No doubt many readers have recognise and deplore the debasement, over the past 40 or so years, of the English language under the influence of Left wing academics and special interest groups. The word ‘racist’ is the most obvious example. Others are ‘homophobia’, ‘xenophobia’, ‘hate speech’ and, well the list of words hijacked by the left and freighted with contempt for all who disagree goes on on on.
But there’s also another example, one that has come very much to the fore of late: “populist”. At the moment it is the slur du jour for the shell-shocked left, stunned that so many recent votes and plebiscites have gone against them.
Merriam-Webster defines a populist as “a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people; a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.” Under the first definition, the ALP qualifies as ‘populist’. What politician in his right mind would abjure a description of himself as a believer in the rights, wisdom or virtues of the common people? Yet we routinely hear ‘populist’ used in the pejorative against any politician who so far forgets his status as a member of the establishment elite as to tap into the mood of those he has been elected to represent.
The supreme and most recent example, of course, is Donald Trump. You could not find a better example of this phenomenon than a piece headlined “Moderates Can Be a Force for Change in 2017”, originally published in The Times and reproduced in The Australian, by one Rachel Sylvester.
Sylvester’s Wikipedia entry tells us “she was named 2015’s Political Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards. Iain Martin has described her and Thomson’s work as ‘highly skilled interviewers [with] a gift for getting people to burble on until they say something highly revealing’.” Judging by the article in question it’s clear Rachel knows a thing or two about burbling. She begins thus:
In this, the year of the political strongman, Vladimir Putin has surely been the biggest winner. He has extended Russia’s sphere of influence to the Middle East, propping up his ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria by slaughtering civilians and bombing aid convoys, while launching cyber attacks and propaganda campaigns that destabilised the West.
She then goes on to mention Turkey’s President Erdogan and Philippines President Duterte as other examples of the rise of ‘hard men’ and, not to be thought of as jingoistic or biased, she takes a swipe closer to home:
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s eulogy to Fidel Castro was a reminder that the Left has its own favourite oppressors.
Since she led off with Vladimir Putin one wonders why she needed to remind us, per the example of Corbyn, that the Left has its own dubious characters, albeit fairly tame ones, who confine themselves to simple expressions of admiration for dictators, rather than actually emulating them by executing or imprisoning their opponents. I wonder if Xi Jinping might be a bit miffed at not making the cut, given his sabre-rattling in the South China Sea.
But let’s not carp. It was this next paragraph that initially caught my attention:
In this year of the demagogue, Donald Trump tweeted his way to victory in the US while his mini-me, Nigel Farage, shaped events in Europe and then became the face of Britain abroad. The photograph of the US president-elect and the former UK Independence Party leader smiling in the gold and diamond-studded Trump Tower lift was the image that defined the past 12 months. Marine Le Pen is waiting in the wings in France, hoping to capitalise on the anti-establishment mood. Emotion has trumped intellect, and prejudice overwhelmed truth, as populism goes mainstream.
No prize for guessing where Rachel stood on Brexit, which brings me back to my initial point about the corruption of the word ‘populist’. There are a number of issues that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and they were certainly populist in the sense that they represented issues that resonated strongly with the ‘common people’. They were, in just a few words, control of national borders, loss and restoration of sovereignty, rising income inequality, law and order and Islamic extremism.
No rational person could doubt that these are genuine problems, ones exerting their adverse impacts on millions of ‘common people’. The only debate is the best way in which to tackle them. ‘Populists’ such as Donald Trump say it is time to throw out what clearly hasn’t worked and try something new. What Trump is proposing in regard to most of these issues is by no means anathema to conservatives. The only contentious area is protectionism. I’m not an economist, but perhaps globalized markets could do with some tweaking around the edges to ensure a level playing field. In any case, much could be achieved by cutting company tax, reducing the cost of energy and eliminating green tape – all measures proposed by Trump and hardly out of left field.
Let’s accept that ‘progressives’ have captured the word populism and redefined it to mean someone who latches onto a popular sentiment, regardless of its merits, not out of commitment but out of pure self-interest. If you’re looking for this kind of populist you need look no further than our very own Opposition Leader, Mr Shorten, who can make all the requisite noises in favout of multiculturalism until he finds himself standing before an audience of naval construction workers. That was, as readers will recall, the moment he found it convenient to denounce Japan and the Japanese.
By the way, according to Merriam Webster, a demagogue is “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices, rather than by using rational argument.” So it’s another of those darts, like ‘racist’, that you can whip out and hurl at your opponent whenever you lack a rational counter-argument.
Farage and Trump were appealing to popular desires, no doubt about it, but it cannot be said that Farage avoided rational argument. And, while admittedly some of Trump’s antics and pronouncements seemed unhinged, most of his proposed solutions are based on rational argument, even if you don’t agree with them. Even his proposal to build a wall between the US and Mexico, while it might prove both costly and difficult, is an entirely rational response to the daily waves of illegal immigration.
Here’s another gem:
In the new age of unreason the liberal, rule-based international institutions on which the world order has been based for decades — the EU, the IMF, NATO and the UN — have been challenged as bureaucratic anachronisms run by experts.
Words almost fail me! The sheer gall of these unwashed masses to prefer their own sovereignty and national interests to the dictatorial rule of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels and the totally ineffective self-serving machinations of UN’s mandarins. Sylvester’s main point is that, thankfully, there are enough adults left at Westminster to save these pro-Brexit cretins from themselves.
After the emotional spasm of the last few months, reality is kicking in. British Brexit Secretary David Davis is starting to talk the language of compromise. Even Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary who has always been the cabinet’s most ideological free marketeer, has floated the possibility that Britain might stay in the European customs union.
Leave supporters, who have always been deeply mistrustful of the Whitehall establishment, now declare themselves relieved that Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood is overseeing the EU negotiations because, as one Tory peer puts it, “at least there’s a sensible grown-up in charge”.
Well, no harm in trying to get the best of both worlds. I expect that Brexiteers would be happy to keep the good bits as long as they regain their nation’s sovereignty and control of its borders. I wouldn’t hold my breath though, Rachel, given that Brussels’ position prior to the Brexit referendum was that it’s either all in or all out. It’s hard to see them retreating from that position and granting special concessions, given that other EU states are getting restless and contemplating their own exits.
Even Dennis Shanahan, writing in The Weekend Australian, buys into this narrative (emphasis added):
The general disillusion is not just with the Coalition but is part of the wider feeling of frustration with the political processes and parliamentary gridlock, an alarming decline in support for our democratic system that is being felt in jurisdictions where voters feel their views and ballot box choices are not being recognised or implemented.
It’s not the system that’s at fault, Dennis, it’s the way in which the game is played by the current crop of trough-snouters.The Australian also opines that Senator Cory Bernardi, routinely branded as a ‘populist’ and rumoured to be contemplating his own party, should just ‘suck it up’ in the interests of keeping Labor off the Treasury benches. This manifests the conventional wisdom that governments should govern from the centre, which means that both sides must be prepared to compromise. Trouble is that the centre is not a fixed point of political geography; rather, it is a nebulous entity that keeps ‘slip-sliding away’ to the Left, not under the influence of a general drift in people’s attitudes but rather as a result of the ideological blitzkrieg that has seen the left take charge of the institutions — media, universities, government departments etc — through more than half a century of infiltration and cronyism.
So, if a substantial portion of the electorate sees the centre moving from sensible and practical ideals of governance towards progressive and feel-good trumpery, is it any wonder they feel abandoned?
We often hear politicians referred to as ‘our leaders’. That might be a convenient term but it sends them exactly the wrong message. We don’t actually want our politicians to lead us anywhere, particularly on social issues. We want them to devise and implement policies that reflect our needs and desires.
And if they are branded populists for doing so, so be it.