The problem with populism — right or left — isn't that the grievances it animates itself around are bogus. Mass immigration, income inequality, lack of accountability, globalization, the decline of two-parent households, the undemocratic flaws of democratic systems, the increase in suicides and deaths of despair, and the decline of the middle class, to name just a few — these are legitimate concerns for people to have. It doesn't make one a fascist to be concerned about the unprecedented flow of foreign populations into one's country. It doesn't make one a socialist to be concerned about extreme income inequality. It doesn't make one religious to be concerned about the superficiality of modern life, and how our materialistic consumerism is fundamentally unfulfilling. And it doesn't make one a social conservative to be concerned about the disintegration of family life. These are real issues that deserve serious attention. So what’s wrong with populism, then?
I suppose I should pause to define populism in the interest of clarity. The term has come to mean different things to different people. I define modern populism as political movements or attitudes that incorporate most (though not necessarily all) of the following: anti-establishment sentiment, anti-elite sentiment, anti-intellectualism, conspiratorial thinking, veneration of the wisdom of the common person, protest movements, and most essentially, scapegoating.
Populism is the politics of victimhood. It paints the problems in people's lives and in society as the product of the nefarious machinations of some other group. Populism categorically eschews the role of personal responsibility, culture, and distributed phenomena that arise organically and through no one’s connivance. Wouldn’t you know it, but you aren’t responsible for the problems in your life! They are. Look at what they’ve done to you. What they’ve taken from you. It is a political worldview which completely relinquishes the agency of the individual. Populism encourages its adherents to embrace impotence. The system is rigged against you. It’s not your fault — it’s theirs. This kind of absolution of responsibility can be psychologically comforting, but it can also lead to some dark places.
Finger-pointing at other groups in society, pinning the problems on them, and blaming them for ruining it for everyone is textbook populism. One can effectively grow a large movement with a high degree of in-group solidarity by orienting against a common enemy. In politics, the single most important choice you make is in choosing your enemies. The ideal enemies are abstract — systems, ideas, conventions, attitudes, etc. Populist energy cannot confine itself to such amorphous targets. Antipathy toward systems invariably becomes antipathy toward those who support them. Opposition to certain ideas or norms quickly bleeds into vitriol and then bigotry against the people deemed responsible for creating, upholding, or benefitting from them at everyone else’s expense. By harnessing pure emotion and victimhood grievances, then projecting blame onto the other, populism destroys the crucial barrier between ideas and people. In populism, that distinction does not long survive. It’s not a slippery slope to scapegoating, it’s a sheer cliff. Scapegoating becomes dehumanization and bigotry. We know where this leads.
Populism’s analysis of society collapses its complexity. It offers simple, easy to understand diagnoses for the problems, and equally easy solutions. It’s politics made easy. Populism can never see a system with flaws, only one rotten to the core and in need of being torn down entirely. Fixing problems within an existing framework is tricky, laborious work. Easier just to smash everything. Understanding the reasons and solutions to societal problems is complicated, because everything is interconnected with a thousand moving parts. Easier just to blame someone else for everything. Populism teaches people that the system is so hopelessly rigged against them that they have no power — except the power to support a strong leader who can fix everything for them. Don’t you worry your pretty little heads, daddy’s here, and he’ll get rid of those nasty monsters under your bed.
Populism is the have-nots or the aggrieved being whipped up against the “haves”, usually led by a figure who themselves squarely fits in the latter category but plays the traitor to their own class. These leaders promise their followers the world, but their plans are either light on substance, or entail no real plan for how they could be enacted or achieved. If you want to end any conversation with a populist, ask them for some specifics — ask them how it would actually work to “overthrow the system” or “take the country back” logistically. Ask them how, in real terms, it would be politically achieved.
Some left of center readers may take umbrage at my grouping left and right populism together in this critique. This is based on the notion that the problem with demonization is when the wrong or undeserving group gets demonized. That it’s wrong when right-populists demonize welfare moms or immigrants, but fine when left-populists demonize wealthy business owners. I fundamentally disagree. The problem with demonization isn’t only when the wrong people get demonized. The problem with demonization is demonization. Riling up people against some subset of society is an inherently zero-sum, divisive, unwieldy, difficult to control force. It can only destroy — it cannot build. And just on factual level, it doesn’t make sense. Nearly everything in the world is multifactorial. It is extraordinarily unlikely that any one group can truly be said to be ruining things for everyone. Scapegoating is cancer for society. If you think a particular populist movement doesn’t contain some element of scapegoating, either you don’t understand what modern populism is, or you don’t know scapegoating when you see it.
Populism is an engine of division masquerading as solidarity; it is demagoguery and scapegoating in the name of justice; and it is authoritarianism masquerading as a call for real democracy. We should fix the problems of society: to make our countries more democratic, to change the culture where it needs changing, to pass better laws and abolish unjust ones, and to evolve our policies and social norms alike in ways more conducive to flourishing and well-being. And yes, to be more prudent, responsible, thoughtful, and conscientious as individuals. At no point in this process should we succumb to otherism, group-hostility, identity politics, victimhood narratives, or the allure of strongmen (or women) who promise to fix all our problems. We should reject populism.
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