Quit crying over populism
Letter to the Editor | Monday, December 5, 2016
Since the election of Donald Trump, I’m hearing frequent laments over the rise of populism in the political sphere in this country. In “National Review,” Andrew McCarthy likens populism to Bacchanalia, and defines it as “doing what you know is wrong, heedless of harmful consequences — some unintended, others easily foreseeable — because the masses will perceive it as empathy,” proving conclusively he has never looked up the word in a dictionary. Bill Kristol in ‘The Weekly Standard” wrote that the principles of populism and constitutional liberty are mutually exclusive, and that he would permanently reject the former in order to preserve the latter.
Do any of those criticizing populism, including the two writers mentioned, actually know what populism is? Kristol said he would be “sympathetic to an enlightened populism,” as though that were an actual possibility. Enlightened populism is impossible, not because populism is some Neanderthal-esque residue from the blood-and-soil nature of the European far-right, but because populism isn’t an ideology; there is absolutely nothing to enlighten whatsoever. You can have enlightened Socialism, or enlightened Christian Democracy, but hoping to have enlightened Populism is like hoping to have an enlightened winter coat. What Kristol gets wrong is that, in order to be a Populist, the ideological position of what you say is totally irrelevant, but the manner in which that position is articulated is of the utmost importance. You cannot say, “Populists believe the following” because Populism has no beliefs at all. Populism is not an ideology. Populism is a style.
Let’s take an example of two individuals who align ideologically: Alexander Van der Bellen and Jean-Luc Melenchon, both prominent figures in the European socialist and social-democratic movements, who again, believe and discuss very similar things. Van der Bellen is running to be President of Austria on the Independent-Green ticket. Have you ever heard him speak? It is one of the single most mind-numbingly dull experiences you can ever have. I have been more entertained watching grey paint dry while having afternoon tea with my dead pet hamster. The opposite is true of Melenchon, the Populist French leader of the Parti Gauche, who again believes and discusses very similar things to Van der Bellen. During my time in the south of France, I happened to stumble (literally) into one of his rallies in Montpellier, and given I had some time; I thought I’d hear him out.
Maybe it was the fact that the French language naturally lends itself to Leninist rants on hastily constructed wooden stages, maybe it’s the fact that that evening I had been fortunate enough to ingest one glass too many of the fabulous wine of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, or maybe it was the magnificent rhetorical flair of the speaker that made the same dull ideas that Van der Bellen had discussed seem absolutely tantalizing. Let me make this abundantly clear, I’m a proud Capitalist, and I have the same reaction to a good quarter of earnings as a 13-year-old boy does to a Victoria’s Secret commercial, but even I found myself skipping on home humming “The Internationale” to myself that evening.
The difference is Melenchon is a populist; Van der Bellen is not. No matter how similar (and horrendous) their ideas are, they are always going to sound better coming from the firebrand Melenchon then they are from the decrepit Van der Bellen. The same can be said of any ideology in any country. Whether you’re a an Italian Centrist, a Scottish Nationalist, or an American Republican, Populism is nothing more than a marketing tool, designed to make your ideas seem exciting to your listener, irrespective of what those ideas actually are. Also, let’s not pretend that this is the first time populism has ever existed in the United States: Obama’s “hope and change” mantra was populist, Reagan’s Revolution was populist, Nixon’s silent majority was populist and oh right, before I forget, this country literally had a Populist Party.
So quit crying over populism. Disagree with Trump’s policies? Criticize the policies, sure, knock yourself out. But don’t sit there and weep at what you see as the looming specter of populism. Populism is a style, adopted by Warren, Sanders, Obama, Cruz, Ron Paul and Donald Trump. It’s the only thing any of them have in common, and has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the substance of their ideas. The hysteria surrounding Populism is, quite frankly, totally juvenile.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.