4 Wrong Questions To Ask About Populism

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

― Thomas Pynchon

At best, you burn your efforts in vain. At worst, you contribute to the problem.

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled about populism – and an unfortunate amount of it has been about the wrong questions. So let us get a few unfruitful questions out of the way – before we move on to the more productive ones.

1. No, populism doesn’t speak your mind

Defenders say that populism is useful inasmuch as it brings up the issues that large parts of the population care about, but that the political elites want to avoid discussing. It sounds fantastic, unless one understands the power of framing and omission. An unreflective diagnosis of problems and quick-fix solutions are the opposite of helpful. So are neglecting the power of bottom-up cooperation in favour of the top-down “strongman” approach.

Yes, established elites worked hard to make their own lives comfortable – but that doesn’t make the populists right.

Populism is the wrong framing of issues as well as the complete omission of the individual’s ability to deal with them. In other words, pointing  at scary things (that may or may not be the actual issue) – and disempowering the audience.

There is no such thing as neutrally bringing up issues. The way we ask (frame) an issue pretty much decides what we think about it. Without conscious deliberation we skip the actual debate and jump straight to dangerously immoral and simplistic solutions.

Another subset of the “speaking our minds” fallacy is when populist followers behave like oppressed, little animals and genuinely believe that they are not allowed to talk about things. So the keep talking about it.

In Hungary it comes in the shape of countless internet (and IRL) trolls, who swear that it is not allowed to talk about migrants. So they do. Relentlessly. All the time. Violently. They attack anyone with the slightest tolerance towards migrants. And they kiss the hands of their populist masters, who also keep talking about migrants all the time. On government.

The feeling of being oppressed doesn’t always correlate with actually being oppressed.

Talking about correlations…

The right question: On Correlation and Conflation

Just because two issues vaguely feel like correlating in someone’s mind – doesn’t mean that

  1. they actually correlate, and that
  2. they can be tackled by the same blunt and instinctive tool.

Yet that is exactly what populism does. Conflating issues is dangerous because we use the wrong tool to attack either of the problems. The proposed, rushed solutions then become part of the problem.

And that happens even when the scary things the populist talks about are real and relevant. But sometimes they are not.

Because what we call “someone finally talking about our problems” is actually the populist picking his own battles. Instead of the ones we really should fight. He picks battles (enemies) he looks good fighting and serve his political power grab well – not the issues that actually affect the population. (Yes, that is what non-populists do as well, more about that later.)

It may sound like “giving a name to your fears” or “speaking your mind”. But no, a populist does not “speak your mind”. He is focusing your attention to (unsolvable) threats.

Pointing out scary things is not “speaking your mind”. The populist recounts scary things at you – and offers himself as a solution.

Let me explain the “speaks our mind” fallacy through the topic of migration. When dissecting the actual problem, it turns out that people fear pretty much everything – except people crossing borders.

A sober mind would address these issues separately and each with the appropriate tools. A fearful mind wants a magic bullet (often an actual bullet) – delivered by someone who is empowered – unlike himself.

Immigrants!” is not a defined problem. A defined problem sounds like this:

  • Fear of unemployment – But that’s economics. Trying to tackle an economic problem by means of law enforcement is a political sin.
  • Cultural/civilisatory differences – Cannot be dealt with by walls. Authoritarian attitudes to state, religion, and family are to be handled by secularism and strict equality before the law. Not by creating a counter-identity. Besides, it is always the local authoritarians that fret the immigrants’ authoritarian culture the most. Not those, whose values really stand against fundamentalism.
  • Cost of refugee camps might be an issue – But then one should ask why refugees should be stored in camps indefinitely. Especially since it makes the cultural differences and resentment even sharper and assimilation near impossible.
  • Welfare spending might very well be out of kilt – regardless of foreigners benefiting from it. Linking the two issues implies that the current welfare spending would be viable if only immigrants didn’t exist. And this unspoken lie makes the welfare mirage even more toxic.
  • Public safety – must be dealt with by the usual means – not segregating the wrong kind of people, forcing them into idleness, hopelessness, and resentment.
  • Terrorists using the human trafficking routes is a huge issue. – And this is where the sin of conflating two topics becomes the most obviously dangerous. Terrorism must be tackled professionally – by means developed for it.

Every solution suggested by a populist is just another form of “make it go away”.

2. Populism is not anti-establishment.

Another dead end of populism research is that it’s anti-establishment, whereas plenty of incumbents have also used populism to cement their power and dazzle their electorate. Also, plenty of people are disillusioned from mainstream or establishment politics – and still don’t support populist candidates.

Let’s just agree that these are two different things: being a populist and being disappointed by the establishment. The distinction is especially important because the day will come when these “anti-establishment” populists become the establishment – and all the problems with populism will still be in place.

Elites can be populistic. All they need is claiming to be “the people”.

Not representing them, but being them. They can even beat up one segment of voters by claiming to represent the other segment – i.e. “the people”. It is, indeed, just a game of divide and conquer.

I would therefore replace anti-elitism with a broader problem of the dissolution of individual perspectives. In everyday conversations it normally surfaces when authoritarian followers inexplicably identify with their leaders.

Populism is the dissolution of individual perspectives

Authoritarians view the world from the viewpoint of their leaders. They practically view themselves (but certainly their own kind) as pawns on a great chessboard of global leaders. They unilaterally identify with strong leaders and you can confuse them to no end by pointing out that they are not their leaders – and ask them to think from their own, personal perspective.

Populism makes people feel helpless – so people vote for more power to the leader to regain control. Never mind that it is not possible in practice.

The benefits of identifying with the strongman include empowering oneself – by proxy. This is also why authoritarian people applaud the demolition of checks and balances. The rule of law is an alien concept for authoritarians, who imagine their leaders to be above the law for effectiveness’ sake.

when the president does it…

Authoritarians fear the limitations on power more than power itself. And populism is just one symptom of authoritarian thinking. 

Someone, who is capable of identifying with his leaders will always be susceptible to populism – and other vices on the authoritarianism spectrum. It’s only that sometimes politicians choose not to use it for evil.

3. Populism is neither left nor right

Populism is not about certain policies – it runs much deeper than that.

Leszek Balcerowicz once defined populism as a policy promise that is known to cause damage if enacted. But that would imply that a populist always knows that he is doing damage. I have, however, no ambitions to judge on their intelligence.

What I can tell without judging their powers of intellect is comparing their policies and point out they are identical on a not-so-abstract level. And populist policies are identical because they all rest on the same, primitive premise:

Stoke fear and helplessness. Grab power to deal with the threat. Never deliver. Keep the power.

Expropriation is expropriation when it’s justified ethnically, racially, based on gender or nationality. An enemy is an enemy, whether it is human or a natural catastrophe. A war is a war whether it is justified by an enemy attack or an incoming meteorite.

It is unhelpful to focus on the actual policies. Rational analyses tackling populist policy proposals fall on deaf ears in an emotionally motivated audience.

4. The “What would Chavez do” fallacy 

This thinking model is not limited to unfree societies.

Populism is not the reserved tool for anti-democratic leaders. It is practiced by pretty much every politician at some point in their careers.

Populism is the tool that turns a democracy into authoritarianism – so trying to define it as something that only happens to countries that are declared unfree is futile. It is the “What would Chavez do” fallacy.

Authoritarian thinking pattern can come from many sources, internalised through many channels. It is mostly the combination of socialisation (often by previous generations), and current circumstances (such as the fear caused by economic or security threat).

An overwhelming authority can impose itself

  1. By force – in authoritarian regimes
  2. Or by offering more and more safety and security to a free society. Through welfare.

An overwhelming welfare state is just as capable to rob its victims from their sense of agency and make them fearful and helpless as an authoritarian dictatorship. Oppressed people as well as welfare recipients become frozen in their own inability to modify their environment. Both cause the erosion of trust in one’s own competence and the inability to improve one’s own life through individual effort. Both crowd out voluntary charity and cooperation (such as entrepreneurial risk taking).

And when people project their own learned helplessness onto society as a whole, the result is an inexplicable tolerance to the overgrowth of power. Anyone offering to tackle the threats (economic or security) will get a disproportionate amount of attention and support.

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Featured image: 1955 at the Berlin Wall – Guards discuss the fate of a woman, who tried to cross

One thought on “4 Wrong Questions To Ask About Populism

  1. Pingback: The Thin Line Between Popularity And Populism | Meanwhile in Budapest

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