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. And 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.¹ 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 biggest, and most relevant to the backsliding democracies of the 21st century, is the lure of populism.
Populism, for those who aren’t sure what that means, is a blanket term. It includes a range of political ideologies that pit “the people” against “the elite.” It casts “the people” as morally good and “the elite” as morally evil, while offering simplistic explanations and policies to address complex problems. Populist movements are generally led by “great leader”-type figures — people who build a cult of personality around themselves, generally with a messianic tinge. And it’s not limited by the political spectrum either; there are left-wing and right-wing populists, and populist rhetoric can be found in any political party.
Ok, so why is it bad? I’ll tell you.
Populism is a Bad Thing for 6 Reasons
Let’s break down the allure of populism for a moment, then we’ll get into the reasons why it’s a bad idea. The attraction of a populist movement is pretty straightforward — it’s an emotional appeal that addresses a popular grievance, usually by assigning a scapegoat. It allows its devotees to project blame, and it offers an easy solution to a problem — if we just stick it to those people, the nation’s problems will be resolved! Critically, this is often (but not always) a situation where people can “punch up,” meaning that the rhetoric targets those who are a social rung “up” from the intended audience.
That’s the best-case scenario, of course; it’s rarely a bad thing in and of itself to put powerful people on blast, but that’s not always who populist language targets. Populism gets really nasty if it starts to target poor, marginalized, or minority groups, which it often does. It’s usually easier to attack a minority group than it is to dislodged an entrenched elite class, after all, especially when you get to decided what the “elite” label means!
With that in mind, here are the six major downsides of a populist movement:
- No national problem is simple. Not a one. Simple solutions are consequently doomed to failure, and failure in this context means lost time, resources, and political capital. It might also mean that a nation slips into “failed state” territory, depending on how badly things are screwed up.
- Channeling rage is dangerous and unpredictable. Populism often employs violent rhetoric that has the serious and documented potential to run out of hand. January 6th, 2021, was a great example of populism run amok.
- Great Leaders drink their own Kool-Aid. It seems to be unavoidable; people who are treated as a Great Leader start to act the part, and over time they start to believe their own propaganda. Believing something that they want to be true is never a good step for a national politician.
- The “elites” are usually the wrong elites. The people who populists target are typically easy targets for their audience. That doesn’t mean they’re the actual people causing a problem; there is always someone causing a problem, but they are generally entrenched in systems of power and not an easy target.
- Giving the people what they want isn’t leadership. Populists get stuck in the trap of promising vs. delivering. To maintain their support base, they have to deliver on dodgy promises, and that is often to the detriment of the nation. Critically, a populist often does not care whether delivering a promise helps their nation, so long as they stay in power. This makes it very easy to start giving people things they think they want, rather than what the nation needs.
- “The People” are whoever the populist wants them to be. This may or may not include the actual, you know, people of a nation, and it almost never matches aggregated national preferences on any given issue block.
Now, if you look at this list and think “Yeah, makes sense,” feel free to stop here. For everyone else, I’ll break this down in some more detail. Grad a coffee and a snack and read on.
No National Problem is Simple
This is the first and greatest problem of populism, and it shouldn’t take anyone by surprise. Populists promise simple solutions. It’s part of the allure, this idea that there’s a simple fix that other people are simply too dumb, corrupt, or blinkered to see, and that the Great Leader has identified. “Build the wall,” “tax the rich,” “ban the evil book,” etc. You’ve doubtless heard these types of appeals all your life.
There’s a quick metric I like to apply here — if your solution to a national problem fits into a 5-second sound bite, it’s not going to work. Or at least, it won’t work the way you want. The world is under no obligation to be simple or easily explained, and as a rule it is neither. If you pretend that it is, bad things happen.
For example, let’s look at the whole “build the wall” debacle. Trump pushed this talking point out early in his candidacy, and it was (and is) a hit. If you want to stop illegal immigration, just build a giant wall and then the evil migrants can’t get in! Simple!
Who honestly thought that was going to work? Legions of Trump supporters, of course, but there are all kinds of problems with trying to just “build a wall.” I guarantee you that people who have traveled thousands of miles through several countries, often with extensive support from coyote organizations, are not going to balk at building a ladder, digging a tunnel, finding a weak section of brickwork, using a pair of bolt cutters, or… going around.
Then there’s the actual logistics of building and maintaining a fortification that stretches for hundreds of miles across rough terrain. Just building the roads to get materials to the wall construction site costs money and time! After the wall is built, it has to be guarded and maintained, because a wall that isn’t manned isn’t worth much, and a crumbling wall is worthless. Hundreds of billions of dollars would have gone into the wall, and the US shadow economy that feeds on illegal immigrants would not have changed.
The wall was a simple solution. It was also incredibly dumb, and represented an huge opportunity cost. Meanwhile nothing got done on comprehensive immigration reform, because everyone was talking about the wall.
Simple populist solutions to national problems generally lead to bad outcomes, which cost money that can’t go to better projects, and suck the oxygen out of the room for discussing real solutions. They are triple threats to a nation’s interests, as a general rule.
Channeling Rage is Dangerous
A lot of populism operates on rage; some of it operates on hope, but anger is a more reliable emotion. People have had enough, they’re not going to take it anymore, and they’re looking for someone to blame. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (anger gets shit done). But populism takes that anger, amps it up, gives it a justified target, and at that point you’re riding a tiger. Riding a tiger is fine, so long as you never get off.
I love using Trump as an example here, because he just makes it so easy. Donald Trump was actually booed by his own fan base as soon as he suggested that maybe getting a vaccine for COVID wasn’t such a bad idea after all. This was after months of feeding the flames of frustration with vaccine denial and anti-CDC rhetoric. Once you feed people a target for their rage, convincing them that it wasn’t the right target after all takes a lot of effort, and usually fails. No one wants to be wrong, after all.
The problem with populism in this sense is that, once you’ve fed the tiger a diet of red meat, it won’t want to eat anything else. If people are told that this group is the source of a problem, and build a movement around that concept, the movement doesn’t stop just because the circus master leaves the tent. The movement grows legs, and it is a fairly brainless creature once it is let loose. The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror is a good example of what happens when populism gets let off the leash; McCarthyism is another.
“Great Leaders” Believe Their Own Propaganda
There are a lot of problems with the cult-of-personality, messianic-style “great leaders” who rise to power in populist movements, but the biggest one by far is that these people have a tendency to believe their own bullshit. That’s the trouble with con men and revolutionaries alike; both get themselves into echo chambers where their propaganda is treated as reality, and then they have trouble getting out.
Donald Trump (I know, I can’t stop) arguably believes that his lies about the recent election are true. Hugo Chavez arguably believed that his economic “reforms” and authoritarian politics were working. Cult leaders often believe that they really are the messiah; it’s no different.
The problem is, of course, that whatever message a populist leader is peddling only very rarely lines up with reality. As previously noted, if you’re selling an overly simple solution to a complex problem, it’s probably not going to work. If your movement is built around that solution, your movement is out of sync with reality. It’s that simple. And reality does not care if you are deluded. It will do its thing regardless. Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it; those who do not recognize reality are doomed to make mistakes. One of the greatest and most common sins (in the literal meaning of that term) of politicians in general is to drift out of touch with reality, and populists are especially susceptible.
The “Elites” Are Usually the Wrong Elites
Part and parcel of offering an overly simple solution to a problem is that overgeneralization is the rule of the day. Consequently it’s very easy for a populist leader and movement to target the wrong people.
Let’s be absolutely clear: there is always someone to blame. Nothing happens in a social vacuum, and no human activity occurs without someone either supporting or opposing it. There is always someone who is responsible for any given thing in a society. If people are poor, someone is keeping them poor. If someone is rich, someone is maintaining that wealth. But that “someone” is usually a whole bunch of people operating within an entrenched institution, many of whom may not even recognize that this is what they’re doing; I have a whole series of articles about how that works.
A good recent example of this phenomenon is the whole “tax the rich” movement on the American left. It’s subsumed a lot of more detailed discussion of the actual issues with the tax system in America, and not in a good way. It’s very easy to say that the rich should pay more in taxes, and to be fair, they should. It’s obscene for a multi-billionaire to pay less in taxes than a schoolteacher; it’s simply unfair, and indicative of a rigged system. That makes it a really good target for populist rhetoric. But it’s also true that taxing the rich will not solve the debt crises. Not completely; it will raise money, sure, but a few hundred billion isn’t sufficient to overcome the hurdle of the trillions of dollars we are overspending.
To continue the example, if you want to solve the debt crisis, that solution is going to end up being a mélange of cutting spending, raising taxes across the board, and rationalizing the tax code to make it easier and less costly to pay taxes while increasing oversight. In the US, that translates to less military spending, more middle class taxes, and more money for the IRS. None of those things are sexy. None of those things get a voting base fired up; all three are frankly unpopular. It just so happens that these are things we are going to have to do, and it is going to be painful, but you may notice that there are entrenched interests that will absolutely fight each of these proposals to the death.
What we see here is that populism creates errors by targeting the wrong things, as a rule. The rich are not solely to blame for the nation’s debt woes; the Liberals are not to blame for gas prices; the President is not at fault for every single thing that occurs on their watch. Populism likes easy answers and easy targets, but neither are necessarily linked to an actual problem, and as a consequence the actual problem tends to get lost in the shuffle.
Giving People What They Want Isn’t Leadership
This one is hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around, because on the face of things it seems like the prime purpose of a democracy is to give people what they want. It isn’t. The purpose of a democracy is to give the people a say in who leads them, and give people a voice in policy options. The actual business of running a nation isn’t something that the average person knows a lot about, or wants to know about. Like it or not, we elect people to do that for us.
That makes it dangerous when populist leaders give the people what they want, because what the people want and what the people need are very different things. I know, I know, I’m an elitist bastard for saying that out loud. But it’s true.
In a lot of places right now, what the majority of people want is for their elected officials to engage in a lot of spurious claims about election fraud which did not actually happen. What these people need is for a trusted person to tell them, in a calm and competent manner, that there was no election fraud, Biden is the president, and Trump lost, which is the truth. One path takes us down a winding trail of political unrest, mutual mistrust, and potential insurrection, and it plays into the hands of our national enemies. The other starts us down a path of reconciliation and renewed trust in our democratic institutions. What the people want in a lot of cases isn’t at all what they need as citizens of the USA.
This is such a widely applicable truism of American politics that it almost beggars belief. What a lot of people want is to not pay taxes; what they need is to pay a fair tax and receive a well-understood, necessary public service in return to meet a need the market will not provide. What a lot of people want is to ban Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird from schools; what they need is to have the school system’s teacher retention rate improved in their district, and improve the quality of public education. What a lot of people want is to ban discussion of gay people from the public forum; what they need is more discussion on public transit options in that same public forum.
The problem here, as with other areas of populist dialogue, is that every time a leader gives in to populist pressure to do what the people want, they suck the oxygen out of the discussion of what is needed. Giving people what they want isn’t actually why we elect representatives; that’s why they aren’t called “proxies.” We elect people to represent our needs, and at times, remind us of what they are. If your representative doesn’t do this, they do not have your best interests in mind, they are not a good community leader, and that’s simply all there is to it.²
Populists do not care. They give their supporters what they want for the exclusive purpose of holding on to power. This is inherently toxic to absolutely everything about the democratic system; what people want can get pretty nasty if you let it, and most populists enjoy fanning the flames because it increases the profile of their chosen issue and, paradoxically, decreases the threshold they have to meet to be said to have fulfilled their promise. If a populist campaigns on, let’s say, banning all immigrants from certain countries, and then wins, and then has their proposed ban shot down because it was blatantly and illegally discriminatory, they have fulfilled their promise. They were simply thwarted by evil elites who want to end their movement!
Yes, I know. I should really stop using Trump examples, but honestly, it’s just too easy.
“The People” is a Meaningless and Malicious Label
Who, exactly, are “the people?” In populist discourse, the answer is simply “us.” As in, everyone inside the populist movement. Everyone outside the populist movement is a simp, an Uncle Tom, a useful idiot, simply an idiot, an enemy of the nation, or an evil elite. But they’re not “the people.” Of course, any of those folks who join the populist movement become part of “the people,” and anyone who defects from the movement joins one of the other camps.
This is an incredibly useful tool for a populist, because it lets them move goalposts however they want while assigning scapegoats at will. It’s also malicious as hell, because an us-vs-them mentality creates two outcomes: it radically motivates its supporters and it terminates most options for compromise. This is a recipe for political violence, or at the very least, gridlocked governance.
Of course, “the people” may not represent the majority, or even a significant minority, of actual voters. They almost certainly do not represent an aggregation of national preferences, although they may very accurately represent regional preferences. And in any case, “the people” certainly do not represent those who aren’t in the populist movement, making a tyranny by the majority-type situation extremely likely in populist-dominated societies.
As a rule, if you start hearing politicians making definitive statements about what “the people” want, contrasted with what some nebulously-defined (but doubtlessly evil) cabal of elites want, be on guard.
Summing Up: Populism Leads to National Failure, Don’t Vote For It
Ok, let’s bring this back to you. What are you supposed to take away from this?
Simple. Populism is bad, recognize it and vote for something else. Populists go for the emotions and the easy fixes, and they prey on people who respond to those things. If you find a politician who’s overtly pressing those buttons, watch out.
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 the people what they want. God help us.³
I’ll put out another article in a few days talking about how to spot a populist in the making, but as a rule, these are people who should not be given even the smallest shred of power. Don’t hand it to them. You modern survival may very well depend on it.
¹There’s a great book that talks about this concept in a lot of detail called “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, and if you have time to read it I would strongly encourage you to do so.
²Of course, you shouldn’t simply take their word for it either. A good metric for determining whether something is actually an “interest” to you is as follows: does it materially affect your life? Which is to say, in terms of your money, rights, or lifestyle, does it hurt you? Does it help you? If the answer is yes to either question, that issue affects you and it is in your interest to take action on that thing. If it doesn’t, it is not relevant to your interests. At this point, though, it is wise to put yourself in your neighbor’s shoes and ask the same question, because if your neighbor is being helped or harmed that could rapidly turn into an item of interest to you.
³Historical examples include: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Juan Peron of Argentina, Doug Ford of Canada, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Andrew Jackson of the US, Donald Trump of the US, and a laundry list of others. This isn’t a new phenomenon.