The vilest slur in Brussels, the insult to end all insults, is “populist.” Eurocrats spit it out, rather in the manner of a teenager at a party who mistakenly takes a swig from a beer can that was being used as an ashtray. Yet, monstrous as the word is in a Eurocrat’s vocabulary, he is surprisingly vague about its meaning.
The one thing that he unequivocally understands populism to signify is “something that other people like, but I don’t.” Thus, calling for a referendum is populist. Accepting the result of a referendum is populist. Free speech for Eurosceptics is populist. Tax cuts are populist. Cutting waste is populist.
My neighbor in the European Parliament chamber when I was first elected was a hefty Belgian Christian Democrat. He used the word frequently and ferociously, applying it with particular venom to supporters of Flemish independence. I once asked him whether the Flemish separatists weren’t simply representing their voters, just as he represented his. “As politicians we have a duty to lead, not just to do what people want!” he replied. Got it, I said. What you mean by “populism” is “having a legislature that broadly reflects public opinion.” In my country, we call that “democracy.”
The vilest slur in Brussels, the insult to end all insults, is “populist.”
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been quite so snippy with him. After all, my Belgian colleague had a point that, in a representative democracy, legislators should follow their consciences. A healthy regard for public opinion doesn’t oblige us to contract out our convictions. All parliamentarians—trust me on this—go through moments when we think that the majority of our constituents are plumb wrong about something. At these moments, we like to recall Edmund Burke’s Address to the Electors of Bristol:
Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
What we don’t like to recall is what happened next. The Electors of Bristol were unimpressed by Burke’s characteristically high-minded argument. In particular, they resented the way in which his generous championing of the Irish cause challenged the mercantile interests of their city. The poor fellow was slung out at the next election. In his private moments, Burke would perhaps have called it populism, though I have no doubt that the Electors of Bristol would have called it democracy.
My point is that populism is not intrinsically a bad thing. It may be either positive or negative according to context. The essential feature of all populist movements is their belief that an elite is governing in its own interests rather than that of the general population. To make an obvious point, the validity of the populist argument depends on the extent to which that assessment is accurate.
Some populist movements rely on scapegoating, on attributing every misfortune to a privileged or powerful minority. These are the ugly movements, the ones that offer anger and division rather than solutions. “Are you poor? Are your children jobless? It’s not your fault! It’s all the fault of international financiers/powerful foreigners/Jews/the one percent!”
Populism may be either positive or negative according to context.
Such populist movements depend on what we might call a piece of faulty circuitry in the human brain: a tendency to see patterns where none exist. This tendency evolved for good reasons on the savannahs of Pleistocene Africa. Taking short-cuts, spotting minute traces of human involvement, recognizing similarities, and extrapolating from them: all these were vital survival strategies. The trouble is that, in our complicated and populous modern world, our hunter-gatherer brains can overshoot. We infer human agency where none exists. We anthropomorphize. We see faces in potatoes (but not potatoes in faces). We yell at our laptops when they malfunction. We discern hidden hands behind random events.
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins blames this tendency for religious belief. Our remote ancestors, he thinks, couldn’t accept that floods or earthquakes simply happened; they had to have been caused by human misbehavior, which might be mitigated by propitiation or sacrifice.
Is our own age so very different? Why do we have such difficulty accepting that the planet might heat or cool because of factors beyond our control? Could it be that we, too, have a deep intuitive need to find human causality? Do we, too, think we can change the weather through propitiation and sacrifice?
All populist demagoguery depends, to some extent, on the false inference of intentionality. The man who, so to speak, popularized populism, or at least the word, was William Jennings Bryan, the Nebraska firebrand who was immortalized by a Republican opponent as the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. Bryan led a political insurgency on behalf of the farmers of the West and, to a lesser extent, the South, who had been badly affected by a collapse in prices in 1893, three times winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
Bryan was a sincere man, a devout Presbyterian who was very obviously moved by the plight of agrarian America. But his movement set the template for all future populist insurgencies through its false inference of agency. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that the agricultural depression was caused by the economic cycle, itself affected by myriad dispersed factors from a coup in Buenos Aires to declining demand in the United Kingdom. No—so much suffering must be someone’s fault. And who was that someone? Why, the big corporations! The railroads and the banks! The people who favored a dollar based on gold rather than silver! The speculators!
Bryan set the tone for every populist insurgency that was to follow in the democratic world. Misfortune was not a part of the human condition; it happened because someone somewhere was being selfish. Even if it was too late to soothe the misfortune, at the very least that someone could be made to suffer too. The same anthropocentric impulse that drove pre-democratic peoples to blame ill luck on witches had been transferred to the age of universal suffrage.
When bad times—far worse times—came again after 1929, America channeled its populism through Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose ham-fisted interventions prolonged the recession for many years, to say nothing of prompting a baleful and semi-unconstitutional centralization of power. But at least the United States came through the slump with its democratic values intact.
The same was not true of Europe. Across the Old Continent, other than in a handful of states at its northern and northwestern edge, parliamentary regimes were displaced by populist autocrats of one kind or another. Some of these autocrats were fascists, some communists, some neither. But all, to a greater or lesser extent, justified their regimes through the same message, the message that is at the core of populism: We are protecting you, the decent majority, against an anti-social, anti-patriotic clique! We will get back at the people who caused this mess!
Every alternative system ends, paradoxically, in the thing that populists rail against: oppressive oligarchy.
The target group varied from country to country: it might be bankers or priests or landowners or Jews or national minorities or capitalists or communists. But all agreed on one thing: pluralism was the enemy. Across the continent, from Salazar’s Portugal to Stalin’s ussr, free parliaments were dismissed as the tools of manipulative and self-interested plutocrats.
I hope New Criterion readers will see what is wrong with that critique without my needing to explain it. Individualist democracy—what the Continental autocrats of Left and Right dismissed as “decadent Anglo-Saxon liberalism”—was and remains humanity’s least bad option. It lifts the countries that embrace it to a pinnacle of wealth and happiness previously unimagined. Every alternative system ends, paradoxically, in the thing that populists rail against: oppressive oligarchy.
Equally, though, let’s not pretend that oligarchy is unknown in democracies. Many polities, from the Roman Republic onwards, have retained the outward forms of representative government while being captured by cliques. The Roman precedent was, indeed, vividly in the minds of America’s Founding Fathers and informed many of the checks they put in place to prevent a similar decline in the United States.
Those checks worked. Unlike, say, the near-contemporary French Republic, the American Republic did not follow Rome into autocratic rule. But, even in an open democracy, there is a natural tendency for people in power to rig the rules in their own favor, to give themselves an institutional advantage.
Established political parties passing laws that make it harder for newcomers to challenge them; big corporations using the regulatory regime to erect barriers to entry; public-sector workers ensuring that the system favors producers over consumers; mega-banks persuading politicians to bail them out with taxpayers’ money—all these are, in their ways, examples of oligarchy. And all of them are intrinsic to modern politics, because human beings are naturally self-interested. To the extent that they trigger a populist backlash, that backlash might be considered a proportionate and necessary antibody.
To put it another way, a measure of populism is inherent in any democratic system. The intensity and validity of the phenomenon depend upon circumstances.
When they were small, my children used to enjoy a book called Vote for Duck, given to us by a kind American friend. It tells the story of a farmyard duck that rises, first to the leadership of its farm, then to local government, then to state office, and finally to the presidency of the nation. At every stage—my girls were too young to understand why this bit always made their father smile—the duck ran under the slogan “Vote for a duck—not a politician!”
Populism is so well-established—so trite, we might almost say—that a children’s author can write in the knowledge that every adult will laugh at it. The populist candidate is a comedian’s cliché. Think, to pluck an example more or less at random, of the classic early Simpsons episode wherein the evil Montgomery Burns, running to be Governor, keeps telling ecstatic crowds: “We’re gonna send a message to those bureaucrats down there in the state capital!!”
The extent to which these slogans work depends on how dissatisfied people are with their lot—and the extent to which the slogans are justified depends on whether people are right to direct their dissatisfaction at the established political class.
Let us consider two contemporary developments that are habitually attributed to populism—and which, indeed, are often linked together in the columns of half-clever pundits: the victory of Donald Trump in the Republican race, and the victory of Euroscepticism in the recent U.K. referendum.
The two movements are different in many important ways. British Euroscepticism is not nativist or protectionist. On the contrary, the chief message of the Leave campaign (of which, to declare an interest, I was a founder) was that, outside the European Union, Britain would be able to pursue a more global, more free-trading, more competitive trajectory. Where Trump railed at Chinese exporters, British Leavers called for a bilateral free-trade deal with China—something that was impossible while their country remained in the European Union.
The thing that both movements had in common was a sense of frustration with the establishment. That frustration stemmed, in both cases, from at least some shared causes. In both Britain and the United States, three factors in particular had contributed to a widespread disenchantment with the political class.
First, there was the Iraq war, and the subsequent belief that it had been launched on the basis of a deliberate lie. For what it’s worth—and I write as one who opposed the invasion—I think George Bush and Tony Blair were mistaken rather than mendacious. After all, if they knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they must also have known that the invading troops wouldn’t find any. It would have been the dumbest lie in history. Nonetheless, the episode served to widen the rift between politicians and people. A conviction began to take hold, including among respectable middle-class voters, that their politicians were prepared to send young men off to die for some clandestine cause, a cause, at any rate, whose true purpose had not been fully adumbrated.
Our age is witnessing a mass movement of populations previously unknown in peacetime.
Second there was the credit crunch, which saw billions of dollars taken through the tax system from low- and medium-income families and given to . . . well, no one is entirely sure what happened to it. Bankers are never going to compete with soldiers or nurses in the popularity stakes but, when things are going well, criticism is muted. Sure, we’re vaguely aware that some people are earning excessive bonuses, but as long as our own investments are also rising, we’re relaxed about it. When, however, bankers seem to be making a hash of things, and then helping themselves to bonuses at our expense, our mood alters. The crash that followed the collapse of Lehman saw middle-class families expropriated through the tax system in order to rescue some very wealthy bankers and bondholders from the consequences of their own errors. No wonder the politicians who decreed those bailouts were blamed. And no wonder faith in the system took a knock from which it has still not recovered.
Third, our age is witnessing a mass movement of populations, a Völkerwanderung, previously unknown in peacetime. Rising wealth and advances in technology have triggered a migration from the poorer parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America to developed nations.
I spent part of last summer volunteering in a hostel for underage migrants in the south of Italy. The boys staying there had come mainly from West Africa, and some had had truly Odyssean journeys across first the Sahara and then the Mediterranean.
They were courageous, resourceful, optimistic lads, and the more time I spent with them, the more convinced I became that, in their position, I’d have done exactly as they had. Few of them, though, were refugees, at least not as that term is legally defined. They were fleeing poverty, misery, and corruption rather than war, oppression, and persecution. And for each one, a hundred were waiting to follow.
When we met people being landed by the Italian coastguard, their first question was often “Where can I get Wi-Fi?” I don’t mean to suggest that because they had smartphones, they weren’t in need. On the contrary, the phone was often their only possession of value. My point is that smartphones are the key to the whole migratory phenomenon, making possible the transfers of credit and information that allow young people to move from Nigeria or Eritrea through Sicily or Greece into Northern Europe. To their grandparents living on subsistence agriculture, such a trek would have been unthinkable.
People in the receiving countries are aware that these population movements are increasing. They keep hearing their leaders promising to do something about it, but nothing seems to check the flow. Some voters suspect that, for all their promises, the politicians don’t really want to do anything about it. They wonder whether their elites secretly want more inward migration than they publicly admit, seeing it as a source of cheap nannies and gardeners rather than as a source of competitive pressure on jobs and amenities.
Put it all together and what do people see? A political class that will send boys to die in distant lands on the basis of, at best, a half-truth; that taxes the poor to bail out the rich; and that supports an immigration policy designed for big business at the expense of ordinary people.
For what it’s worth, I think only the second of these assertions is wholly fair. But I can see why a gap has opened up between government and governed, between the paese legale and the paese reale, between the smirking classes and the working classes. Into this gap have sprung populists of every hue: the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Beppe Grillo, Syriza, Podemos.
So, to return to the question, how justified is the sense of popular alienation? Are people right to blame their political elites? Are they right to suspect that the masses are being duped by the classes?
More so, frankly, in Europe than in America. The United States still has a largely eighteenth-century institutional settlement, in which power is devolved, dispersed, and democratized. Sure, the system has gone through spasms of centralization, notably under the two Roosevelts, Wilson, lbj, and Obama. But the Jeffersonian substructure remains in place. Very few countries have such institutions as term limits, states’ rights, ballot initiatives, open primaries, or competing tax jurisdictions—let alone the direct election of everyone from the sheriff to the garbage guy. All these things serve to strengthen the citizen vis-à-vis the government. If you want to “send a message to those bureaucrats down there in the state capital,” you can generally do it through established democratic mechanisms.
The European Union is a textbook oligarchy.
The same is not true of the European Union, which is a textbook oligarchy. The President of the United States is elected in the world’s most watched election; the President of the European Union is appointed in secret over a sumptuous dinner. The U.S. Constitution was adopted following ratification by thirteen states; the E.U. Constitution was rejected by the French and Dutch electorates, but then imposed anyway under a new name. The U.S. system of government is based around maximum decentralization of power; the European Union’s founding treaty declares, in its first article, the goal of an “ever-closer union.” The Declaration of Independence promises “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to “strike action,” “free healthcare,” and “affordable housing.”
The E.U. citizen, in short, has far more cause to rage against the system than has his American cousin. I say “against the system” advisedly. There are all sorts of things against which the American voter might rage with reason, from the quality of some of his candidates to the deteriorating debt situation. But the U.S. Constitution is not to blame for these things. On the contrary, it contains the means for their redress.
In the European Union, by contrast, elected representatives are helpless to affect the issues that matter to their constituents. It has become a cliché to blame the disaffection in Europe on the twin monetary and migratory crisis. The euro and the border-free area, known as Schengen, have indeed proved disastrous. Both were fair-weather schemes; neither withstood the first storm. Just as the debt crisis pitilessly exposed the flaws in the single currency, so the migration surge made a nonsense of Schengen.
But the critical point, in both cases, is that elected politicians were powerless to intervene. It didn’t matter how people voted, because Brussels was in charge. The most basic functions of government—securing the national territory and overseeing the economy—had been handed away.
Those who complained were not raging against some imagined group of malign speculators. They were complaining about a system that was there in plain sight: an undemocratic racket based in Brussels that had promised security and prosperity, failed to deliver either, and then left voters unable to do anything about it.
It is in this context that the Brexit vote should be understood. Throughout the referendum, pro–European Union campaigners caricatured their opponents as bigots, racists, Little Englanders. No doubt such people exist, but the tone of the Leave campaign was constantly upbeat, internationalist, and democratic. Accountable government was far and away the top issue for Leave: our private polls matched the published ones. Immigration was a very distant second, and, even among those citing immigration, few wanted or expected a drastic fall in numbers. What they wanted was control: a sense that Britain was ultimately in charge of roughly who came in and roughly in what quantity.
Was there a populist element to the Leave campaign? I won’t deny it. Speaking to a rally in Kent a week before the poll, I began to hymn that county’s radical past, from the Peasants’ Revolt to its support for the parliamentary cause in the civil war. When I mentioned the Peasants’ Revolt, the audience interrupted with prolonged cheers. In their eyes, the E.U. referendum was partly about reminding the grandees and Euro-corporatists that they weren’t the only people in Britain.
They had a point, those Kentish patriots. Just as the original Peasants’ Revolt was directed at an alien caste, a French-speaking aristocracy that maintained itself in power through a series of legal privileges, so the Leave campaign was aimed at various groups who had learned how to make a living out of Brussels.
Accountable government was far and away the top issue for Leave.
The Remain campaign’s very first move was to publish a letter in The Independent signed by the heads of various green pressure groups warning against Brexit on grounds that E.U. laws had “a hugely positive effect” on the environment. It did not attempt to explain why a post–European Union Britain wouldn’t simply retain or replicate—or even improve—these “hugely positive” laws. As so often, there was an insulting implication that voters needed to have such things handed down by their betters.
What was really interesting, though, was the signatures at the end, representing Natural England, the Green Alliance, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Natural Environment Research Council, and so on. Of the twelve organizations named, the European Commission funded eight directly—and others indirectly. But, of course, “protect our countryside” sounds much prettier than “protect our grants.”
Just as ngos had learned how to parasitize the European Union, so, more damagingly for the ordinary citizen, had large multinationals. The Remain campaign was funded by megabanks and corporate giants, including Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan, and Morgan Stanley. Again, it’s not hard to see why.
The green grandees’ letter was followed by several more from Brussels-sponsored lobbies, including universities, charities, and businesses. A letter in the (London) Times was signed by the bosses of thirty-six ftse-100 companies. A moment’s research showed that these companies had collectively spent €21.3 million lobbying the European Union, and got back €120.9 million in grants from Brussels. It’s hard to argue with a 600 percent return on investment.
The money, though, is the least of it. Far more damaging is the way big firms lobby to get rules that suit them and hurt their competitors. I was surprised, when I was a new mep, that corporate giants were forever demanding more regulation. It took me a while to understand why. They could easily assimilate the compliance costs, and were raising barriers to entry so as to secure a more monopolistic position.
The sums poured into lobbying rival anything seen in Washington D.C.—with the difference that, in Brussels, there is no countervailing pressure from the electorate. Here is a summary of what the big firms spent (in euros) on lobbying in the first six months of 2015 (the last six-month period for which figures are available from Transparency International):
Microsoft Corporation 4,500,000
Shell Companies 4,500,000
ExxonMobil Petroleum & Chemical 4,500,000
Deutsche Bank AG 3,962,000
Dow Europe GmbH 3,750,000
General Electric Company (GE) 3,250,000
Siemens AG 3,230,169
Huawei Technologies 3,000,000
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lobbying. Personally, I have made it a rule not to deal with lobbyists as an mep, but I’m aware that I’m being unfair to most of them. My complaint here is not about lobbying; it’s about the way that the beneficiaries of lobbying were seeking to prejudice the democratic process, to secure a Remain vote that would serve their interests rather than that of the country as a whole. Is opposition to such a racket populist? If so, it’s surely a justified populism: a legitimate reaction against an oligarchic tendency.
If you think “oligarchy” is too strong a word, by the way, ponder this. An official working for the European Union is exempt from national taxation, paying instead a token rate of European tax equivalent to around 21 percent, flat.
Contemplate, for a moment, that extraordinary fact. The bureaucrats in the Commission and Parliament make decisions that have fiscal consequences for ordinary people, while themselves being exempt from those consequences. If that isn’t oligarchy, what is?
When we consider the oddities of the French ancien régime, one of the greatest iniquities, to modern eyes, is that the aristocracy was largely exempt from taxation. We wonder at a system based on the legal and systematic expropriation by the rich of the poor. Yet we have recreated such a system in Brussels.
The tax exemption is only the most visible and flagrant example; in truth, the entire E.U. system is based around transferring wealth from ordinary citizens to those lucky enough to be part of the machine.
This is perhaps less shocking than it sounds. Formalized confiscation is, historically, the normal form of human organization. The idea that a society should be run by and for the general population, rather than in the interests of its rulers, is a rare and recent one. In their great study Why Nations Fail, James A. Robinson and Daron Acemo?lu showed that, in almost every age and nation, the people in power arrange things so that they and their heirs can systematically enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s work. They call this model the “extractive state.” The alternative—an independent magistracy, secure property rights, and mechanisms to hold rulers to account—came about only in modern times and largely in English-speaking countries. This they call the “inclusive state.”
What we saw in Britain’s referendum was a recovery of power from remote elites.
To put it at its simplest, populism is justified in extractive rather than inclusive states – just as armed resistance is justified in tyrannies rather than democracies.
Whatever its flaws, the United States is unarguably an inclusive state, based on the rule of law, the universal franchise, and the separation of powers. So, individually, are the twenty-eight members of the European Union. But the European Union itself is not.
What we saw in Britain’s referendum was an overdue correction, a recovery of power from remote elites. We saw a vote of confidence in democracy itself, based on the conviction that the United Kingdom could flourish under its own laws, trading with friends and allies on every continent. Perhaps most dramatically, we saw the British people politely disregard the advice—no, the instructions—of those who presumed to be their betters. They ignored the hectoring, the bullying, and the scare-stories, and politely voted to recover the right to hire and fire their own lawmakers.
To explain why they were right—and to explain, too, the sheer rage of the defeated—let me return to the greatest of all conservatives, that Irish seer Edmund Burke, to whom I leave the last word.
Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 3, on page 4
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