We hear a lot about populists these days—politicians who appeal to ordinary folk on the grounds that their interests are ignored by the “elites.” Government, they insist, is in league with these elites, leaving only the populists to defend the interests of ordinary citizens.

Sceptics of populism are inclined to ask just who these elites are that supposedly so callously disregard the concerns of the masses. The answer depends on which populists you ask. There are essentially two varieties: left-wing and right-wing. Other than both presenting themselves as the only trustworthy representatives of the people, they are very different.

To left-wing populists, the elites are obvious—the rich. Specifically, plutocrats and corporations. Capitalists, in other words.

It isn’t quite so easy or obvious for right-wing populists. The elites can’t be the rich because conservatives are traditionally the political arm of the privileged. You don’t attack your sponsors. Right-wing populists have targeted banks in the past and currently American right-wingers are unhappy with the social media giants, but these are aberrations. Right-wing populists are inclined to choose as their villainous elites intellectuals, minorities (immigrants are a current favourite) and foreigners.

Answers to this victimhood of “the people” are much more straightforward for the left-wingers—policies that advantage working people while if necessary disadvantaging the rich. These range from promoting labour unions to higher taxes on the wealthy. They may even involve more severe methods such as land reform and nationalization of businesses.

Again, these measures are not available to right-wing populists. Right-wingers do not disadvantage the rich. And what is particularly awkward their preferred elites are rarely enemies of the people. Their policies therefore tend to rely on scapegoating and fear. They must convince the people without evidence that the intellectuals, minorities and foreigners are their enemies. Nostalgia, resentment and bigotry are common instruments.

Either form, left or right, can trend to extremism, Marxism on the left and fascism on the right. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro exemplifies the former and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán the latter. Donald Trump, too, provides a good example of the right’s drift into fascism.

Populists can be individuals or organizations, perhaps political parties, although they often like to present themselves as being above the shabby business of politics.

Personally I distrust populists of both brands with their their scapegoating and their easy answers. Nonetheless I am partial to the left-wing variety as long as they are staunchly democratic.

The reason for my bias is simple. The interests of the rich and ordinary people often do clash. This is not the case with the elites demonized by the right-wingers. The left-wing populist usually is genuinely concerned with the interests of the people whereas the right-wing populist is more often than not concerned primarily with stroking his narcissism and in gaining power. Again, Donald Trump provides us an excellent example.

Populists exploit troubled times and today we have no shortage of troubles, some big ones that we have never had to deal with before, including first and foremost climate change. The answers are there, but they don’t lie with populists. They do lie with science. We get to choose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discover more from Views from the Beltline

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading