An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
You’re reading an article of the Modern Survival Guide, a long-running blog where we talk about modern life and its challenges. In the last entry, cleverly titled “Why Populism is Bad,” we talked about why populism is bad. I do try to deliver on titles. This entry will carry the warning forward, and hopefully show you how to spot a dangerous populist in the wild.
Just to recap: if I’ve said it before, I’ve said it a dozen times — there are few things that will affect your quality of life in the modern world more than the type of government your nation has. With that being said, there are a LOT of pitfalls that a nation has to avoid in order to have an effective government. One of the most serious, and most relevant to the backsliding democracies of the 21st century, is the lure of populism.
Populists in power, historically, tend to wreck their nations. They promote overly simplistic views and policies that lead to poor outcomes with loads of unintended consequences. They build up coalitions of rabid supporters who don’t know when to compromise or when they’ve crossed a line. They eventually believe their own lies and constantly vilify their enemies. And then, when they’ve built a network of bad ideas, falsehoods, scapegoats, and frothing supporters, they give their people what they want. God help us.
We need to avoid giving populists power, and at least in the US that means not voting for them. But in order to do that, you have to know who they are. Fortunately, populists tend to have a number of fairly obvious traits if you know where to look. Here are five of the easiest to spot:
- Claiming “the people”
- Appeals to exaggerated patriotism
- Offering really simple solutions
- Big rallies, bad data
- Inconsistent logic
Not all of these are exclusive to populists, of course. But if you start seeing a politician who is making use of several of these tactics, they’re probably a dangerous populist, and you probably shouldn’t vote for them on general principle. If this makes sense to you now, this is your exit point from the article. Otherwise, keep reading, and we’ll go through these points.
Claiming “The People”
This is one of the definitions of a “populist” in the first place — they claim to be acting on behalf of “the people” of the nation in opposition to some nebulous group of elites or other scapegoats. Now, here’s the thing about “the people.”
There is no. such. thing.
There is no such thing as a unified national populace. Doesn’t exist. There certainly isn’t any such thing as a national amalgamation of people who all have the same ideas about, well, anything. That’s part of the point of liberal democracy, it’s a system that allows a bunch of people with very disparate ideas of what a “correct” life looks like to live together in, if not harmony, at least peace. Most of the time.
Any politician who is claiming that the will of “the people” supports them is lying. They might very well have the blessing of some of the populace. Maybe even a majority. But not all of them, because we don’t all agree on anything. And usually, when people start throwing around statements about “the people,” what they really mean is “the people in this arena,” or “the people who agree with me,” which isn’t the same thing at all as a national consensus.
Critically, if someone is telling you that they have the support of “the people,” or they are acting for “the people,” and they don’t tell you who “the people” are, they are probably a populist or using populist rhetoric.
Patriotism is a hell of a thing. In the right hands it’s a unifying force, and a powerful one. In the wrong hands, it’s a way to exclude anyone who isn’t as patriotic as you, whatever that means. In really wrong hands, it’s a way to justify horrific actions by marginalizing and persecuting people who don’t kowtow to the flag. If you see a politician start to use patriotism in either of those last couple of ways, watch out. “My country, right or wrong,” is a truly scary rallying cry.
Exaggerated patriotism takes a lot of forms. It can go from relatively juvenile activities such as, for example, someone hugging or kissing a flag, all the way up to someone promoting a “no true Scotsman” fallacy by claiming that anyone who isn’t as patriotic as they are is a traitor. Critically, anyone using exaggerated patriotism will usually start by creating their own, very exclusive, definition of what patriotism is or means, and ensure that any deviation from their chosen agenda is labeled “unpatriotic.”
As a general rule, if you encounter a politician who is loudly declaiming that they are for “patriots” or who claim that “true patriots” support their agenda, it’s a pretty good bet that politician is a populist or is employing populist rhetoric.
Overly Simple Solutions
As I have mentioned many, many times in this blog, there are no political problems that have simple solutions. Political problems usually exist explicitly because people disagree on the solution. It’s often the case that there isn’t even a “good” solution, and the real choice is simply between different levels of poor outcomes.
Take taxation, for example. No one knows what the “correct” tax level or strategy is, and if they say they do, they’re lying. This is because an answer to a “correct” tax level requires that (1) you have a specific and widely accepted strategy for the use of tax revenue, (2) you have a specific and widely accepted metric for the amount of tax you can extract without causing undue economic damage, and (3) you have a well-understood and accepted system of taxation. And that’s just for starters. That’s literally as simple as it gets, those are still three hideously complex things, and there is no universal consensus about any of them.
Consequently, if you hear a politician claiming that they can solve national problems with really simple solutions (e.g., “build the wall,” flat tax schemes, student loan forgiveness), as a general rule they are either deluded or lying. If their simple solution explicitly assigns blame to a particular group (bad hombres, tax the rich, etc.), they are almost certainly a populist or are pushing populist rhetoric.
Big Rallies and Bad Data
Populists draw their legitimacy from the narrative that “the people” support them. Consequently it is very important for them to be seen with a lot of people who support them, and a common populist tactic is to hold huge rallies explicitly for the purpose of gathering their supporters together for the cameras.
For example, Donald Trump will go down in infamy for the sheer volume of mass rallies he held during his candidacy and, more importantly, during his presidency. The only purpose of holding a rally when you’re already in office is to show off for the cameras, and parade in front of your supporters.
On the flip side, actual support statistics are like kryptonite to populists, because their legitimacy relies on the perception of support, not actual poll numbers. Actual poll numbers tend to reveal embarrassing things for a populist, like how many of “the people” actually support their opponent or oppose their policies. Therefore, expect populists to reject, meddle with, or outright fake data.
If you see a politician holding regular, large rallies where they can exhort their supporters, while also misrepresenting or denying data related to the actual number of their supporters or actual support for their policies, you have very likely found a populist.
The problem with “the people,” as has already been noted, is that there are a lot of them and very few of them hold the same opinion. Populists are well aware of this problem, and have a tendency to adopt the strategy of telling their current audience whatever they want to hear. This means that over time, they will develop a record of logically inconsistent positions.
This sort of thing should be easy to track in the modern world, with our endless documentation of everything, but in reality it can be very difficult. It requires that an observer pay attention to and collate information from multiple speeches or statements to evaluate a politician’s record of logical consistency (shows like The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver make their living on this kind of thing), which is a lot of work.
Another problem, of course, is that practically no politicians are logically consistent in all of their positions, especially over a time period any longer than about four years. That’s simply a function of politicians adapting to public opinion and it’s not, in itself, necessarily a bad thing. Democracy should, by definition, move with the public opinion.
The way you spot a populist, then, is to pay attention to what a politician says over short timelines where they are giving speeches to different groups on the same subject, and see if they stay even remotely consistent. If the politician constantly changes their position based on their current audience, you have quite likely found yourself a populist who is simply trying to convince each room they walk into that they are part of the “the people.”
Bringing it all Together
Now, if you read each of those entries, you’ll have noticed that I ended each one with a weasel word or two. That’s because lots of non-populist politicians employ these tactics as well, simply in the name of political expediency. Some politicians are populists; others are simply slimy bastards, and it’s sometimes hard to draw the line between them.
So, as a rule, I would recommend that if you see a politician employing any three of these strategies, they are a populist and they bear watching. That’s a nice, straightforward metric and it provides a handy trigger point.
And how does one use this information, I hear you asking? Simple. If someone trips the trigger as a populist, don’t vote for them. Period, full stop. Get in your local primaries and pick someone else. Organize opposition against them. Stay home. Whatever you feel like you have to do, just don’t give them power, because by utilizing the tactics and methods listed here, they’ve proven that they can’t be trusted with it.
Politics is, by its nature, a dirty game. We don’t ever get the perfect outcome, and that’s simply life. But if you can at least do your part to ensure that bad people don’t achieve high political office, you’ve done a fair bit towards ensuring that the politics of your nation aren’t actually working against it, and that’s frequently good enough.