'Populism'. It's a word we've been hearing a lot about the place lately. Of course, it's uttered, generally, with a large side order of derision, as if it's the basest form of politics.
However, is it really? Or is it just a condemnation uttered by the jealous, who wish they could be as popular and instantaneously effective with the punters when they think out loud about policy.
Of course, the corollary of the derision must be that we, if we were politicians, would rather we were able to make pronouncements about policy that were deep and meaningful and resonated with the electorate so that we could have the term, 'leading the debate' appended to our moniker as a result.
In reality, that's unlikely to be the case for 99% of politicians in modern democracies. A Barack Obama, or, dare I say it, a Margaret Thatcher, only come along once in every couple of generations, and even they struggle to connect with their demos on a day to day basis.
Still, we need to examine Populism, as it is experiencing a resurgence lately.
So, I'd like to start with an explanation about what Populism is, in the political context.
Unsurprisingly, political populism goes back as far as the Roman Senate and practitioners such as Julius Caesar. The Populares were an unofficial faction in the Roman Senate who appealed directly to the people and bypassed the government with referendums.
The word 'Populism' is derived from the Latin word 'populus', which simply means 'people', or 'the people', in English.
So, you can see how the practice of populism has survived through the ages because it, seemingly, reflects 'the people' back to 'the people', and so is popular. Not necessarily the right thing, but the popular thing.
Populism also usually undergoes a resurgence during periods when religious revivals occur, as it is easy to promulgate the certainties that religion espouses to an uncertain and fearful populace who express a lack of a need to question and debate, instead just to follow a circumscribed set of certainties and assumptions. Thus it usually goes hand in hand
with times of cultural and political insecurity, such as the Western World has been feeling since it was put under attack directly by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001, and since.
As in the Romantic period following on from the socially cataclysmic Industrial Revolution, the ensuing religious revival eventually blended into political populism and nationalism, becoming a powerful force of public will for change.
As can be seen in America now, and in Australia, with the rise again of the reactionary Christian Conservative movement, the 'Religious Right', and the 'Tea Party' movement, and its bleeding into the policies and personnel of Conservative politics and the religious end of the progressive political spectrum as well, if you can call the 'alternative lifestyle' movement that generally gives its support to Greens politicians a quasi religion. Essentially, populist politics and charismatic movements synergistically enhance each other.
Populism is generally ascribed to a type of political discourse that seeks to take the side of 'the people' against 'the elites', and urges social and political changes as a result. Even if it's political and media 'elites' that are championing it.
In Australia at the moment this is being manifest as 'Bank bashing', especially by Joe Hockey, which is 'interesting' considering the fact that before he entered politics he was a banking and finance lawyer and that he is married to an Investment Banker. Though I will admit that he could be in a Poacher turned Gamekeeper position.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that that Joe Hockey is leveraging his folksy appeal to the average schmo and he is seeking to give the impression that he believes the people know best and that their everyday concerns should dictate policy to the government. He is merely their conduit. Fair enough. He is a representative of the people of his electorate. However it's well to keep in mind that when asked specifically what he would be doing today if he were Treasurer, the specifics became a bit more woolly beyond removing the Bank Funding Guarantee instituted during the GFC and giving the ACCC Bank Price Signalling oversight power.
This is entirely within the spirit of modern populism however, where populists often adopt a nationalistic vocabulary, as in John Howard's time where he made much of the 'ANZAC Spirit', and our flag became his leitmotif, or, recently, during the initial debate over a Mining Tax, where the 'Sovereign Risk' bogey was thrown about with gay abandon, appealing to an irrational fear of the economy going down the gurgler should the RSPT be brought in.
Also articulated are rhetorically-convincing appeals to the masses, whilst remaining ideologically ambivalent when you drill down into the meat of what the populists are saying and analyse it, as is the case with Joe Hockey's 'Bank bashing' exercise after the initial flurry of anti-Coalition ideology incorporated in his expression of a willingness to use any 'levers' available to government to tame them, later modified.
When populists in Opposition parties take strong positions on economic philosophies, often at odds with their party's traditional ideology, the position sparks strong
emotional responses about how best to manage the nation's current and future social and economic position. Thus they gain favour with 'the people' as their 'champion', whilst at the same time knowing, cynically, they are not the ones in the position to have to do anything, and, if they were their actions may well be at odds with their rhetoric, and more in line with their traditional ideological stance.
Populists can be very successful political candidates in appealing to the broad political mass of people, prior to gaining power for their party.
This can also be applied to Kevin Rudd prior to the 2007 election, as populists may promise widely demanded food, housing, employment, basic social services, and income redistribution. Once in political power, however, they may not always be able to financially or politically fulfil all these promises, as we saw with Kevin Rudd's inability to get 'Grocery Watch' or 'Fuel Watch' up. However, on the other hand, they are often very successful in other areas where a common consensus exists within the community, such as Kevin Rudd's shepherding through parliament of a massive increase in spending on Public Housing, Public School infrastructure, and Public Hospitals.
It's also interesting to note that populists, such as Mr Hockey and Tony Abbott, mobilise support by taking a Third Party position that belies their own intimate involvement in the system they are criticising.
We also hear them manifesting their anger at 'big government', when they were both Ministers in the government of John Howard that expanded government more than any in our history; and, 'Big Business', when it is the Liberal Party that is the political creature of the 'Big End of Town', even though it constantly seeks to deny it publically and prefers to wear its allegiance to 'Small Business' on its sleeve when out and about in public or the media.
On the other hand we constantly hear the refrain that the ALP is the political creature of the Union movement, when all the 'field evidence' suggests that the Unions, or what is left of the Union movement, at about 20% representation in our workplaces these days, are transferring their allegiances to the Greens, and, in fact, the ALP is presently suffering from having no popular community-wide support base, save for those of a mind, within the community as a whole, who agree with the basic tenets of the 'Fair Go For All', egalitarianism, social justice, and support for the State as provider of support for the indigent in our society, as opposed to 'Faith-Based Enterprises’ allied to religious institutions, in the main, such as Tony Abbott championed when in government. I believe Greg Combet has expressed similar sentiments very recently.
I'd also like to point out that populism on the Conservative side of politics, especially when the Coalition is in power with its country cousins in the National Party, and as has been seen recently with the farmer's revolts, encompasses what has come to be known as 'Agrarian Socialism'. As in, because we all like food security, such basic social needs have been leveraged by the farming community into almost a form of nationalism. Campaigns that exhort us not to 'Sell off the Farm' to overseas interests, and now, not to allow the environment of the Murray-Darling Basin to win 'over' the 'rights' that the irrigators 'have', can also be seen as the well-organised Populist movement that it is, disguising well the multinational Agribusiness interests that hide behind its curtains. I must also add the Mining lobby to this oeuvre, as its recent hokey but effective anti-RSPT ad campaign demonstrated to a T.
Finally, I'd just like to conclude with an explanation of 'Neo-Populism'. It's also come to be known as 'Media Populism', and is a cultural and political movement that has specifically emerged in the 21st Century. Think Kevin Rudd and Joe Hockey on Sunrise, or Sarah Palin on Fox News in America, and Facebook and Twitter. It is unique in that it combines, or perhaps redefines, classically opposed Left-Right attitudes as well, and incorporates various new electronic media as its means of popular dissemination of its messages, and a means of bypassing traditional media, its critiques and critics.
Thus we are seeing Joe Hockey's 'Bank bashing' finding favour with the Greens, the Greens striking out into the countryside to form alliances with country folk and Farmers groups, and so on.
It is also manifest, as we have seen again last weekend, with Tony Abbott's efforts to get out the vote in his favour in Port Macquarie at the next federal election, as he attempts to win Lyne back from Rob Oakeshott, by being media and culturally savvy and parlaying his fitness obsession into a direct rapport with the electors, as he makes sure that everyone knows when he is going to be in town and that they are encouraged to come down and cheer him on, and ultimately, he hopes, vote for his political party. Watch out for a 'Star' candidate to be put up against Mr Oakeshott to capitalise on all of Mr Abbott's groundwork.
So this is Populism and Neo-Populism in the 21st Century. The Greens and the Liberals and National Party (with Barnaby 'Barnstormer' Joyce) are alive to its potential for political gains to be made off the back of it.
It seems to me the ALP is not, and if it is not careful it will be caught in a populist pincer movement from the Left and the Right.
What do you think?