To the minds of most, there is little doubt that a revolutionary change has begun to grip the world in the past few years – one reviled by many as a scourge of the modern era, yet celebrated by millions more as a boon for the future. To capture the nature of this change in a single word, is to label it populism. Whether it be the shock election of a man whose campaign was driven by anti-establishment fervor, or the exponential rise in popularity of an infamous far-right French politician, populism is the clear lens through which one must view the events of the world today. However, I believe that the politics of populism are the politics of inevitable failure, and I shall be discussing my views in this piece.
To begin, populism, in the long term, brings about great harm to the political landscape of any country. Populism, on a fundamental level, encourages greatly an individual to adopt a slew of dirty tactics in order to seize a political victory. Many, seeking to win the hearts and minds of the people, offer up an endless stream of unsubstantiated claims and questionable evidence, tapping on raw emotion and confirmation bias. Some appear to not have a single real policy stance, picking a stand for what suits the present situation best on a whim. Politicians on the side of the ‘Leave’ campaign in the 2016 Brexit vote, at one point, claimed that the UK sends £350 million a week to the European Union that could otherwise be spent on the NHS, a claim that has since been debunked by practically every institution imaginable. This does not even begin to scratch the surface of the extent to which populist candidates have gone to “relate” to the people’s priorities. Deplorable precedents will be set, opening an unnecessary peek into the door of a dystopian society, with the public permanently trapped in a maze of misinformation. Mere shouting matches of increasingly blatant falsehoods, disguised under the pathetic veil of political debate, deeply damages the intrinsic value of democracy, where the State is crafted in line with the true desires of the people.
Furthermore, populism facilitates the infection of government with inexperience. Donald Trump, perhaps the most prominent populist of today’s times, is defined by inexperience. His roots as a businessman and TV personality say more than enough on his near total lack of any actual substantive knowledge on US policy, from both domestic and international angles. Trump struggles to make a deal on the likes of DACA legislation, for instance. He repeatedly makes agreements with the Democrats and almost immediately after backs off of said agreements, highlighting clearly his own perpetual confusion as to what policy measures undertaken would most effectively fit a vision of a Trumpian conservative government. The model of Trump is the model of many populist candidates. Given the right understanding of the electorate’s mood, anyone can depict an image of showmanship and sincerity, but few can offer legitimate policies and visions for the true betterment of their society. Governments would now be more easily be taken over by those who are blind to the tools of effective governance, and can further be easily manipulated by the politically deft, be it the leader of a foreign enemy or a politician from the opposing party. Should such a trend persist, governments will be run in the vein of cars being driven by those without a license; barrelling only in the direction of disaster.
However, some side with the doctrine of populism. They argue that politics as usual has failed, and there rises an urgent need for a far more effective alternative. They cite years of political gridlock in the US government, countless terrorist attacks in France, and the supposed ‘tainting’ of European culture with the flood of refugees into the region, as evidences of governments in the world remaining deaf to the concerns of the people, arguing that populism offers a proverbial breath of fresh air sorely needed today. However, I disagree. Government reform is not binary, and to completely upend the ideals of a proven system, one which has benefited society for decades, for a largely unproven one would be folly. One need not reform Nazi Germany by establishing a Soviet Union. Blindly veering off to a less credible alternative would only worsen the deterioration of government felt by the people under the status quo. At the end of the day, substantive policies reign supreme over mere glitz and a pretty picture.
To conclude, I believe the rise of populism is ultimately of no benefit, and I argue that visionary leadership and gradual reform of politics is the most legitimate path to enact real and positive change, and satisfy increasingly displeased societies the world over.
Benedict Chang 18A13
Image credits (in order of appearance):