Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro are often described as populism’s modern incarnation. Photo: Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Populism is merely a symptom. Treatment must target the underlying disease

It is a form of politics that educated opinion disdains. But it’s no good wishing populism away. Wake up to the underlying condition of mis-governance that creates it—and then shake up our institutions to fix the link between the governing and governed
April 6, 2021

Over the past decade, populism has emerged as an invasive species which has disrupted a previously stable political ecosystem. Liberal democracies across the world have been left in disarray, and occasional victories by establishment parties offer only temporary respite from its onslaught. That is an interpretation that Prospect readers—and all “right-thinking” opinion—will by now have heard many times.

However, in reality, populism is a symptom of the dysfunction, not the cause. It is a corrective response to a political organisation that is already suffering from an underlying pathology. Like many reactions, it can certainly sometimes end up doing more harm than good. But there is no hope in dealing with it decisively—still less of achieving full health to our polity—if the underlying issue isn’t addressed.

To grasp the nature of populism and how to address it, we must first understand what it means to govern well. Opinions will of course differ on the exact criteria. But there would surely be broad support for the inclusion of three qualities: it is legitimate, effective and provident.

Legitimacy relates to the extent to which a government has justly acquired and is trusted to exercise power. There are competing philosophical accounts of what constitutes a legitimate government, and different cultural traditions have their own profound stories about what makes a ruler’s power legitimately acquired and exercised. But any state which does not meet some plausible account of legitimacy cannot be said to be well governed, regardless of how effective and provident it is.

Effective government is able to identify, prioritise, and meet the needs of the people. Some of these needs are protected by legal rights which are enforced by the legal system and the police. Material needs are met, perhaps through markets, but with effective regulation and relevant “externalities” priced in, as well as the collective provision of public services. Individuals also have symbolic needs, such as self-respect and dignity. A variety of measures and public interventions are required to fulfil these needs, including cultural recognition by a state's institutions and the story it tells about itself. A functioning legislature and executive who are responsive to the changing needs of the governed should bind them together. We can think of this component of good governance as the ongoing internal regulation of the multiplicity of needs and desires of a people, an attempt to reach and maintain a kind of homeostasis.

Finally, a provident government is able to meet the challenges of history as they present themselves. Good governance is not merely about maintaining stability. Even a legitimate and effective state needs to meet the particular vicissitudes of its age—whether those are war, technological disruption or climate change. Machiavelli described something similar to this future-orientedness when he spoke of Fortuna—the energy and intelligence a ruler can bring to confront its fate. There is no process for this. Rather, it is the capacity for foresight and strategic action. Many apparently well-governed states have floundered in the face of the pandemic, and death tolls present an indictment of what happens when states are unable to mount an intelligent and energetic response to novel circumstances.

It is unlikely, perhaps impossible, for a government to be perfectly legitimate, effective, and prudent at all times. Through force of circumstance, most governments in most places will fail in one or more of these areas. But consistent failure can lead to serious problems for the life of a state. And in fact, it is the significant failure in all of these areas which has led to the flourishing of a global trend in populism.

The literature on populism, fittingly, is split. Some authors characterise it as a progressive force that has its roots in the late 19th century American agrarian movement which culminated in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, and—arguably—has today resurfaced again in the US in Bernie Sanders’ European style social democracy. Other authors see it as chiefly reactionary and authoritarian, with close ties to fascism, and with contemporary strongmen like Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoan and Donald Trump as populism’s modern incarnation.

It is certainly a sprawling phenomenon, and some see it more as a “style” than anything fixedly left or right. The Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, one of Prospect’s Top 50 World Thinkers for 2019, has defined populism as an ideology that pits the true will of “the pure people” against “the corrupt elite.” Populism is widely seen as something undemocratic that needs to be managed, because it condemns the institutions it challenges as illegitimate, weakening them and their governing norms. It can hamper a government’s ability to act on the future through misinformation and conspiratorial thinking. Most such arguments, however, get things backwards.

By treating populism principally as either an independent ideology or as a form of rhetoric or a campaigning technique, they distract attention from the root causes of populism. A recent report co-authored by Francis Fukuyama, released by the Stanford Freeman Spogli Institute for International Affairs, offered typical “solutions,” suggesting institutional reform, rhetorical changes in politics and better coalition building. While institutional reform is certainly necessary, the latter two are not obviously in the anti-populists’ gift when the populists are in the ascendent, and anyway betray an undue fixation on the significance of populism’s toxic rhetoric.

Understanding populism as a reaction to problems in the body politic leads us down a different route. Anti-establishment political movements that claim to speak in the name of ordinary people against a corrupt elite, and aim to change the system, will vary in how democratic they are, how coherent their programme is, and how far they truly speak on behalf of their constituency. But if we listen—really listen—to disparate movements of this broad sort, there is one relatively consistent message coming through: “Our governing institutions and elites have failed us. We no longer believe they are entitled to their authority and we want change.”

If we take the rise of populism in the US as instructive, it’s perfectly clear how the government’s failure to act legitimately, effectively and providently has directly led to the populist turn. The US electoral system and electoral college are arcane, gerrymandering is rife, and the Senate filibuster a farce. Voting has often seemed to change nothing.

The old self-image of their Republic as a “shining city upon a hill” has come to seem like a cruel joke to many Americans. US politicians and regulators are routinely insulated from the consequences of their decisions. Take the two significant crises that coincided with my political coming of age: the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis. In spite of their association with the 2008 crash, Timothy Geitner and Larry Summers have continued to play prominent roles in American public life. Even outside of the political sphere, virtually no one with significant responsibility for the financial system in the run-up to the 2008 crisis has faced criminal charges. Similarly, the worst fate of the architects of the catastrophic Iraq invasion has been to be comfortably ensconced in a think tank. The point here is not to pass moral judgement on particular individuals, but just to draw attention to the fact that the system is not just extremely good at deferring responsibility, but that this is the norm.

It ought to still be possible for a state to be well governed if what it lacks in legitimacy it makes up for in being effective. But again, the US political system has struggled to meet the needs of many of its constituents. At a procedural level alone, Congress is largely unable to pass significant legislation. And when it does pass legislation, it does not consistently satisfy the wants of the governed. When the most affluent Americans disagree with the rest, laws are warped by wealth: a notorious 2014 study suggests that US legislation which reflects the preferences of the most affluent is far more likely to pass than legislation which reflects the preferences of the majority. As a consequence, we see increasing financial insecurity. Wages have stagnated over a generation for the typical American worker, and for two generations in the case of the median working man. Even those rare reforms which can pass often disappoint: Obamacare has not done much to put the US healthcare system in line with those of other developed economies. So whether it be through legislation, the economy, or service provision, evidence suggests that the effectiveness of governance in the US was thrown into doubt long before the rise of populism.

Lastly, has the US system been provident in addressing the future? Again the record is poor. The 2008 financial crisis was the result of short-term thinking at almost every level. Faltering life expectancy has been driven by a rise in “deaths of despair,” and more recently the out of control death rate of the current Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare how frail America’s way of life has left many of its people. The looming spectre of climate and ecological breakdown has long pointed to a governing system which finds it difficult to cope with the challenges of its age.

It is far more credible to view populism as a response to decades of ineffective government with questionable legitimacy and little innovation, rather than as some self-standing ideology running amok across the body politic. And this is not just an American story. The trajectory the UK has followed is strikingly similar. Different political and constitutional traditions have meant that the UK has more often been able to make some modest attempts to improve its governance in the last generation—such as freedom of information, devolution and the human rights act. But these have not fixed the overall sense of disconnect. And the bottom line is that neither Brexit, nor Trump, nor a Capitol insurrection can fix the failures in governance either. They are responses, driven by far longer standing trends.

The real question is how to get back at least some way towards our trilogy of good governance. It won’t be easy. On the legitimacy criterion, the complexity and specialisation of the task of government makes it increasingly hard for individuals to understand what exactly is at stake in different policy prescriptions. But in many modern states, clunky institutional design makes matters worse by failing to accommodate the increasingly diverse group of people governed. New technologies should open up better channels of communication with the citizenry, but often this chance is still not taken. 

Regarding the issue of effectiveness, after the 1980s, governments steadily developed an almost pathological inability to appreciate the limits of free markets, which has led to a dearth of imaginative policymaking. Many policy measures around free trade that are pursued for the sake of (increasingly marginal) GDP growth often have negative effects on the living conditions of many of the more vulnerable sections of society. In the closing decades of the 20th century, the western states flattered (without fixing) their own books by selling off their own assets at cut price, and imposed privatisation on poorer parts of the world under IMF/World Bank “structural adjustment” programmes. The long years of “Washington consensus” saw inequality soaring within many economies, while—despite the promise—productivity growth mostly failed to pick up.

As we look at the issue of provident government, again we see certain global trends that have mitigated against national politicians making specific commitments towards the future. The dominant approach to good governance is focussed primarily on protecting a minimal set of rights, so that very specific “market failures” are fixed, while—by implication—assuming the market itself will fix everything else. As a result, establishment political parties have tended to run on a future agnostic platform with vague promises to make things better and fairer.

Meanwhile, the political programmes behind populist campaigns have included very concrete future actions. While slogans like “Make America Great Again” and “Take back control” are suitably vague, these programmes did promise tangible changes, like building a wall, cancelling trade deals, and “getting Brexit done.” Both of these campaigns ran as bucking the economic orthodoxies of the establishment, which, whatever you make of their objectives, they certainly did. And it certainly seems like this “primary colour politics” might have created new space to challenge old orthodoxies. President Biden is at the helm of a fiscal package far more ambitious than anything pursued by his recent predecessors, and has made unprecedented public interventions on issues like the Amazon workers union drive which look like they could be aimed at addressing long-standing financial insecurity and inequality. Likewise, the remaking of the UK’s electoral map suggests a renewed focus on marginalised communities outside of London and renewed interest from all sides of the political spectrum on using government to shape the country. But we only have to look to the riots at the US Capitol on 6th January 6 to see that this expansion of political possibility also has a dark side.

Whether it is possible to govern well in the face of populism is a question to which we can give no useful answer. You may as well ask if it is possible to navigate well in a sinking ship, or live healthily with a 39-degree fever. This is because populism itself is, primarily, a reaction to bad governance, not a challenge to good governance. The interesting question is: is it possible to improve government so that the populist reaction subsides? And to this, I want to suggest a cautious yes.

But this requires at least three significant changes. Firstly, it will depend on our ability to innovate democratic institutions so that they can be more open and responsive to the demands of the governed. The challenge to government is to pick up new approaches and experiment with them so that they can become part of not just civic life, but of our political ecosystem. Secondly, as policy makers, our activities and institutions must become the subjects of comprehensible law, and more importantly, ordinary notions of responsibility. Thirdly, future agnosticism must be abandoned. Political parties need to offer real alternatives to voters that actually speak to the future, which go much further than what markets alone can offer. The last year has shown some progress on at least two of these fronts.

The necessity for real political alternatives has come into stark relief over the last year as unprecedented levels of state intervention have been vital to protect public health. These measures have largely been restricted to dealing with the immediate crisis. But the real political art will be leveraging an active state to address that other looming challenge that is facing all of us: the climate emergency. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there are certain crises which markets are too slow, too poorly coordinated, and just too fragile to address.

Improvements are also being made around innovations in democracy. One promising example is the use of citizens’ assemblies. Alongside experiments run by nonprofits, there are a number of successful assemblies linked to existing governing institutions, such as “The Citizens’ Assembly” in Ireland. These assemblies can help address the issue of legitimacy, and make government more effective by employing a broader swathe of the governed in the design of policy and services. Bold ideas like widening the franchise to children, as suggested by David Runciman, should be tested and explored, in an attempt to revitalise the relationship between institutions and citizens. The fact that during a pandemic, mass demonstrations, riots, and protests have been the absolute norm suggests there is some untapped appetite for political participation. Crucially, these kinds of democratic experiments can play a role in absorbing and redirecting the energy unleashed in the populist age, but also in solving some of the actual policy challenges we face.

Provident governance demands that policymakers take responsibility for making politics more interesting and more connected to the lives of citizens. We must be creators of new kinds of democracy, not passive inheritors of an existing system. So long as populism is treated as an ill to be cured rather than a systemic response to be channelled, the age of populism will only be prolonged.