There's a reason populists tend to lose elections

In a democracy, the "people" are the supreme arbiters, and their wisdom speaks through the electoral process. Such is the assumption on which the modern world has been built since God and monarchs began to fade from the scene. Lately, however, the wisdom of the people has felt a bit off-key. In one country after another, from the Philippines to the United States, Hungary to India, the people have chosen to boost demagogues, not to mention serial gropers.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's faith in extrajudicial murder may have actually helped boost his approval ratings to nearly 90 per cent. The brazen homophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism of Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party haven't dented its popularity in the slightest. In recent weeks, xenophobic sentiments have been amplified in Britain, the world's oldest democracy, by a government borrowing from the playbook of the far-right UK Independence Party (Ukip).

It's not surprising that most mainstream journalists neither anticipated nor can satisfactorily explain the startlingly worldwide rise in demagoguery - a kind of extreme democracy that threatens to derail economic globalisation and radicalise political life. Their worldview was shaped by the dominant ideology of the post-Cold War era: progress through technocratic capitalism and liberal-democratic trustees.

As Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau wrote last month, "many pundits, myself included, had their formative years from the 1980s onwards". The Soviet empire had imploded, discrediting not only communism but also a broad range of social-democratic ideals. In the 1990s, major politicians of the centre-left (Mr Bill Clinton, Mr Tony Blair, Mr Gerhard Schroeder) as well as the conservative right took to advocating greater deregulation and privatisation. Their consensus found a responsive echo in the media.  

The Populist Explosion: How The Great Recession Transformed American And European Politics, a short book by John B. Judis, shows why journalists who have a sense of history, and its irony, need not be bewildered by the astonishing revolt against globalised elites in our time. Judis' ambit is broad: It includes Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the People's Party in Denmark as well as Trumpism in America. But he defines his subject precisely.

Populists, for instance, should not be confused with authoritarians and despots; they embrace the "democratic competition for power" instead of subverting it. Furthermore, populism "is not an ideology" but a political and moral rhetoric that pits ordinary people (noble victims) against elites (treacherously self-serving). Such a definition allows Judis to trace a genealogy of populism, from the American People's Party of 1892 (which brought the term into circulation) to Ms Marine Le Pen's National Front of 2016.

It's not surprising that most mainstream journalists neither anticipated nor can satisfactorily explain the startlingly worldwide rise in demagoguery - a kind of extreme democracy that threatens to derail economic globalisation and radicalise political life.

It allows him to make careful distinctions between left and right versions of populism, to distinguish between Senator Bernie Sanders and Mr Donald Trump. "Left-wing populists," he writes, "champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top."

On the other hand, "right-wing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists or African-American militants".

Populists of both kinds tend to enjoy limited success, and often fail to cross the electoral threshold. For one thing, their definition of the people is too vague: Mr Trump's, for instance, includes both Ivy League students burdened with debt and blue-collar workers suffering from extensive de-industrialisation.

Such a people, united by anger and disaffection, can be easy to mobilise but hard to consolidate, especially when populists find themselves making hard political choices.

The populists don't help their own cause by making demands that seem impossible in the present conditions, such as Mr Sanders' "Medicare for all". They are better at devising catchy slogans: "1 per cent versus the 99 per cent".

Still, the impracticality of their schemes for taking back control doesn't lessen the massive influence of populists. They are the symptoms of a crisis, an unmistakable sign that the old consensus has broken down and needs to be replaced with something politically more acceptable.

 As Judis writes, "their demands may be co-opted by the major parties or they may be thoroughly rejected. But the populists roil the waters". In the US, he points out, populists from the 1890s to the segregationist George Wallace in the 1960s "have had an outsized impact". Certainly, Mr Sanders and Mr Trump have already forced Mrs Hillary Clinton out of many of her previously held positions on free trade. Ukip leader Nigel Farage claimed accurately last week that his party has "changed the centre of gravity of British politics".

However, the wisdom of the people, manifested lately by demagogues, has to reckon with the wisdom, often more arbitrary, of global markets. The pound is sliding amid fears of a "hard Brexit", and Scottish nationalists threaten secession. The very attempt by populists to take back control is making the future uncontrollable.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2016, with the headline 'There's a reason populists tend to lose elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe