Friday 23 August 2019

Ineptitude of the establishment more to blame for the mess than populism

A journalist holds a poster with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin, France’s far-right National Front president Marine Le Pen and US president-elect Donald Trump during a protest in Moscow last week. Photo: AP
A journalist holds a poster with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin, France’s far-right National Front president Marine Le Pen and US president-elect Donald Trump during a protest in Moscow last week. Photo: AP
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Establishment politicians lost control of the political narrative this year and have decided to blame populism for their weakening grasp on power.

In the UK and the US, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have resulted in an earthquake that shook the tectonic plates of a previously stable political system beyond all recognition.

Unable or unwilling to explain the magnitude of their loss by criticising their own miserable performances throughout both campaigns, establishment politicians have settled on populism as the root cause of their woes.

Implicit in this analysis is that it is knuckle-dragging voters, gormlessly following charlatan pied-pipers in the guise of Nigel Farage and Mr Trump, who bear responsibility for the resultant mess.

The plebs, you see, were not clever enough, or rational enough, to have seen through the miasma of hyperbole and lies that constituted the Brexit and US presidential campaigns.

Mr Farage and Mr Trump, in simple language devoid of the contrived managerial jargon that characterises most political rhetoric, told the people that they would deliver jobs and security and the people believed them.

Or, at least, they opted to give them a chance, having grown tired of hearing similar promises from so-called 'sensible' politicians for years that never seemed to be fulfilled after elections.

While it is true to say that Mr Farage and Mr Trump gleefully whipped up hate and fear in a cynical ploy to win votes, the establishment found itself unable to counteract these divisive tactics.

The reason for this failure is not populism, but a loss of trust. People no longer have faith in liberal politics to improve their lives - and the fault for that lies with liberal politicians who have been so in thrall to corporations and globalism that they have forgotten the people they are supposed to represent.

The fact that a former stockbroker and billionaire real-estate developer are leading the charge against rampant capitalism is utterly ludicrous. But what does it say about how discreditable traditional politics has become that these two frauds seem to be getting away with their con job?

Blaming populism for Brexit and Mr Trump lets establishment politicians off the hook. It absolves them of responsibility for degrading faith in politics to the extent that previously unthinkable victories by Mr Farage and Mr Trump have become realities.

It also suggests that establishment politicians themselves are too principled and sophisticated to engage in anything as vulgar as populism when this is patently not the case.

Politicians have always won elections by appealing to their base, which is at the core of populism - telling the people what they want to hear and giving them what they want.

It's just that in the case of Mr Farage and Mr Trump, the base being appealed to was not the traditional middle-class voter but rather a working and lower middle-class demographic that feels alienated and left behind.

As political leaders, Mr Trump and Mr Farage may be despicable and dangerous, but they won and that should cause at least some self-reflection among establishment politicians instead of a reflexive outsourcing of blame to the oiks who voted for them.

This doesn't mean that there needs to be a race to the bottom - but that politicians need to start representing the interests of the many instead of the few and that liberal values need to be defended with some genuine enthusiasm instead of technocratic spin.

The media will not be able to save them. They will have to do it themselves. Hillary Clinton had endorsements from every reputable newspaper in the United States and won every single television debate, but she still lost.

Now that lofty articles from the 'New York Times' and the ravings of anonymous conspiracy theorists all look the same, aesthetically at least, online, it has become harder for the media to act as a bulwark against demagoguery.

Throughout the campaign, Mr Trump's lies and bluster were repeatedly exposed, but other than a brief dip in his poll ratings, it didn't seem to matter. A veritable political cockroach, he survived every single scandal.

With establishment politicians across the Western world now unanimous in the belief that it is populism, and not their own ineptitude, that is wreaking havoc with liberal democracies, politicians in this country are jumping on the bandwagon.

Increasingly, accusations of populism are being deployed as a weapon whenever their opponents have the temerity to disagree with them. Given that our entire political system has always been predicated on populism in its most pure form - the parish pump - this is laughable.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny recently warned of a return to the "old populism" when Fianna Fáil announced the penultimate iteration of its water charges policy back in September, when they were briefly in favour of scrapping them.

However, his disparaging use of the term "old populism" seems to imply that there is a 'new populism" that is somehow preferable. Could this be the populism that continues to advocate the abolition of a reliable stream of tax revenue, the USC, against the advice of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, the ESRI and pretty much every single reputable economist out there?

When Enda Kenny cautions against a return to 'old populism', what he really means is a return to Fianna Fáil in government. The new populism, with Fine Gael in government, is simply in favour of scrapping different taxes.

As we prepare for a new year, perhaps politicians could resolve to spend less time accusing each other of populism and more time coming up with policies that appeal to people, but are also socially and economically responsible.

Irish Independent

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