Populism bothers me; I don’t really trust it. Which seems fair enough since populists certainly wouldn’t trust me. It’s not that I’m too left wing; there are plenty of left-wing populists (Mao was an example). No, the problem with me is that I am too intellectual.

Populists don’t believe in intellectuals or more precisely, they don’t believe in rational analysis. They prefer appeals to common sense, that is, to raw emotion. Populists operate on the basis that the people are always right, that their instincts are always the correct ones.

As a democrat, this appeal to the people has a certain attractiveness. Shouldn’t the wishes of the people always be supreme in a democratic society? Perhaps, but the narrowest definition of democracy — some Greeks called it ‘rule by the mob’  — can result in simple ‘majority rule’ where the rights of the minority or of the individual are crushed by the demands and desires of the many.

Then there is the problem of what constitutes a majority. The only real way to know would be if every eligible voter voted on every single issue (which in the USA has led to people voting for contradictory propositions on the same ballot). Since most of them don’t vote in general elections (41% voted in the American mid-terms) this is a fairly high bar. So we generally say that a majority of those voting is sufficient. But with first past the post systems and with most decisions being made by elected representatives we can easily and usually do have majority government elected by a plurality (large minority) of those voting.

Populism doesn’t care about that at all — because populism tends to believe (if a movement can believe anything) that the will of the people is encapsulated in the words of the leader. And of course it is the charismatic leader rather than any other political element that is central to the populist system. Put your faith in the Glorious Leader and all will unfold as it should.

Which, of course, is where my disagreement with populist politics and politicians begins and ends. I don’t trust other people — especially not glorious leaders — to protect my rights or even to remotely do the right thing. Once people give themselves over to charismatic leaders to express (or likely define) the popular interest, then anything becomes possible. Not every populist movement becomes a fascist —left or right wing totalitarianism are largely indistinguishable— party but every fascist party began as a populist movement.

So when you hear a politician talk about common sense, they are calling on you to rely on gut instinct and raw emotion to make decisions. Those functions (as useful as they might be in evolutionary terms) are singularly unhelpful as a means of running a complex modern society. If we are really all going to get along, we need thoughtfulness and reason, as weak as those tools sometimes are.

Or we can all just hand it over to the Leader and do what he tells us we want to do anyway. And if we have a little niggle that maybe we shouldn’t — those are counter revolutionary thoughts and must be stomped out. Re-education anyone?

But that’s ten minutes.


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