope that at least it is possible to educate us people at large, so that we become capable of handling political affairs in a responsible manner. We must hope so, since, if we ordinary folk are not capable of handling political affairs in a responsible manner, then we seem to face what I will call an elitist paradox: If ordinary people are not fit to take a responsible stand on political matters, then it is highly unlikely that they can make wise choices about whom should lead them.

Are we not faced with a demonstration of this contradiction in the election of Trump as president? American people are not used to discuss political matters in the manner we do here in Scandinavia, where we have representative political systems with several parties, presenting different platforms to the electorate. Hence, they are also poor judges of political leaders. Many are likely not to vote at all when presented with a binary choice like the one in a presidential US election — roughly half of the population —and many others to go where their sentiments lead them rather than with what their more reasoned self would prescribe. This is what we should expect if in accordance with the elitist ideal they are invited to assess merely the quality of the candidates, not their political platforms. My belief is that, had the same people lived in a different and less bi-polar political culture, where they had been presented with a variety of subtle political alternatives to choose from, they would have behaved better.

I have thus defined and defended a notion of populism that I think can be generally useful for political discourse. Are any of the two putative populist politicians, Sanders or Trump, ‘populist’ in my favoured sense of the term? I am not aware of any detailed stand they have taken on constitutional matters, but I doubt that Trump is a ‘populist’, in this sense. The existing system has shown to be well suited to his ambitions. However, in some of his speeches Sanders seems to have at least a leaning towards this kind of populism: ‘If we are going to transform America, we need a political revolution. Millions of people have to stand up and get involved in the political process in a way we have not in many, many years.’ (John B. Judis, ‘All The Rage: Sanders and Trump represent two different sides of American populism — and the uprisings they sparked could topple the established political order’, New Republic, 19 September, 2016.)

This massive political involvement would only be possible, I submit, under a proportionate and representative democratic system of the sort envisaged in my book on populism, aimed at allowing the people, not only to select its leaders, but to govern itself.

This leads me to an additional comment on terminology. I claimed that Riker’s term ‘liberal’ was a misnomer when applied to the elitist political idea that ordinary people should not rule themselves; they should just decide who should rule them. And the reason why this is a misnomer is that there exists a truly liberal tradition dating back to J.S. Mill, where democracy is considered to have an inherently pedagogical aspect as well. Democracy is not only a way of deciding political matters. The representative democratic institutions help us ordinary folk to a better understanding of society and our role in it. Or, as Mill puts it in Considerations on Representative Government (London: Parker, Son, and Bourn, West Strand, 1861)[3]:

… the most important point of excellence which any form of government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves. (p.30)

The only decent answer to the aggressive and missionary nationalism we now confront comes from left-wing policy designed to deal with the real economic problems facing people in Western democracies through egalitarian and other measures.

This task is certainly not as easy as The Economist describes it:

“Part of the answer is to draw on the power of liberal ideals. New technology, prosperity and commerce will do more than xenophobia to banish people’s insecurities. The way to overcome resentment is economic growth—not to put up walls. The way to defeat Islamist terrorism is to enlist the help of Muslims—not to treat them as hostile. The main parties need to make that case loudly and convincingly.”

What is missing here is crucial. It is crucial to come to grips with glaring inequalities, unemployment, and other problems correctly identified by both the right and the left. And the solutions proposed by the left promises to lead to a better world, I submit. The solutions proposed by the right spell disaster. So while we welcome populism, in the manner here defined, we should also welcome the political conflict between the traditional left-wing and right-wing solutions to these economic problems. The important point here is that a populist democratic system gives much more room for the kind of political discussion, deliberation and conflict between ideas, that is helpful for a left-wing project, than an elitist system.

It is easier for Trump to gain support from a people not used to political deliberation than from a people well versed in it. It is easier to build a counterforce to, and to contain, an aggressive missionary nationalism in a political climate where people are not kept from, but trusted with, genuine political thinking aimed at granting them political power. Hence my claim that populism is part of the solution to problems we are now facing.

Footnotes & References

[1] Nelson Goodman,”Seven Strictures on Similarity”, in Problems and Projects, (Indianapolis and New York, The Bobbs-Merill Company, 1972), p. 443.

[2] Available from the Internet: https://theconversation.com/trump-victory-comes-with-a-silver-lining-for-the-worlds-progressives-68523?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20November%2013%202016%20-%206038&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20November%2013%202016%20-%206038+CID_9a75a06c3a6611f2a0018c7ce3abfaba&utm_source=campaign_monitor_uk&utm_term=writes%20former%20Greek%20finance%20minister%20Yanis%20Varoufakis

[3] Accessible from the Internet: https://books.google.se/books?id=0-cTAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Considerations+on+Representative+Government&hl=sv&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiW55qO4q_QAhUIdCwKHcfDDWUQ6AEILTAB#v=onepage&q=Considerations%20on%20Representative%20Government&f=false

Torbjorn Tannsjo
Torbjorn Tannsjo
Torbjorn Tannsjo is Kristian Claëson Professor of Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University. He has published extensively in moral philosophy, political philosophy, and bioethics. His most recent book is Taking Life. Three Theories on the Ethics of Killing (Oxford University Press, 2015), available directly from Oxford UP at: (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/9780190225582/?cc=us&lang=en&promocode=AAFLYG6). See also a recent interview at: (http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/the-hedonistic-utilitarian/).

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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