If MPs uncritically accept the results of the EU referendum, they are not doing their jobsby AC Grayling / August 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Populism is finding its voice on both sides of the Atlantic—in the Trump phenomenon in the United States, in the Brexit vote in the UK, in other separatist movements in the European Union. Populism is the people pushing back at elites and giving voice to dissatisfaction. There is something to applaud in this, and something to fear—even for the populists themselves—and there are complicated lessons to be learned from it.
Populism can be defined either as left wing or right wing, the former characterised by anger over inequality and economic austerity, the latter by anxiety over immigration. The combination of the two makes a very toxic mixture; populist demagogues are quick to forge the link, typically blaming one on the other.
Populism is sometimes the antecedent of revolution, but revolutions typically require an organising vanguard to capture and direct populist sentiment. Revolutions almost always consume those who start them, and usually end with power being taken by regimes impatient of further populist unrest and therefore more repressive than the displaced regime. This is one of the clearer and most regularly disregarded lessons of history.
If a state were run on populist reactions to current affairs—say, by referendums on every issue—the outcome would be chaotic. The time, expertise and management of detail required in the government of complex societies could never be provided by ochlocratic rule (government by the mass of people.) Civil liberties and minorities would be at risk. The effective rulers of society would be emotion—generally inflamed emotion—and the short-term. This is precisely why the institutions and practices of representative democracy have evolved: to manage the crudities of mere majoritarianism.