The word populism has been thrown around with such carelessness and without any consideration to definitions that it quickly became a political buzzword. Indeed, what is populism?
Today, populism is an insulting label we spit at politicians we don’t like. Sometimes we mean autocrats – but that is a different thing. Maybe just an advanced stage of populism, but definitely not the same thing.
Organisations line up for the privilege of being the ultimate judge of these labels. Politicians then proceed to deny them – but only when it doesn’t flatter them.
In my definition – not that anyone cares – populism refers to an increasingly aggressive anti-reality sentiment of politicians, ultimately culminating in authoritarianism.
Many will (correctly) point out that this is the inevitable conclusion of a long process that started with the introduction of majority voting as a means to make decisions. Whereas majority voting is not a means to find out truth, or even to find the right decision – it is only to establish which option has more people behind it, maybe to ensure that they would also win in a fist fight, but now they don’t have to. (In a way, the whole thing is about replacing fist fights with other tools.)
But voting doesn’t constitute reality. It doesn’t create right, only might, just rebranded. Just as Millennials were dazzled by an advertising video, voters can be dazzled by … well, the same. It is an old cliche that politics was bound to turn into a reality show (sans deference to reality as it is customary in the genre) due to its emphasis on wooing voters. Communication was always bound to overtake substance and governance, the only surprise is that it took this long.
It took this long until politicians have lost all their inhibitions and gave way to unbridled lies, putting the emphasis on their image rather than people, on perception, rather than reality, on being popular, rather than even pretending to work in the public interest. And they didn’t just scheme – they also reacted to incentives from us: an image can’t be attacked, while a policy will always be. An image can spark emotions and emotions make voters move – rationality does not.
Naturally, the process was mutual. Just as politicians lowered their thresholds and regarded voters as increasingly dumb – voters reacted by lowering their own standards for politicians while regarding each other increasingly dumb. And when we all act like we are the only rational person in the room and all the others are misguided idiots – we all act like misguided idiots. And the prophecy fulfills itself.
Is this the essence of populism? Putting lies in the place of reality while doing damage to the citizens that they refuse to see? Perceptions say the politician is right, while reality … is silent? Does belief in a politician make him more potent? More competent? More benevolent? It certainly doesn’t.
In the end…
Communication replaces reality. Replaces substance. Replaces facts.
Communication replaces reality.
Communication replaced governance.
Just look at the job profile of political leaders. In the old days,after the war, they tended to be professionals. Of real professions.
There is still the odd chemist or business person. But when the overwhelming majority becomes career politicians or marketing pros, communication pros or entertainers, when they are influencers before they become rule-makers – you know that politics had degenerated too far. Not because there is anything wrong with these individuals per se – but because the system rewards perception over substance, performance over facts, image over reality.
Remember the asshole fairy that made you choose between having the attractive life or everyone believing it – but it didn’t let you to have both? Well, politicians have been visited by the asshole fairy and those who are still politicians had chosen the second.
What is success for a politician?
Handling the crisis or being popular for it? It is not the same thing.
Today, for a politician it is the poll numbers that decide whether he handled a crisis well. Not the economy, not the number of deaths in a pandemic – just the poll numbers and his support percentage. That is success, not the substance it is supposedly all about.
Making that swap is the first step for your opinion not to matter at all. If it can be changed without changing the underlying reality, if your perception is detached from your reality, you can be manipulated by ads and speeches, talking heads and billboards, soundbites rather than policies. And those ads will be bought on your money. And there will be no need to actually fix the road – only to communicate that the roads are awesome. Or that other people think that the roads are awesome. That will do.
Just look at the case of GDP versus the economy.
Since Bretton Woods we have this little number, the GDP, that we have come to identify with the goodness of the economy. As its inventor himself predicted, no one understands what it says and what it doesn’t -but it doesn’t matter anymore since it is so badly manipulated. We have come to demand the number to be big from our politicians – and a big number it is they deliver. The underlying economy can be a disaster to live in, impossible to get ahead in, let millions starve – the GDP number can still be up. That is the essence of perception vs reality.
Or take gaslighting by inflation.
Again, since around Bretton Woods we have this weird little number to describe – what exactly? You may now see with your own eyes that the price of things went up threefold in a month, that the price of housing had quadrupled in five years, that your salary remained the same – but it is only you. The inflation number says that prices were up only 2.4%. Indeed, we should be worried about deflation! During the last bout of hyperinflation in Europe there was no inflation statistics to gaslight people with it. Even the word ‘inflation’ didn’t exist as an economic term.
Today, a politician can be applauded for stabilizing the economy if the authorities churn out numbers that say that inflation was barely up while the GDP was growing. There. If you struggle, it is now your personal fault.
Perception above reality.
And it was all coded in the underlying fallacy that majority = reality/right/correct. A system where popularity (perception) beats competence (substance), where campaigning (communication) beats arguments (a closer proxy to reality), and where even governance could be replaced by communicating to citizens that we are doing better as a country. On their own dime.
Just tweet it a hundred times over and it becomes real.
The post is continued…