Is the rise of populism a dangerous thing for society?

18 Mar 2018 |

Today’s world is increasingly shaped by populist movements led by charismatic leaders. In Europe, the US and further afield we have seen the rise of those who claim to champion the cause of the working poor.  

The argument has quickly become polarized, and opponents argue that the rise of populism is a dangerous thing for society. But, is the debate really that simple?

The motion in the Debate Chamber at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2018 was: This House believes the rise of populism is a dangerous thing for society.

The case for.  

  • Populist leaders distort the truth

In an impassioned speech, Simon Schama, Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, argued that the biggest problem with populism is that it’s based on lies.

“The first thing populists do is distort the truth about themselves,” he said. “If you look at its leaders, it tells you everything you need to know.”

“They would have you believe they are fighting the cause of the people. But Nigel Farage is a City trader, Donald Trump inherited his wealth, and Steve Bannon worked for Goldman Sachs. These are not the sons of toil, they are rich people who have decided to find scapegoats for today’s structural problems.”

Dr Schama didn’t dispute that there are serious structural problems in global economies, but believes these leaders are not the answer. They’ve made promises they can’t keep, he said.

“The ongoing replacement of coal by renewables didn’t prevent Donald Trump promising miners that they will get back their jobs, or go to a factory promising to save their jobs. Those were empty promises.”  

Populism very seldom proposes positive, concrete solutions, argued Dr Schama. 

Ms Mina Al Oraibi, Editor-In-Chief at The National agreed:

“Populism is a convoluted topic and populists will define it the way they want. They will say that people are just voting for what they want, they say they are against the system, but they won’t say what they are for.

“And populists will say one thing and deliver the other.”

Ms Al Oraibi admitted that “the system is not great” but that “if we want to take it down we have to give a better alternative.”

For instance, she said, populists peddled the belief that all experts and elites are bad.

“If that’s the case,” she argued, “the next time they have toothache are they going to go to the learned dentists or to someone who can figure it out as they go along using a pair of pliers?

Her solution is a simple one: “We have to encourage people into politics based on how they can fix the system. Populists only raise false hopes.”

  1. Hatred is the oxygen of populism

Dr Schama’s second point was that populism fed itself by stoking up resentment and anger towards others. It relies on a culture of blame, where an ‘other’ was always the scapegoat.

“Populism is racist in its DNA. It’s about us and them,” he warned.

Ms Al Oraibi added that: “What worries us about populism is that it focuses on what divides us, and tells us to reject the other as part of the solution to our problems.”

  1. Populism and authoritarianism

The third problem, argued Dr Schama, is that populism’s natural way of expressing itself is authoritarianism.

“Steve Bannon and some members of Italy’s Five Star Movement have an unabashed admiration of Mussolini,” he claimed.

“Populism is an extremely sinister force, it persuades people to trade in democratic freedoms and rights for this nostalgic fake view of recovering the people’s will against the elite.”  

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Against the motion

  • Populism is just a symptom of a wider problem

Mr Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO at Harlem Children’s Zone said that, while it was true to say that there were many dangerous things associated with populism, such as racism and an undermining of democratic values, we mustn’t confuse the symptoms with the disease.

“When we talk about populism we talk about the people who have captured people’s imagination. But we don’t talk about the electorate!” he exclaimed.

“Why are people so angry that they are willing throw off both sides of the equation? They’re not going with Conservatives or with Liberals, with Republicans or Democrats, why are they rejecting the status quo of today’s politics? Because it has failed them.”

Mr Canada argued that people believed in a world and believed in a system where people represented them, but what they had received was stagnating wages, lost jobs, and real difficulty making ends meet.

“They can’t get help from politicians, they feel totally abandoned and looking for someone to save them,” he said.

The trouble was that existing politicians had not tapped into what was really happening within their countries. In America, “they had no idea so many had lost the American dream.”

This is why we ended up with populism.

  1. Populists represent democracy

Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee at the House of Commons said that we could “spend all day” arguing about the semantics of what populism really means, but we are missing the point. Populism is democracy in action. 

“It’s far easier to think that, if the hordes aren’t bright enough to see the ongoing wisdom of our models, they must be easily led, stupid, racists or ridiculously misguided idealistic leftists.  

But as a politician, if you really believe that you do not deserve to be elected.”

“By disrespecting the electorate, we fall into trap of having the same simplistic mindset that we condemn in populists,” he argued.  

In addition, populists were authentic, he said.

“We can accuse Farage and Trump of pulling up the drawbridge or realise they are popular that they represent democracy and authenticity.

“In Britain we have long celebrated our diversity, but this has to be reality not rhetoric, policy makers need to see where these ideals are no longer being addressed.

“For many voters, populists are able to vocalise feelings no one else has managed to. Instead of complaining how terrible this is we have to recognize this.”

Mr Halfon also made the point the women’s marches in Washington against Donald Trump and the marches on gun control were all examples of populism. “Populism is things that are popular,” he said.

  1. Populists will wake up society

The current rise of populism will end up benefiting society, argued Mr Canada.  

“Politicians are responding now. There are a bunch of people trying to figure out what happened in our Rust Belt and politicians are rethinking how to proposition their message to those people.

These people, the electorate, have spoken, and we had better listen.” 

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