The stunning results of Oskar Freysinger in the recent election in Valais, the surprising showing of Team Stronach in Austria, the Tea Party in the United States, and the unexpected success of the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo in Italy point to a recent populist emergence. While the causes of this emergence are not difficult to elaborate – high rates of unemployment, lack of leadership at the local, national and international levels, poor economic results, growing insecurity – the very nature of populism is not easy to describe.
To be popular is in general a positive description of someone. To be a populist, on the other hand, is generally negative. A populist politician panders to the baser instincts of the constituents. A populist politician uses emotions to ingratiate himself/herself to the voters. Populism is anti-intellectual, irrational and often associated with racist, xenophobic diatribes. Populist politicians are often charismatic. Look at the difference between the flamboyant Berlusconi and Grillo and the technocrat Monti, or the extroverted, always smiling Freysinger and the dour, introverted Christian Varone.
But there is another aspect of populism that is positive and most relevant. To be popular, to be a populist politician, also means to be in contact with the population. To be popular implies being popular with someone. The recent emergence of populism in Europe is also a reaction against exclusive, elitist politicians who are detached from the concerns of the general population. In the recent Revue by the Geneva Parliamentarians, one of the Deputies was satirized by imagining his going to a lower class neighborhood in Geneva. The audience laughed because it was so extraordinary an idea. He just wouldn’t go there. Watch the film Bobby and see Robert Kennedy, graduate of the University of Virginia Law School, former Attorney General of the United States, member of one of the richest families in the United States, listen to a poor, uneducated West Virginia coal miner. Bobby was truly listening to the worries of someone needy; the miner felt he was being understood. This is what I consider to be real populism.
Perhaps the primary reason for the recent rise of populism is that the political class has become removed from the general public. For President Obama to spend Christmas vacation in Hawaii, summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and golf in Florida with Tiger Woods is tone deaf to a general population that is suffering 8% unemployment and struggling to meet day-to-day payments. The voters in Valais, Austria, the U.S. and Italy have expressed frustration with business as usual. They have expressed discontent with their officials.
True democracy is not just an administrative, elective system. True democracy means a democratic culture. The recent votes mentioned above as well as the overwhelming support in Switzerland for the Minder Initiative to give shareholders a greater voice in determining executives’ benefits show that the general population wants to re-assert its democratic rights. Those politicians who aren’t listening should be warned. A rise in populism can be the first step toward a true democracy, although it also has been the first step toward fascism. There are, after all, two sides to the populist coin. To applaud one side is not to ignore the dangers of the other.