Populism and its Dangers

Dr. Norman Bailey, currently professor at Haifa University and former National Security adviser to both Presidents Reagan and Bush, spoke on the subject “Trump, Le Pen, Wilders and the Others, ” with the sub-title “contemporary populism and how it differs from its predecessors.”   He gave a professional and informative lecture and this is my attempt at a brief summary.

He pointed out that “populism,” the development of popular political movements, is not a new thing by any means.  It was known among the ancient Greeks, and indeed “democracy” as it was then known was described by Aristotle as akin to “mob-rule.”  He preferred rule by a few benign wise men.  However, that does not tend to happen.  The populist movements of the twentieth century have generally been disastrous, namely Fascism, Nazism, Socialism and Communism.  In each case these were motivated not only by envy, greed and power, but by ideology.  There was ideology of the left and of the right.

In the current political situation one can define Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland as populists of the right.  They have largely been propelled into prominence by the nationalistic reaction against the EU and the immigration issue. Populists of the left include Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Note that Sanders was not actually a member of the Democratic Party, he was elected Senator as an independent, yet he almost achieved the Democratic Party nomination because of a populist movement, except for the nefarious (and documented) cheating by Hillary Clinton’s Party machine.  In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn would have remained a nonentity if it were not for the disastrous decision by PM Theresa May to call a pre-Brexit election, that propelled Corbyn into an unassailable leadership role in the Labour Party due to a populist movement.

But, one difference between these current and past leaders of ideological movements and the current situation is that now we have non-ideological populism of the center.   For example, Donald Trump, who is not a conservative and was not a leading Republican, yet managed to defeat all the other authentic Republicans. Why? Because he identified himself as not coming from Washington DC, as not having been part of the ruling oligarchy, as not being part of the Party hierarchy and espousing causes that appeal to the majority of working and middle class Americans.  It is an astounding fact that ca. 1% of the richest Americans own ca. 48% of the total US wealth. The tendency of this accumulation of wealth and power has been accelerating with time, and the other 99% of Americans feel this.  They are looking for a champion, someone who will right this wrong, someone who will represent them, and this makes a populist movement, without any clear ideology.

Similarly in France, President Macron was virtually unknown one year ago.  He left government, formed his own party and is now President with a majority in the National Assembly.   Macron and Trump just met in Paris on Bastille Day, and no wonder they get along and were slapping each other on the back and declaring eternal friendship since they are both leaders of non-ideological populist movements.

I pointed out that there is a kind of contradiction in the secular West, the idea of democracy is almost a sacred belief.  Yet, when countries in Europe first achieved emancipation they lapsed into extreme populist movements that resulted in Nazism and Communism.  As Bertrand Russell said “beware of the ideologues.”   Yet, to paraphrase Winston Churchill “democracy is not a perfect system, but its the best one we have.”




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