The phenomenon is a wholesale suspicion of the principle of representation itselfby Thomas Osborne / December 13, 2016 / Leave a comment
Populism seems to be on the rise just about everywhere. From being a phenomenon mostly associated with illiberal states in regions such as Latin America, it seems to have entrenched itself within the established citadels of liberal democracy.
In the United States, we have the spectacle of Donald Trump talking tough on building walls, keeping out Muslims and making America great again. In Europe we have Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Milos Zeman in the Czech Republic, not to mention Marine le Pen and the Front National in France; on the left there are the parties of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Italy. In the UK, the Brexit campaign saw Conservatives like Boris Johnson joining forces with Nigel Farage’s Ukip, plus there is Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn with his large grassroots following.
Two and a half millennia ago, the Greek historian Thucydides described the features of populism in his account of the demagogue Cleon in democratic Athens. Cleon was a tub-thumping anti-establishment figure, deeply distrustful of those (such as Pericles) whom he regarded as the comfortable elite. Cleon appealed to the moral superiority of ordinary people over the wiles of professional politicians, the virtues of common sense over specialised knowledge. Cleon accused everyone else of demagoguery and manipulation while indulging liberally in those vices himself. Populists like Cleon tend to emphasize getting things done rather than just talking (Donald Trump: “We have to do it, folks. We have to build a wall!”). They see themselves as doers rather than as thinkers or idle, liberal chatterers.