We are seeing, in many Western democracies, the rising tide of right-wing, homespun populism, of the sort championed by the likes of Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson. Their rhetoric is made up of illogical, bigoted accusations and cruel, extreme, largely unachievable solutions, all delivered in simplistic slogans. For instance, Hanson says that Islam is incompatible with Australia’s Christian culture. When challenged she just replies. “It says so in the Koran”. I have not heard her being challenged either about the claim that Australia is a Christian society. She demands that the government ban Muslims from entering Australia. She also wants a Royal Commission into the science of climate change. Her claims and demands are rarely subjected to persistent questions. I can understand an interviewer’s reluctance to question her for too long. It is frustrating for someone trying to lift the level of a discourse when the other party is determined to keep it down. And, persistence beyond a certain point can always be reframed as bullying, to Hanson’s advantage. In any case, she seems incapable of thinking at a complex, sophisticated level.
Populism is the antithesis of real leadership. Populist leaders tap into people’s anger and disgruntlement and pretend to be their champion. They despise intellectualism and political correctness. They willingly pander to and exploit base human attitudes like racism, xenophobia and misogyny. They angrily howl at political correctness because it is critical of much of the behavior of their core group of supporters. Maybe it is unfortunately termed, but all PC does is point out bigotry and prejudice in society. The significant word is “correctness”. What PC defends is fundamentally correct. Those who rail against it are bigots. They object to their bigotry being called for what it is. Bigotry can be powerful. It is often strongly connected to how some people identify themselves and define their self-worth. They are proud of their bigotry. They object to being told that their attitudes are antiquated and have no place in a modern, equal, inclusive society. Trump and Hanson have tapped into that anger.
Populism is about finding villains and scapegoats. It is against real progress. Its objective is the winding back of progress already achieved, and returning to society the values and norms of their angry mob of supporters. The great fraud that populist leaders perpetrate on their followers is that they have no intention of doing anything substantial about their problems. They purport to represent them, but the solutions they propose, like a ban on Muslim immigration, reinstatement of protectionism, adopting climate change denial as an official position, calling a halt to foreign aid and refugee intakes, are all not only unethical and backward-looking, but also unachievable.
It is important to resist venting the anger and frustration that populists’ rhetoric engenders in normal, decent people, because open hostility is a weapon that can be used against those who oppose them. The most effective opposition to them and their ilk is, first a refusal to be dragged down to their level of discourse, followed by resolutely continuing to espouse policies and attitudes that unite people. Let the Hansons of this world peddle their hate. Don’t be reactionary. Instead, be steadfast to what is truly of value, what will create a harmonious society.
It is one thing to recognize that populism will not solve the problems that beset societies, but it is quite another to be aware of the reasons that populism has raised its ugly head and produced political leaders out of left field, leaders that are not part of the political mainstream. It is simply that the political mainstream is not trusted anymore to represent everyone, particularly those who are being sidelined by globalisation and technological progress. People desperately want leadership that is not beholden to powerful interest groups, not puppets of big business, not slaves to ideology. The rise of Trump and Hanson is largely a rebuttal of mainstream political corruption and ineffectiveness. People are saying to the major political parties “You have had your day, and have performed miserably. Get out. Let someone else run the show.” In fact, many of these people don’t see Trump and Hanson as providing solutions, simply because they don’t have believable, viable solutions, apart from nasty slogans. But, their rise in popularity is a warning shot across the bows of mainstream politics, a warning to clean up their act, get off their arses and lead the masses, give ordinary people the priority they deserve.
The major political parties of many capitalist economies, the parties that habitually swap government with one another, particularly in the English-speaking world, are in the thrall of big business, represented by major banks and corporations, and other wealthy interest groups. And, the risk that is run from not sufficiently heeding the rise of populism and taking tangible steps to address the needs of ordinary folk is that populist leaders could win elections. Arguably, Donald Trump’s victory was detested more by Republicans than Democrats.
In Australia, the Liberal and Labor parties are not trusted anymore. Through internal squabbling, which has seen many destabilising leadership changes in recent times, weakness and timidity in tackling big issues, and being constantly spooked by the political and news cycles, they have earned the contempt of the electorate. And deservedly so. Political opportunists like Hanson have seized upon and exploited the discontent. She doesn’t provide solutions that are workable, and in the interests of the community at large. Her so-called solutions are racist and divisive. And empty and unachievable. They are uttered just to give vent to her bigotry, that’s all. They serve no objective, practical purpose.
The danger in protest votes is that they can have damaging consequences. Take Brexit. Nigel Farage led the Brexit argument. He was articulate, persuasive and voluble and, from the outcome, successful as well. And what did he do when Britain voted to pull out of the EU? He packed his toothbrush and left the political scene. That is what one can expect from such leaders. They are very good at harnessing people’s anger and disgruntlement, experts at fanning flames, blaming minorities, rabble-rousing, finger-pointing. But, they have no solutions. They know that implementation of the stuff they advocate will lead to absolute chaos. Their emptiness is shown up when the spotlight is shone on them in earnest, when they are called upon to actually do something, rather than just sprout words. People like that ask the public to support them, trust them, follow them. But they are not real leaders. They are on an ego trip, they are actually contemptuous of most human beings, they are purely in it for themselves. They are opportunists. Nothing more than that. They are morally reprehensible.