Few words in contemporary political discourse elicit the hostility provoked by the word “populism”. To be populist, according to the prevailing intellectual fashion, is to be backward-looking, anti-intellectual and xenophobic.
The rise of populism is frequently described as a reversion to the 1930s-era fascism (though, interestingly, it is never identified with fascism’s mirror-image, Soviet-style communism).
This is a travesty: while modern populist movements undoubtedly reflect a rejection of prevailing political, economic and social dogmas, they rise from a deeply held conviction that those who control access to financial power, the media, popular culture and political power are riding roughshod over the majority of the population.
In contrast, the fascist movements of the 1930s were characterised by glorification of a militarist tradition, a totalitarian ideology, and a willingness to use force to resolve social conflict. None of these identifiers are present in modern populist movements.
The abuse associated with the term is designed to quash uncomfortable ideas, and to ensure that the unspoken assumptions that underpin the prevailing secular orthodoxies of self-styled liberal democracy go unchallenged.
The range of issues that those vilifying “populism” deem offensive includes any discussion of immigration policy, support for the preservation of symbols of national identity (such as Australia Day and the national flag), support for local industry and a rejection of “free market economics”, and the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western society.
In fact, “liberal democracy” is too frequently illiberal and undemocratic. The power elites control most media outlets, including television, radio and print.
This is the view of citizens of the European Union, controlled by an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, and workers of the “rust-bucket” states of the United States, who have watched transnational corporations export millions of jobs to low-cost economies like Mexico and China in pursuit of higher profits.
Populism is identified with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, Brexit in the UK, the recently elected coalition government in Italy, and the rise of Eurosceptic parties in Hungary, Poland and other countries in Europe.
While populism is dismissed as a reactionary, right-wing political movement, in fact, it represents a reaction against the unwillingness of those who control the culture to debate many issues: such as the financial power of the handful of large corporations that are able to manipulate the system in their favour, the media corporations that determine what people see and hear, and even political parties that are increasingly subservient to money and the media.
As its name implies, populism – a word derived from the Latin word for “the people” – implies a rejection of the power of unelected but powerful elites, and is therefore profoundly democratic.
In fact, politicians in the democracies are supposed to listen to the people, and represent their aspirations. The rise of modern populism has occurred because the main political parties have been captured by corporations, the media or the dominant voices in academia and social media.
By refusing to accept the legitimacy of popular concerns, refusing to engage with people whose views they reject, or demonising them as extremist, they have created a groundswell of mounting opposition to their political and social agenda.
It is unclear where this process ends. It is possible that the populist wave will simply run out of steam, and will disappear into nothingness, leaving behind many alienated people who have been terrorised into silence.
Alternatively, the ideas that resonate so deeply with a growing section of the population may rise to become an irresistible tide, as seems to have happened in the United States and parts of Europe.
As John Maynard Keynes observed in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: “The ideas of economists and philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
He concluded: “I am sure that the power of vested interests is greatly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not indeed immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the fields of economic and political philosophy, there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are 25 or 30 years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest.
“But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous, for good or evil.”
We are living at one of those moments in history when the future direction of society is being shaped. The challenge we face is courageously to uphold the principles on which the future of civilised society can be built and maintained.