Populism versus the Professional Politician

The rise of populism can be seen in every election across the globe as the political era changes to a new reality - and a very dangerous one.

It comes as no surprise that Steve Bannon has allegedly announced his intention to move to Brussels for half the year to foster his latest brainchild, The Movement, an attempt to unite far right political parties in Europe and beyond. It also comes as no surprise that Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, is said to have joined.

You can complain about Steve Bannon, and others like him, deride their policies and call them populists but the reality is, populism and populists are here to stay as part of a new political era which is as enivitable as it is dangerous.

The beginnings of populism

When political management moved out of the hands of Kings and Queens and ultimately, into those of the gentry, the representatives of the people in assemblies, congresses, parliaments, soviets (advisory committees) and the like, it was supposed that the representative was better informed, if not better educated, than the majority of those electing her/him or who (s)he represented and was therefore qualified to take decisions on their behalf.

Fair enough. And these decisions were based on a pledge written out in a Manifesto, a demonstration of will and policy which the electorate voted for after supposedly having read several such documents and having chosen the path they thought was right for them at the time. It is called Democracy and right, it has never existed because (generalizing) nobody reads the Manifestos and probably would not understand them if they did. And anyway, what use is a Manifesto if the politicians these days do not respect their pledges?

Us and Them

The propensity of the human being to associate itself with an "us and them" approach has deep roots in all societies at all levels. At the local level, a classic example is the sports club, these days epitomized by soccer, where the Reds play the Blues, City plays United, "we" beat "them" so "we" feel strong and gained an advantage in the symbolic power game. At a wider level, we have examples of the demonology in the media, brandishing some leader a "tyrant" after discovering that he has nationalized his country's oil wells (how dare he!?) or has plans to work against the interests of western lobbies in his continent (the upstart!).

Russia is a fantastic target for such fantasies, being big, enormously wealthy in mineral resources and having a high intellectual and academic cadre. It might suddenly invade anyone at any moment, so bolster your defences and buy lots of our bombs to keep yourselves safe and hey, make sure you spend 2 per cent of your GDP on weapons systems to murder people.

With the rise of Leftist (social) movements at the end of the nineteenth century, the People won their rights to universal education, universal healthcare (in many countries), women's rights to work and to vote, children's rights not to work and die in a mine aged six. Hunger was eradicated in the developed world, children no longer died from preventable diseases and when people have a job, a roof and bread on the table, they are less likely to rise up in the streets and make demands.

Enter front stage the elected professional politician who does their bawling and heckling for them, and everyone is happy. Until the day that the political class becomes "them" and political apathy sweeps through society. Today it has reached epic proportions, in which spoiled votes are sometimes more in number than those cast for a certain political party, in which turnout nears half the electorate in many elections, or even less. The generalized attitude is "ok whatever, they're all the same, a bunch of self-seeking crooks, the one with the nice ties looks good on television and...and...and he stood up on a soap box and shouted, so I think I'll vote for him".

But what are his domestic economic policies, Mr. X? Reply: "Wha'?"

So, with the collapse of this model of democracy before it ever existed except in civilized countries such as Switzerland (and let us not forget that Russia today has a fully-fledged democratic system with a plurality of political groups represented) it is hardly surprising that alternative groups, such as the alt-right movements which Bannon supports, are appearing like mushrooms.

The magic wand

Populism is basically a protest movement against what we have and is asking for something different. Basically, it shouts out "Booooooooriiiing!". It has many faces and forms and does not have to be restricted to the far right. Leftist parties, tired of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine (which in fact works but ain't no more sexy) have splintered into (inter)nationalist groupings, centrist parties are forming out of the right wing of leftist parties and the left wing of rightist ones, and there are movements based around the environment and ecology (Greens) and other political parties committed to animals and nature.

Populism is a magic wand, waved by a new politician who claims "I am one of you, I know what you want and I will give it to you". Of course this means rejecting those already trying to do so, the "them". It means leaving traditional parties and forming new ones.

And so we have our Trumps, Making his Country Great Again (whatever that means), we have our Bolsonaros (If a son of mine was gay I'd rather he died in a car crash), we have our Brexits (it's the fish n' chips, innit? Being a reason why one voter wanted to leave the European Union).

We have those who would like to see packs of dogs roaming the city's streets, those who wish to send aircraft carriers to China (to shout BANG!), those who want to slash numbers of members of parliament, those who want to slash members of parliament, those who have the answer to everything. It's called "at a stroke" politics engineered by soap box politicians.

It is also extremely dangerous because with the collapse of the traditional political parties and structures (more than one election recently has been fought between the far left and the far right with the collapse of the now-boring center), a void has appeared.

Not one hundred years ago, we saw what can happen when the void appears and worse, when the status quo at the time means that the void makes sense. If the Treaty of Versailles indirectly created World War Two, the political classes of today, living in crystal spheres and being wholly out of touch with the reality on the street, are beginning to witness something equally sinister rising around them.

Today knowledge is available at the press of a button, or key so the distance between elector and elected has gone. A new political era has arrived, one in which those who have been educated or have educated themselves can be dangerous, given that increasingly people have switched off. They have bread on the table, they feel moderately safe, so they can crack open their can of beer and drool silently watching Game of Thrones or the soccer match while someone else tells them they know what they want and will deliver it.

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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey