Populism Spins off from Automation

By Dyer, Gwynne | Winnipeg Free Press, December 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Populism Spins off from Automation


Dyer, Gwynne, Winnipeg Free Press


Five of the world’s largest democracies have populist governments, the Guardian claimed last week, and proceeded to name four: the United States, India, Brazil and the Philippines. Which is the fifth? At various points, it name-checks Turkey, Italy and the United Kingdom, but it never becomes clear which. (And by the way, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is not a populist. He’s just a nationalist.)

It’s embarrassing when a respected global newspaper launches a major investigative series and can’t really nail the subject down. Neither can the people it interviews: Hillary Clinton, for example, admits the she was “absolutely dumbfounded” by how Donald Trump ate her lunch every day during the 2016 presidential campaign. She still doesn’t get it.

“We got caught in a kind of transition period, so what I had seen work in the past... was no longer as appealing or digestible to the people or the press. I was trying to be in a position where I could answer all the hard questions, but... I never got them. I was waiting for them; I never got them. Yet I was running against a guy who did not even pretend to care about policy.”

Yes, Trump is a classic populist, but why did he beat her two years ago when he wouldn’t even have got the nomination 10 years ago? She doesn’t seem to have a clue about that, and neither do other recent leaders of centre-left parties interviewed by the Guardian such as Britain’s Tony Blair and Italy’s Matteo Renzi. So let us try to enlighten them.

Populism is not an ideology. It’s just a political technique, equally available to right-wingers, left-wingers and those (like Trump) with no coherent ideology at all.

In this era, populism seems to partner best with right-wing nationalist ideologies like those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Brexiteers in England, but even now, there are populist left-wing parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

How does this tool work? It claims to be on the side of “ordinary people” and against a “corrupt elite” that exploits and despises them. It’s light on policy and heavy on emotion, particularly the emotions of fear and hatred. It usually scapegoats minorities and/or foreigners, and it only works really well when people are angry about something.

We know that a politically significant number of people are angry now, because populism is working very well indeed, but people like Donald Trump can’t take the credit. …

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