Populism is the idea that politics should be responsive to the people. From the very moment the term was coined in 1890s America, political elites have branded it a dirty word. America’s Populist Party, from which the term derives, advocated political heresies like the government regulation of railroad monopolies, monetary inflation to combat a protracted economic depression, the direct popular election of senators, and a progressive income tax to shift the burden of taxation onto the shoulders of the rich. Though the American populists never won a presidential election, over the next fifty years all of their major policy demands were transformed from outsider political demands into mainstream political common sense. The populists were dismissed, vilified, and finally suppressed, but they were right.
The Oxford English Dictionary, which can be trusted to rise above the fashion of the day, defines populism as “the policies or principles of any of various political parties which seek to represent the interests of ordinary people.” The key to understanding the passions raised by populism is that ill-defined but all-important qualifier, “ordinary.” In a democracy, nearly everyone wants to be seen as ordinary, typical, one of the crowd. It’s hard to find anyone who admits to being a member of the elite. In America, billionaire presidential candidates routinely claim to speak for ordinary people. In England, even royalty take pains to portray themselves as ordinary people who happen to live in palaces.
Yet one thing is certain: ordinary people do not ordinarily engage in politics. Populism is what we call it when they do. And though it may pain elite intellectuals to admit it, ordinary people ordinarily do not share the political priorities of the political class. Populism forces the political class to do something they are loath to do: debate policy with people who do not share their life experiences, their education levels, or their point of view.
Politicians and pundits with master’s degrees and doctorates are accustomed to engaging with opponents who resemble them very closely, people who live in the same kinds of neighborhoods, drive the same kinds of cars, shop in the same kinds of stores, drink in the same kinds of bars and cafes, and eat in the same kinds of restaurants. The leaders and staffers of all political parties attended the same schools and live very similar lives. Few of them have ever worked in a mine or factory, or even known someone who did. The spouses and children of politicians and pundits are far more likely to be doctors or lawyers, academics or journalists, than supermarket check-out clerks.
And so when the supermarket check-out clerks suddenly want to talk politics and have a say on policy, the political class typically has no idea how to respond, or even how to talk to them. That uneasiness regularly breaks out in the disparagement of people who lack educational credentials like university degrees. Members of the political class routinely suggest, only half in jest, that less-educated people shouldn’t have been allowed to vote for Brexit, that their support for Donald Trump is inspired by ignorance, or that Europeans parties that cater to them should be shunned and kept out of government.
This kind of political elitism is directly opposed to the very foundation of democracy as a mechanism for majority rule. Only a minority of people have university degrees, and even fewer have advanced degrees in politics or policy. In a democracy, it is incumbent on those who would govern to convince the population as a whole of the wisdom of their proposals and their fitness to rule. In a well-functioning democracy, members of the political class must be in constant contact with their constituents, talking to them, listening to them, and learning from them. When those lines of communication break down, the political class loses its most important connection to ordinary people. Populism is the demand of ordinary people to be consulted, and to have their voices heard.
Those voices are inevitably incoherent and diverse. The people do not speak with one voice; they speak with many. That’s why populists rarely govern, and when they do govern, they rarely govern for long. When they do gain power, they can only keep it by transforming themselves from rogue populists into practicing politicians. Few populist parties ever manage to make this transition; two of the most successful in recent years have been Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland. Both started as populist protest movements with deep roots in their respective societies, and both have since transformed themselves into highly professional political parties.
The key to their continued success is that, despite their professionalization and their time in government, they have stayed in touch with their supporters. In both countries, their main opponents have shunned contact with ordinary people, pointing instead to the endorsement of elite intellectuals, national peak bodies, and international organizations. India’s Congress Party and Poland’s Civic Platform both consider themselves to be the natural party of government in their respective countries, and in ordinary times, perhaps they are. But as long as they seek to legitimate their right to rule by references to established sources of authority, instead of seeking the direct mandate of the people, they will struggle to win elections in the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics.
Populist parties ultimately fail either by betraying the voters who elected them or falling out among themselves. In the former case, they forget their populist roots in their greed to embed themselves in the broader governing establishment. In the latter, they disintegrate and fizzle out. Either way, they cede political space for the rise of the next wave of populists. If the established parties learn how to listen to the electorate at large, that next populist wave may be decades in the making. If the establishment continues to shun the people, populism will break out all over again.
Populism is a potent force in democracy wherever political elites fail to listen to the people. Dismiss the less-educated majority of the population as a “basket of deplorables,” as the Democrat Hillary Clinton did in the 2016 US presidential election, and you can be sure to stoke a populist backlash. Dismiss the 47% of the population who don’t make enough money to pay incomes taxes as people who don’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” as the Republican Mitt Romney did in 2012, and you won’t win, either. Insult your would-be electorate by calling them “bigoted,” as the UK’s Labour leader Gordon Brown did in 2010, and you’ll lose by a landslide.
For the poor and less-educated are people too, and there are more of them than there are people who write for think tanks or run for political office. Populists understand that, and treat ordinary people with the dignity they deserve. Other politicians should learn from their example, and start listening too. When they do, they might find themselves reevaluating long-held dogmas, as they come to understand the needs and desires of the people they aspire to represent.
NOTE: This article was originally published on the website of the 2019 European Forum for New Ideas (EFNI).