Stop blaming 'populism' for everything

The word “populism” is being used to explain almost every trend or event of 2016, including Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as America’s next President, and shifts in French, German, Italian, Dutch and Austrian politics.

The term “populism” has been used interchangeably with “right-wing politics” and “nationalism.” Now the magazine Foreign Affairs is blaming autocratization on “populism.” Yet — despite using the semantic frame “populism” in practically every other line — it doesn’t define “populism,” provides no evidence, ignores the fact that the current wave of autocratization began at least a decade ago, and ignores prior explanations for this wave, such as the retreat of the greatest democracy of them all (the United States) and the European Union’s tolerance of autocratization at the national level so long as it expands and centralizes at the supra-national level.

populism graphicI was a child when I was first taught that you can’t study anything if you can’t define it, yet “populism” is being used by the great commentators and editors of our time to explain the great phenomena of our time, without definitions, evidence or theory, and with prejudice.

Reducing complexities to ill-defined prejudices is the defining attribute of our “post-truth society,” but this too has been blamed on “populism.” For instance, lobbyists who nominally campaign for science — and who characterize their opponents as anti-scientific, “populist,” and “post-truth” — turn out to be lobbyists for partisan agendas. They are the drivers of the post-truth society that they claim to oppose. Truth is impossible in a society that can’t define what it is talking about, or reduces everything to a single phenomenon.

Appropriately, the people who try to define the term “populism” tend to be critics of its promiscuous use. The magazine The Economist treated populism as “the idea that there are simple solutions to national problems that involve no trade-offs,” although that sounds like routine politics to me. More accurately, the newspaper The Daily Mail went to the dictionary to define populism as any claim “to support the interests of ordinary people,” and observed that the term “populism” is the “new buzzword” for left-wing newspapers and broadcasters (including the BBC) for criticizing popular right-wing trends, even though populism — by definition and practice — can be both left-wing or right-wing. For example, the BBC chose to report the European Central Bank’s warning about “political risks” as a warning against “populism” – but the European Central Bank never mentioned “populism,” and the BBC never defined “populism”!

Most accusations of “populism” are aimed at strawmen. In June 2016, the popular way to explain Britain’s popular vote to leave the European Union (Brexit) was as a “populist” protest by an ethnic and socioeconomic minority. The same flawed forecast before the vote became the dominant flawed explanation after the vote — a typical description of the supposed caucus is “older white workers with modest education that have been passed over,” without explaining how this minority commanded the majority of votes. Worse, many analysts simply dismissed Brexiteers as having no substantive reasons at all — as “fantasists” whose “appeals to passion have left no space for rational persuasion.” They woefully ignored the pre-vote evidence from Brexiteers themselves that their objectives were substantively political (sovereignty, border security, social cohesion, local democracy, globalized trade, repatriation of revenues, and an end to welfare tourism) or cultural (“we want our country back”).

Researchers at Harvard University have proven that the rising support for “populist” parties globally is more cultural than economic, although even they did not test for the political values (such as sovereignty) that probably under-lie the cultural values (such as a rediscovery of national identity). Yet most characterizations of “populists” are of the economically marginalized.

Reducing everything to “populism” is ignoring the real issues that motivate people. To analyze Brexiteers by only their socioeconomic status (as the anti-poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation did) or their race/ethnicity (as America’s National Public Radio did) is a self-fulfilling prophecy for self-interested reasons.

In social scientific terms, it is also a bivariate fallacy — looking at only one relationship without controlling for others. Voters always divide socio-economically and ethnically; finding such a divide is unprofound and misleading, unless one controls for political and cultural divisions that might be larger than, or the cause of, any ethnic or socio-economic division. Most analysts never controlled for anything else when they went looking for ethnic or socio-economic explanations for the votes of 2016; hence, they found only ethnic or socio-economic explanations.

Similarly, the magazine Foreign Affairs dismissed Donald Trump’s support as “populist” and “ethno-nationalist” — this analysis, about a month before Trump’s victory, now looks embarrassingly reductionist. That same magazine, like most news outlets, rushed to find the political and cultural issues that it previously ignored, without the humility to admit its own mistakes. Instead, it allowed an article (by a different author) that declared that “Trump’s victory was predictable,” except that the pollsters got it wrong!

Other analysts focused on gender or sexuality in Trump’s campaign. The magazine The Atlantic claimed that his victory “sends a message…that it is permissible to talk about women as little more than sex objects”, but it had no evidence, and it did not theorize that voters could have voted for Trump for all sorts of reasons other than gender or sexuality, while disagreeing with Trump’s positions on gender or sexuality. Even if the US general election could be reduced to one issue, such as gender, why did more than 42 percent of American women vote for Trump, if the election was a referendum on how women can be treated? The magazine was being reductionist, to the detriment of the complex political and cultural issues in particular.

Another effect of reductionism is to allow for false analogies: Back in June 2016, the magazine Newsweek claimed to observe “a similar mix of fear and fantasy” in Brexit’s and Trump’s “populist” supporters, while the New York Times reduced “populism” to “the same anger fueling the candidacy of Mr. Trump” as Brexit, as if British dissatisfaction with the European Union can possibly be reduced to American dissatisfaction with its domestic politics!

Subsequently, both Brexit and the prospectus for Calexit have been blamed on undefined “populism,” but Brexit was a popular vote by citizens of a sovereign state to separate from a supra-national institution, while Calexit is an unpopular and hopelessly illogical proposal for a province (California) to separate from a sovereign state (the United States of America).

Another false analogy is to characterize both Calexit and the election of Donald Trump as “populist,” but Calexit’s proposers argued (page 11) that Calexit gives California’s liberal majority a chance to separate from America’s conservative majority — yes, that means Calexit is anti-Trump and thus also anti-populist (if Trump can be reduced to populism), yet reductionists have explained away both Trump and Calexit as “populist.”

Most uses of the term “populism” seem to be motivated by left-wing denial of substantive opposition to the left-wing or “liberal consensus.” The emerging problem with the “liberal consensus” has been the conceit that it commands the truth. Liberals still command the truth on climate change, but on other issues they lost touch, as their misforecasts and mischaracterizations of 2016 have proven.

Liberals are stuck in a post-truth society of their own making, unless they adopt a more defined, less reductionist, and less prejudicial approach. First, they should stop reducing all their opposition to undefined “populism.” Second, they should engage with what their opponents’ substantive issues, instead of caricatures of their own creation.

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