The Thin Line Between a Politician and a Populist

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

–Groucho Marx

And so is populism.

So where do we draw the line between business-as-usual political fearmongering and dangerous populism without restraint?

Politician is a person, who wants power and pretends to be anyone and anything to get it. A populist is the politician with the least inhibitions. 

There is a continuous scale ranging from a politician innocently picking his own battles (i.e. distracting from the real problems by bringing up new ones that he looks best while tackling) – to an uninhibited populist, creating monsters in order to become one.

Because the logical end game of a populist is to become the threat himself

Pandering to fear is rightly a staple of populism-research. But it is not just populists who apply this tactic – they only drive it to its extreme. Every politician uses fear to a certain degree. In fact, the legitimacy of the state is built on preparing for threats. A politician, by definition, must appeal to fear – even if it’s only vague and distant, like the uncertainty of old age.

Whether a politician or a policy is populistic can therefore be a matter of degrees. Refraining from populism is a question of self-moderation.

Political elites have a responsibility because the emotions, feelings, traits and vices they choose to appeal to become legitimised in political discourse. If they feed fear – it will grow. If they feed envy – it will become a legitimate vice. If they suggest that citizens are helpless in dealing with threats – they will be.

So what is populism?

Populism is appealing to and stoking fear and the sense of helplessness.

Anything you subsidize, legitimise, pamper or appease – will eventually grow. Weakness, inability, offence seeking are cases in point. A system designed to help the weak, disabled or shelter the easily hurt is also a system inadvertently favouring these people in a way. And thus create an incentive. When finding offence is rewarded by attention and political power – it grows. So does fear and helplessness in the face of (real or imaginary) threats.

Regardless of whether those threats actually exist or whether they threaten you or not, fear becomes a political entity on its own right. Your fear will always be listened to – so you try to wrap every argument in the approved packaging of fear. Your mind starts to work that way, you start to focus on it, and it will grow.

Fear is bad for you. And bad for everyone. Fear must be dealt with and eliminated – but all politicians can do is keep appealing to it. No politician has ever suggested that people are perfectly capable of dealing with their own lives. Least of all a populist.

A populistic politician stokes fear in order to harvest it and builds his power on it.

The fact that subsidizing poverty creates an incentive does not mean that we should completely stop paying attention to poverty. Same goes with fear. But there is a thin line between informing people about threats – and of fear becoming a self-serving political tool. Information about the world is useful – as long as it doesn’t fill one with debilitating dread that causes helpless inaction and a desire for a strongman to fight the dragons. But populists revel in focusing every attention on fear. In other words, disempowerment.

Degrees of fear-mongering

  1. Informations about threats (handled in its place)
  2. Reminders to threats
  3. Bringing them to the forefront of attention
  4. Lying about them
  5. Causing them
  6. Creating them
  7. Becoming the threat

Fear as a problem in itself

Take the fire evacuation plan of a crowded venue. It never suggests to cry “FIRE!” loudly while evacuating the building – and for a reason. Not even during a fire drill. Panic does damage of its own.

A populist is someone, who stands up on stage in a crowded concert hall and cries “Fire!” – even when the building is not on fire.

But not just panic, the constant state of debilitating fear is also a strain on a society.

And fear can be of an enemy, a threat, or even of the dictator himself.

Better feared than loved

Every student knows that

Machiavelli = better-feared-than-loved

But not many of them can actually remember why. So let me quote the Master:

…because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

— Machiavelli

And this is the reason why fear is a ore solid foundation for power than popularity:

  1. Fear is in the hands of the politician – love is in the minds of and up to the people
  2. A politician can create (a reason to) fear, but he cannot create a reason for popularity.

When politicians can’t compete in solving problems – they’ll start competing in invoking them. Sometimes even in creating them. And this is why being the reason of fear is not the worst thing that can befall a leader.

Fear is not “inescapable”. Not “human nature”. Stoking fear is not “better” than empowering voters. It is simply easier for a populist to use than for a non-populist to defuse.

Receptiveness to populism is the easy way out for the voters too. It is moral and intellectual complacency in the face of (real or perceived) threats. Whatever you feel is right. Whatever you are angry/worried about – the populist will tell you you were right. He gives contours to it and says it out loud like you never could. But it doesn’t make you right – or the threat real. And the populist solution is definitely bogus.

At the end of the populistic life-cycle is when the populist (now dictator) becomes the threat to his country himself.

Populism transforms a democracy (freedom) into authoritarianism (unfreedom)

It is probably worth to reiterate: The problem with populism is not a matter of taste, style, or policy. Populism is a problem because it is the path that takes a society from democracy to authoritarianism. Populism offers the Vote To End All Votes, a vote for the strongman to solve our problems.

This is also why the study of authoritarianism is relevant to understand the dynamics of populism.

Populism is all down to authoritarian thinking

Which sounds boring and academic, but it is actually the name of the kind of thinking pattern that emerges from prolonged fear and helplessness.

Depending on whom you read, authoritarian thinking pattern includes the following:

  • Fondness for order and submissiveness to authority
  • Seeking  out and enforcing hierarchies
  • Conformity – Fear of difference and the powerful need to homogenise society – materialising in general aggressiveness directed against deviants, minorities, out-groups and politically appointed scapegoats
  • Fear of outsiders (xenophobia)
  • Admiration of strength and hatred for and aggression against the weak
  • Often materilaising in victim blaming (which is more precisely aggression towards the weak and the underdog)
  • Taking the viewpoint of the group or the leader – resulting in majoritarianism and the loss of one’s own perspective
  • An acute feeling of structural helplessness – even when accompanied by loud belligerence on the surface
  • Impatience with the rule of law and enabling the strongman (as a proxy to fight one’s own sense ofhelplessness)
  • Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms (another expression for the need for predictability and the reduction of uncertainty)

Why this desire to homogenise?

Xenophobia, antisemitism, nationalism, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, you name it. Populistic voters appear to hate everyone that’s different (especially when their leader points out whom to hate). But hatred is not a thing. These voters are fearful of difference.

Anti-plurality is one of the most striking features of populism (authoritarian thinking). It can be safely described as as the culmination of

  • Fear of the unknown and seeing other-ness as threatening as opposed to interesting or an opportunity
  • Which is readily stoked by populist leaders, whose approach is to divide and conquer. Seeding mistrust and stoking hatred for various sub-groups of society is the lazy way to create an in-group. It generally helps when the hated group is visible (race) or easily identifyable (ethnicity) – but it can be based on anything from wealth to birth and to gender or age. A populist could just as easily stoke inter-generational hatred as he does with ethnic or religious groups – and when the divided generations feel conered they will readily find the reason to hate/fear each other.
  • Comfort of the in-group, creating dysfunctional trust (more about that in the next post).

There is no ‘Us’ without ‘Them’

A politician would try to stoke national pride. A populist doesn’t mind to add the other side of the coin: hatred for the out-group.

National pride is the only coin in the world that has only one side: loving our kind more. Miraculously, it doesn’t come with loving others less. Unless the politician is being populistic.

The shortest way to explain populism’s extreme desire to homogenise humanity is fear of the unknown. Intolerance towards difference, trying to reduce the number of unknowns – even if in one’s own head – is a reaction to anxiety and helplessness. No matter how loud and belligerent they are, no matter how threatening they behave, the underlying issue is fear.

And again, this tendency is not a left or right thing. The desire to live in a homogeneous society where everyone is easily identifiable happens to anyone, who is anxious. Some want others to live the exact same lives (man, woman, marry, baby, church, car, etc.) and are anxious of any divergence of this model. Some call them conservatives or right wing.

Others can tolerate life role divergence – as long as everyone has roughly the same amount of resources. I believe this is what people vaguely describe as left wing, but it is homogenisation nonetheless. It comes from the same place.

Other forms of homogenisation are outlawed and discredited, such as race or religion – but it doesn’t stop the vast majority of humans on this planet from practicing it. The dynamics of dysfunctional trust and survival mentality have a lot to answer for.

That is the topic of the next post.

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Featured image: The exterior of the Machiavelli’s

6 thoughts on “The Thin Line Between a Politician and a Populist

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