Populism; What’s going on

populism word abstract in wood type

Frank Vibert discusses populism.

These days when we shop we may go to the High Street. As often as not, however, we will go straight online. It is immediate, direct and comes with delivery. The High Street is in free-fall. At the same time, we tend to overlook what is happening behind the scenes.  Behind the scenes a website is being managed, a payments system mobilised, our ability to pay is checked, our identity authenticated and a delivery system has to be in place. Usually our online source will be getting others to perform these functions on its behalf. In other words lying behind what seems to us to be a very immediate experience is a chain of intermediaries.

What is true of market delivery is also true of the delivery of non-market or public services. Behind our experience in visiting our doctor’s office there is a long line of specialist advisory, commissioning and delivery bodies. Behind government assurances that the financial services that we use are free from fraud, corruption and rip-offs, lie a long line of bodies trying to ensure the probity of the system.

There is however a difference. In the case of government services we do not see the same immediacy in responding to our wants. Our votes do not always get us the government we want. Even the political parties we support may not deliver on their promises. The new intermediaries involved in providing services simply add to the sense of distance. Moreover they stand for a world of experts whom we mistrust. They add to the sense that policy is being decided by elites to the advantage of those who know how to press the right buttons in the right places. In theory we can complain to the intermediary bodies. But that is time consuming and we may not know who to turn to, or how to approach them.

The distance we feel from government and policy making in supposedly democratic countries is one factor behind what is loosely termed ‘populism’. In fact the term covers up a number of different behaviours. It does indeed stand for the way in which people react when they feel distanced from government. But populism is also a reflection of the way we tend to associate with those we agree with and are influenced by them without taking into account the views of others. It reflects the fact that we do not explore deeply the policy issues that affect us but tend to assume that the attitudes of our friends offer a good enough diagnosis of what is good for us too.  It reflects a world of information overload where we don’t want to spend too much time on the complexities of public policy and where we take short cuts in our thinking.

Populism also reflects the deep social diversity of the urban world we all live in and share. We experience this diversity in the schools our kids go to, in our work place, in public transport and in many other services we use. We may find that we do not share the same attitudes towards the role of women or men, or towards clothing habits, or to same sex marriages, or to our bosses. Some of those we encounter everyday are looking to get ahead as quickly as possible in their lives, while others criticise the ‘consumer culture’ and point to the longer term social costs of market behaviour. Some of our workplace colleagues openly express and advertise their views. Others are discrete. Some are closely involved with like-minded groups. Others are determined individualists. In this world of deep diversity we are all prone to react defensively when something important to us, or to the groups we affiliate with, gets questioned.

It is easy to condemn ‘populism’ but, at the same time, we don’t want busy lives to be unduly cluttered by politics. It is reasonable to adapt our style of thinking to the context and to take shortcuts. We want people to be sensitive to the views of their friends and to want to protect values that they feel are important. Above all, people want to be treated fairly.  Fair treatment seems illusory when the reality is that policy decisions are often taken at a great distance by those whose concerns seem a million miles from our own.

It is therefore far too simple to attribute populism just to economic discontents and as something which will evaporate as economies improve. It reflects too some of the basic traits of our behaviour when we engage in politics in today’s social settings. Constitutional frameworks can help mould this engagement in positive ways. But they must themselves respond to the contemporary setting rather than copy out the texts of former times.


Frank Vibert, London School of Economics, UK


Vibert MakingMaking a 21st Century Constitution is available now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline.

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