Monday, May 20, 2024
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How the know-all elites make populism flourish


THEY are genuinely convinced they know best. The politicians who have given us the expenses scandal, uncontrolled immigration and the chaotic Brexit negotiations, the economists and financial wizards who gave us the 2008 crash, the universities who have given us a ‘triggered’ generation: they are all sure they know best.

The powerful don’t wish to lose power, so they dismiss our concerns as ‘populism’. Populism has become a swearword amongst the political elites and their compliant media to describe the distrust, even contempt, we have for them.

Populism has been described as the ‘pathology of democracy’. Or ‘the politics of frustration – the sour impotence of those who find themselves unable to understand, let alone command, the complex mass society that is the polity today.’

Such definitions with their insulting suggestion that the plebs are too stupid to comprehend their own lives go to the heart of the problem: the inability of the elites to grasp the deep concerns of ordinary people.

Confronted by the growing discontent with an increasingly out-of-touch political class, the powerful don’t ask how they can reform their attitudes and systems, how they can regain the trust of the populace. The question the elites ask is: How can we protect our precious democracy from the voters?

This attitude is evident in Parliament’s Brexit discussions. Many MPs are determined to subvert the democratically expressed will of the people to leave the EU because they think the people are not intelligent enough to understand the complexity of the situation.

When the elites assume the task of saving the people from themselves they only make populism more likely.

The cosy pan-national club that the elites form is nowhere better exemplified than at Davos. There they can be seen working to further the interests of the cultural and economic elites everywhere, strangely reminiscent of the feudal aristocracy and royalty of old with its Europe-wide ties and little concern for the ‘lower orders’.

Into this internationalist club the populist barges, in the words of Mexican philosopher Benjamin Arditi, like a drunken guest at a dinner party: the one who doesn’t respect the rules of ‘polite society’ but insists on speaking about what everyone knows but no one mentions.

Populism brings to the fore those issues the population cares about but the political elites want to avoid discussing, such as immigration and multiculturalism. Populists are unashamed to say that they valued their country as it was with its customs, traditions and eccentricities, and that they oppose policies likely to change its character beyond recognition.

Populists are prepared to say that a way of life can be more important than a balance sheet. ‘Growth at any cost’ economics is not central to their lives. Globalists cannot comprehend this because they disparage the way of life populists wish to protect; they have different values.

The power manipulators’ commitment to globalism (and the economic and cultural benefits this brings them) puts them at odds with those paying the price in the destruction of their communities and disruption of their identity.

Populism is not a matter of traditional Right and Left, but something more fundamental. A clearer definition of populism is ‘a political attitude which asserts the rights, interests and supremacy of the people against the power of privileged elite.’

Populism can be seen as an outcome of the conflict David Goodhart describes as that between the ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’. The disjunction is between those who see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’, and those who value their ties to culture and nation.

A political class made up of Anywheres that rejects the interests and concerns of the Somewheres makes the emergence of populist politics almost inevitable.

An open letter Guardian warning of the dangers of populism from a prominent group of ‘Anywhere’ intellectuals underlined this absence of understanding. They wrote that ‘abstractions such as soul and identity often exist only in the imagination’.

For many of us these are not ‘abstractions’ in our imagination but important components of our self-understanding.

This is what that bogeyman of the establishment, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, understands so well. His Fidesz party has won landslides by unashamedly declaring that Hungary is a nation with a Christian tradition and a specifically Hungarian culture. He promised to protect Hungary from EU imposed cultural and demographic transformation, and the response was overwhelming.

Other parties and politicians, not only in Central Europe, have followed his example. The result has been the growth of populist parties in elections across Europe, from France to Finland, from Italy to the Netherlands, from Greece to Germany.

When the UK finds a responsible party it can trust, with leaders who share the concerns of worried and perplexed people, we shall see similar political growth here.

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.

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