The people, says  Burke, should not be trusted as advisers on policy or even necessarily as true reckoners of their interests in the short run, but they are always the best judges of their own oppression – so much so that we ought to fear any power on earth that sets itself above them.

David Bromwich: The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence (Harvard, 2014).

Chambers Dictionary defines a populist as “someone who believes in the right and ability of the common people to play a major part in governing themselves”. “It is understandable that advocates of Brussels’ centralist government should regard this as a term of abuse but why do you all continue to portray populism as some sort of extremist and undesirable activity?” complains the writer of a letter to the Financial Times.(1) Eric Foner of Columbia University says that the word “populist” has simply become “a term of disdain employed by purveyors of a presupposed consensus seeking to disparage popular passions… [the opposite of populist thus becomes the voter who is] responsible or middle of the road or rational” – or in other words, agrees with me.

The letter-writer’s complaint more or less sums up the cognitive dissonance between those who believe that democratic government should be representative(2) and those who think it should be delegatory. In reality it turns out to be a little bit of both. MEP Daniel Hannan is scornful of the anxiety spread by EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who fears that the whole European structure will be blown away by the “winds of populism”. “Populism”, writes Hannan, “is a favourite Eurocrat word, meaning ‘when politicians do what their constituents want’ –or, as we call it in English, ‘democracy’. ”He also points out that, until the 2014 elections to the EU Parliament made this particular fiction unsustainable, EU apologists presented anti-EU parties as interchangeably “extremist”, while the liberal media contrived to give the impression that all were “far right”.

“It is amazing”, pursues Hannan “how common this narcissism is: I disagree with person A, and I also disagree with person B, therefore A and B are identical.” Hannan’s insight reminds one of George Orwell’s description of a rhetorical ploy he dubbed “playing into the hands of”, whereby the person who refused to accept the dogma favoured by left-wing intellectuals (e.g. Marxism) was declared to be “playing into the hands of” some other widely execrated dogma (e.g. Fascism): “If A is opposed to B, and B is held in general opprobrium, then all who oppose A are declared to be on the side of B. This is applied only to the actions of one’s opponents, never to one’s own actions…”(3)

Such dialogues of the deaf have been a recurrent feature of the post-Communist states, particularly in Hungary. Populism thrives in such a political environment, whether it be in the form of paradisiacal promises of left-liberals who omitted to spell out how the proffered largesse was to be paid for, or the appeal to patriotism tinged with chauvinistic paranoia(4) that has proved such a successful formula for the right. The Orbán government has thrived on adversity, adroitly presenting each criticism emanating from the EU and western liberals as an attempt to undermine the Hungarians’ right to choose the government they want (as opposed to the one approved by bien-pensant liberals). In this it has certainly been helped by the abject hypocrisy of the liberal press, which often criticises measures taken by Hungary that turn out, on closer inspection, to be analogous to those taken by other western democracies, though not accompanied by the same volume of populist rhetoric. A prime example is Viktor Orbán’s handling of the banks, which clearly did not expect to be held to account in Hungary in the same way as in the UK and elsewhere. In Hungary they have been forced to pay a levy (as for example is also the case in Austria); furthermore they have been obliged to accept a write-down on mortgages (mis-)sold in foreign currencies, which is the Orbán equivalent of the (hefty) punishment meted out by the UK authorities to the big banks for the “mis-selling” of dud products. Only the usual suspects on the left have been able to convince themselves that what the centre-left coalition rightly does in Vienna in respect of the banks, or what the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition in London rightly does, suddenly becomes unacceptable when Fidesz does it in Hungary. The irony of defending the “property rights” of the banks also seems to escape them, seeing as how it is precisely against the property rights of their shareholders and customers that the banks have most egregiously offended. Not that the application of the double standard in attacks on populist politicians or policies is by any means seen only in the case of Hungary, but Viktor Orbán’s deliberately provocative style has tended to draw commentators into the trap. One English academic, critiquing the new Hungarian constitution, openly lamented that Fidesz rebuts its critics by pointing out that other democracies have similar constitutional elements to the ones he complains of. To a liberal academic, it is obviously further evidence of the Hungarian government’s delinquency when it declines to endorse a disingenuous criticism of itself…


America is rather less hypocritical about populism than the EU federalists. Merriam-Webster defines a populist as “a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people” or “a believer in the rights, wisdom or virtues of the common people”. Populists in the USA were those who supported the People’s Party which won five states in the 1893 presidential election representing the agrarian interest; the party was also an advocate of a more flexible currency and an agitator for government restraint of monopolies. The Populists were, says Gary Silverman “serious people who believed … in the central promise of American life: the democratisation of intelligence”.(5) Other causes they espoused (the secret ballot, the eight-hour workday, the graduated income tax) eventually came about. Their insistence on curtailing the power of giant corporations was prescient, to say the least. The increasing pressure they brought to bear on mainstream parties finally bore fruit in the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 which became the cornerstone of democratic control over unscrupulous robber barons like John Pierpoint Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.Although the Populists declined after throwing in their lot with the Democrats, they were in many respects the precursors of the Progressives who convinced Theodore Roosevelt of the need for vigorous action against vested interests, just such action as is now again needed against a greedy, narcissistic financial sector that makes “the people” pay the bill for its negligence and crookery.(6) In 1913 Woodrow Wilson, again under Progressive influence, wrote that “if monopoly persists, monopoly will always sit at the helm of government. I do not expect to see monopoly restrain itself. If there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States, they are going to own it”.(7)

Wilson’s observation is disagreeably relevant today, when there are reportedly at least three highly paid lobbyists for the drug and health insurance industry assigned to every congressman and senator in the United States. Yet contemporary American populists are more Jekyll and Hyde-like than those of the twentieth century, exhibiting a rage against the establishment that is as undiscriminating as it is often effective. The lack of a clear focus makes the populist movement vulnerable to manipulation. For example, the violence of the opposition to Obamacare, the principle aim of which was to bring the forty-five million Americans without health insurance into a comprehensive plan, bears all the hallmarks of the forces stirring Dr Stockmann’s opponents in Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People. The Tea Party campaign against Obamacare, together with massively funded negative propaganda from an evangelistically hypocritical healthcare industry, denounced the coercive element in the plan, presenting it as a “socialist” measure of wealth redistribution. TP supporters seemed unaware, or unconcerned, that their campaign allies were arguably far more oppressive and corrosive of freedom than the wicked “socialist” government of President Obama. It is revealing that 61 per cent of Hispanics approve the health insurance plan and so do 91 per cent of African Americans – but only 21 per cent of whites.(8) This would seem to indicate pretty conclusively that Obamacare did indeed benefit the least privileged in American society and that white Americans, from the lower middle class upwards, had no intention of voluntarily paying for it. The dog whistle “socialist” slogan in American political parlance is usually enough to damn any proposal, good, bad or indifferent.

But here is where it gets interesting: I have said that the Tea Party was principally concerned about the coercive element in the legislation and its challenges to Obamacare were all on legal or constitutional grounds. Now it seems that Tea Party members have finally woken up to the not very hidden role of industrial lobbying that so distorts and indeed disfigures American democracy. Recently a Christian economics professor beat a well-known Republican in his Virginia stronghold by campaigning largely on the issue of political donations (his opponent raised twenty times as much money as he did, but still lost). His acceptance speech included the slogan “Dollars do not vote – you do!” As Christopher Caldwell wrote in the Financial Times: “Republican bigwigs represent their donors, who overlap and socialise with Democratic donors. Together they secure the things rich people want: low capital gains rates, high immigration, an agnostic culture.” Notwithstanding the unholy alliance of Tea Party constitutionalists with the healthcare industry in opposing Obamacare, Professor Brat’s victory, were it to herald a trend, would be a long overdue threat to the pretend democracy practised in the USA by a coalition of unscrupulous businessmen and machine politicians. Although Brat was not officially a Tea Party candidate (chiefly because the TP thought he had no chance of winning) his ideological stance largely chimed with it. Brat’s rhetoric, says Caldwell, was “aimed at the heart of an electorate angry at being snubbed in favour of the rich”.(9) One could argue that challenging the self-interested “business as usual” preferred by America’s oligarchy is one of the most useful functions of populism in a free society, although this function is seldom admitted, still less honoured, in the mainstream liberal press. The latter’s proprietors, editors and journalists also fear a concomitant populist challenge to their own authority in regard to opinion-forming and political king-making.

What liberals regard as the redneck tendency of Tea Party politics was an element in the raw and robust politics of America in 1831 that both impressed and dismayed Alexis de Tocqueville when he was writing his great study of American democracy. While he admired the notion of popular sovereignty on which (white) American governance was based, he also talks of the tyranny of the majority, going so far as to say: “I know of no country where there is generally less independence of thought and real freedom of debate than in America”, or in other words, where aristocratically administered physical despotism was in danger of being replaced by the despotic spiritual power of majority public opinion. He is perhaps even more ambivalent about the ruling notion of equality. As a moderate libertarian, he naturally abhorred slavery, something which was typically imposed and maintained by a tyrannical alliance between the social elite and the poor white populace. But even the selective notion of equality that white Americans saw as their birthright had its dangers: while “a manly and lawful passion for equality arouses in men the desire to be strong and honoured [and] tends to raise the weak to the ranks of the strong”, the “degenerate taste for equality… inspires the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and reduces men to preferring equality in a state of slavery to inequality in a state of freedom”(10) [italics added]. As it happens, that is quite an accurate description of the debilitating effects of fifty years of Communist hegemony in Central Europe.

On the other hand, de Tocqueville saw that rule by a self-interested elite, even a democratically elected one, would alienate those they ruled over when, as was so often the case, the elite pursued policies that ignored popular grievances and despised the voters who kept them in government. Here the absence of deference and the notion of popular sovereignty acted as a corrective to the abuse of power: “What I most admire in America”, he wrote, is that “the inhabitants care about each of their country’s interests as they would their own”, whereas all too often the European “enjoys what he has as a tenant, without any feeling of ownership or possible improvement… so we see him constantly wavering between slavishness and license.” And he concludes that “when a nation reaches this point, it must either change its laws and mores or perish, for the well of public virtue has run dry: in such a place one no longer finds citizens but only subjects”.(11) The Americans had not rid themselves of a British monarch in order to become the subjects of a new political class. Whenever this looks to be happening, populist forces have tended to reassert themselves because Americans firmly believe that the people are sovereign. “The greatness of America”, according to de Tocqueville, “lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” If this is true, clearly populism has had a role to play in the corrective process, albeit an ambivalent one.


European populism has been the natural concomitant of a widening suffrage since the 19th century and again its role has been ambivalent. Karl Lueger, Vienna’s great populist mayor at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, brought very considerable benefits to the city. His core voters were the freshly baked electorate of the Fünf-Gulden-Männer, those who paid five Gulden or more in tax and who were enfranchised at local elections in 1885.(12) These men were from the lower middle class of small landlords, artisans, shopkeepers and tradesmen etc., who strongly resented the blatantly corrupt power of the Liberal financiers, bankers and industrialists, many of whom were Jewish. Lueger exploited anti-Semitism cynically and tactically (he once remarked “I shall decide who is a Jew”[13]), winning thereby the admiration of the young Adolf Hitler, then a penniless aspirant artist in Vienna. Lueger’s “municipalisation” policies helped to combat the very high level of corruption in the administration of the city, not only among the resident pezzi grossi, but also among foreign investors abusing monopoly ownership of utilities. On the principle that “what affects the public interest should also be administered by public bodies”, he took utilities and public transport into municipal ownership, pushed forward the electrification, gas and water supplies for the city, laid new sewers and built parks, gardens, hospitals and schools, all this despite a boycott of capital organised by the banks. (Lueger’s solution to that was simply to found a municipal bank.) Under his aegis, the great Otto Wagner built inter alia the Stadtbahn and the Kirche am Steinhof. We may well feel that Lueger was, administratively speaking, a boon to the city, while also having to admit that his political cynicism and demagoguery foreshadowed some of the worst barbarism of the 20th century. The point to keep in mind, however, is that his rise is a further example of the political consequences of power abuse by an elite that believes itself to be impregnable in its culture of entitlement.

Karl Lueger was arguably the most effective populist politician of modern times, combining oratory with political skills and an ability to get things done. He came to power, and indeed held onto it, by successfully scapegoating political enemies, but his actions in power were in a number of respects forward-looking and positive. He may be contrasted with the greatest French populist, Pierre Poujade (1920–2003), a shooting star of French politics in the 1950s, who has given us the phrase “Poujadiste” to denote that constituency which is hostile to central government, hates taxes and is always liable to rise up in defence of the small man, the small business, the rural interest. As a municipal councillor in 1953 Poujade organised resistance to the tax inspectors descending on his home town of Saint-Céré, a popular protest that led to the formation of the Union de Défense des Commerçants et Artisans which was soon to represent also peasants and wine-growers. In 1956 Poujadistes won 12 per cent of the votes cast in the national election and 52 of them were elected to the Assembly. This proved to be the high point of Poujade’s influence, except that an early Poujadiste was the young Jean-Marie Le Pen (he was head of the party’s youth section), who went on to dominate contemporary French populism by using racism more brutally than Lueger had ever done. Although Poujade’s constituency was rural not urban, his appeal was similar to that of Lueger’s in the city of Vienna. He articulated the grievances of small businessmen and peasants who were the backbone of la douce France immortalised in Charles Trenet’s lovely song of the same name. It was a France deeply threatened by industrialisation, urbanisation and modernisation. Its defenders reverted to the visceral hatred of the highly centralised French state that seemed to be inflicting such horrors on the country and making the little man pay for them. The state, said Poujade colourfully was “rapetout et inhumain”(14), the Chamber of Deputies was the “biggest brothel in Paris” and the Deputies were a “pile of rubbish” and “pederasts”. This sort of rant is quite startlingly reminiscent of Beppe Grillo’s speeches today in Italy, his main demand to the Italian mainstream politicians being that they should “Fuck off!” Grillo, like Poujade, is anti-Semitic and xenophobic (though Poujade later distanced himself from Le Pen and in the 1980s and 1990s he supported respectively Mitterrand and Chirac).

The “antipolitics” that were a feature of Poujadisme characterised more strongly its approximate Italian counterpart known as the Fronte dell’Uomo Qualunque (UQ – the Front of the Ordinary Man). The Front had a brief post-war flowering, at its zenith being the fifth largest party in the Rome parliament. Strongly anti- Communist, it was accused by some of letting in former Fascists, even though one of its grievances was that Fascists had not been sufficiently purged from government. In general it was against excessive taxation, big government and big business. It exhibited a strongly libertarian, even anarchistic, streak that reflected the feisty personality of its founder, Guglielmo Giannini, who owned and edited a popular (and populist) weekly magazine of the same name. Most of its supporters were in fact monarchists, but its ragbag of political dissent chiefly gave expression to the disillusion with politics of the small man (particularly in the south) and some of the Italian middle class. In that respect it was a forerunner of Beppe Grillo and his localised version of the indignati today. There have been some fairly unserious successors to UQ, like the Partito dei Pesce Freschi (the Party for Fresh Fish) and the Partito della Bistecca (the Party of the Beefsteak) both of which, though doctrinally sound, sadly failed to change the face of Italian politics.

Poujadisme is now a term applied to almost any hostility to the Establishment. It ranges from something called poujado-marxisme to the impatience with mainstream bien-pensant verities exhibited by Margaret Thatcher, who was ironically described by the writer Christopher Hitchens as a “Poujadiste female with ideas above her station”(15). However, what all these anti-Establishment movements, from Lueger to Grillo, have in common is that they give expression to the resentment arising when the political and business elites themselves contrive to escape the consequences of “modernisation” or “globalisation” that must be borne by the small man who is their victim. Add in the fact that those who have profited from so-called “light touch regulation” and turbo-capitalism of the 1990s are constantly revealed to be crooks who “privatise profits and socialise losses” and the rise of populism becomes inevitable, some would say desirable.

Never has the mainstream political establishment been held in less esteem as its privileges, cronyism, expenses-fiddling and general parasitism become more and more apparent by the day. Meanwhile the less privileged are required to pay for the bailouts of imploding banks and suffer an austerity programme imposed by the incompetent or corrupt political establishment that failed in its duty of care.

It is impossible to predict whether today’s Poujadisme and the like will fade away like their ideological predecessors when living standards return to normal after the economic crisis. Populism may be a sign that top-down government has been disabled by a civil society armed with information and activist potential as never before through the rise of the internet and the mobilephone. Pascal Bruckner says “the democratic ideal is based on the dream of a strong people and a weak government”. But he adds that unhappily “the people is also weak and divided” and “society sees not a serene image of its unity but rather a mirror of its rifts. The more it castigates itself, the more it excites the greed of pressure groups only too happy to emphasise their grievances and to try to establish fiefs and baronies for themselves, if necessary with parliamentary support”.(16) The conduct of unelected NGOs with their increasingly slick and bullying style of political activism springs to mind…


Professor Foner, quoted above, thinks the liberal press should drop the word “populist” from its descriptions of today’s dissident political movements. For a start it is grossly inadequate to apply the identical term to the Neo-Nazis on the right (Hungary’s Jobbik or Greece’s Golden Dawn) and also to the radical left like the Greek Syriza, not to mention all political gradations in between these extremes. The ideologies at the far ends of the spectrum are indeed decidedly nasty, just as the EU mandarinate fears, but the relative success of those somewhere in the middle of it (United Kingdom Independence Party or Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, perhaps the Finns Party) are even more threatening to the lifestyle of entitlement enjoyed by EU Bonzen precisely because they attract significant support from many people who are “responsible, rational and middle of the road”. Just as the first act of the Communists on seizing power was to obliterate the Social Democrats, who actually wanted to implement the socially just policies the Communists pretended to espouse, so the instinctive reaction of the EU mandarinate is to smear those who are really concerned about democracy, something to which the mandarinate pays lip service only. (If that were not the case, it would not keep bending the EU constitution and the constitution of the ECB; nor would it rapidly repeat referenda to get the result it wants, nor conversely pillory the unfortunate Greek premier, effectively getting him dismissed, simply because he wanted to consult the Greek people on the onerous terms of the bailout his government was being asked to sign on their behalf.)

Today’s dissident parties of the extreme left and extreme right have very little in common ideologically and even those in the middle do not really agree on a specific programme. It is true however that they all address the issues of immigration and the EU’s democratic deficit, precisely because these are the issues that concern the widest swathes of voters and which “mainstream” parties have tried to ignore. That alone should give the EU apologists pause and make them ask why so many voters are no longer impressed by the soothing propaganda that was seemingly sufficient to keep the electorate sedated for many years. In an article in The Spectator, Peter Oborne points out that both national politicians and Eurocrats have lulled themselves into a false sense of security, becoming inward-looking interest groups that a reincreasingly out of touch with ordinary voters.(17) And the German journalist Thomas Rietzschel has written: “When it comes to the point where ‘the people’ [italics added] actually begin to intervene in the political process, the politicians feel seriously threatened and react as if they no longer understood the world.”(18) In America President Obama has come unstuck in his attempts to reform the immigration mess precisely because he has tried to bypass a recalcitrant Congress. His opponents do not think this is a constitutionally sanctioned area for the exercise of “executive action”. To quote Caldwell again, in their view “democracy means the American people get to say who their president is, not that the president gets to say who the American people is”.(19)

Contemporary politics is mostly managerial not visionary; in the UK, elections are won or lost in the marginal constituencies, which are themselves won or lost after the intensive use of “focus groups” has enabled the politicians to tell these select groups of voters more or less what they want to hear. The current political class is not only largely devoid of vision, but even of coherent speech-making – a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the electorates of several counties where the people seem increasingly reluctant to turn out and vote. Political correctness, policed by the BBC and the left-liberal press in the UK, ensured for many years that any statements expressing worries about immigration were represented as closet racism and xenophobia, thus preventing mainstream politicians going near the subject. The EU was assumed to be “a good thing”, so any views sharply critical of its behaviour were labelled eccentric, probably also chauvinistic or coarsely nationalist. In this comfortably self-referential world, a figure like Nigel Farage (leader of UKIP) could safely be abused in the most virulent terms and newspapers have run extended smear campaigns against him which unfortunately (and rather amusingly) seem actually to have increased his popularity. As his political success increased, however, the press have recast him as a bit of a card, a member of the British awkward squad who is not quite as dim and accident-prone as had formerly been assumed.

Oborne describes Farage (an opponent of immigration with a French sounding name and a German wife) as a “subversive who has reintroduced the vanished concept of political opposition into British politics”. In the British case there is characteristically a good deal of snobbery involved in the attacks on him since he deliberately cultivates an image of the man in the pub (for which read “pub bore”) who likes a pint, or possibly three, and unrepentantly smokes like a chimney. Raising the issue of immigration, in this analysis, typically attracts a liberal reaction combining snobbery with hypocrisy: “For affluent political correspondents, it [immigration] made domestic help cheaper, enabling them to pay for nannies, au pairs, cleaning ladies, gardeners and tradesmen who make middle class life comfortable. These journalists were often provided with private health schemes and were therefore immune from the pressure on NHS hospitals from immigration. They tended to send their children to private schools. This meant they rarely faced the problems of poorer parents whose children find themselves in schools where scores of different languages were spoken in the playground. Meanwhile the corporate bosses who funded all the main political parties (and owned the big media groups) tended to love immigration because it meant cheaper labour and higher profits.” He concludes that the most powerful and influential figures in British public life “entered into a conspiracy to ignore and to denigrate millions of British voters. … for them politics is neither more nor less than a cynical game, the possession of the elite”.

This analysis, tendentious as it is (not only the affluent classes have benefited from hard-working immigrants, the NHS would hardly function at all without the massive input of immigrants from what used to be called the Third World, and immigrants have been a net plus to GDP, in Britain as elsewhere) aptly sums up the perceptions of many who feel that they have been powerless to resist or guide the two massive social and political experiments stealthily inflicted on them over recent decades through immigration and the extension of EU powers. Oborne is surely right that the main parties can no longer stay largely silent on the greatest social and political issues of the day, with the liberal press contributing to this conspiracy by picturing political dissidents as the barbarians at the gates of democracy. The considerable success that Marine Le Pen has had in making her Front National what the Germans call “salonfähig” (i.e. not only appealing enough to attract votes from both disillusioned Socialists and Conservatives, but consequently “respectable” enough to be treated slightly more respectfully by the “mainstream” media) is even more alarming for “mainstream” politicians, since France’s Socialist government is in near meltdown; likewise the French Conservative opposition is leaderless, programme-free and mired in corruption scandals. Meanwhile “Bleu Marine” collects the votes of what Christine Ockrent calls an “aggregate of several layers” which are “anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, anti-globalisation, anti- liberal ‘Anglo-Saxon’ market economy and finally anti-Europe”.(20) But Ms Ockrent does not seem to have any sense of why so many voters are “anti-” all these things: it seems they just are, and should not be. As a good liberal, she has shovelled all the “populist” grievances into the same bag and pronounced them illegitimate.


So much for the case in defence of populism as a necessary and democratic corrective to the politics of an inward-looking, cynical and often corrupt elite. However there are of course other definitions of “populist” from those quoted from Chambers and Merriam-Webster. Not untypical is the one in Collins English Dictionary: “populism: a political strategy based on a calculated appeal to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people”. The words that stand out here are “calculated” and “prejudices”, which not only imply something faintly disreputable but also seem to hint at the existence of an alternative political strategy (to populism) that is not “calculated” and never stoops to appeal to the “prejudices” of ordinary people. This is presumably the sense preferred by the metropolitan liberal elite, most academics and the “mainstream” political parties. Unfortunately it is also deceitful. If Mr Miliband, the Labour leader in the UK, suddenly announces a plan to force the energy companies to “freeze” energy prices for a couple of years, or if he runs around the country expressing sympathy for a newly discovered disadvantaged demographic known as “the squeezed middle [class]”, is this the height of disinterested statesmanship or a “calculated” strategy? When the Conservative Home Secretary sends a placarded lorry round immigrant districts of London bearing the message in huge letters that illegal immigrants should go home, is this coherent policy or simply an appeal to people’s prejudices? When Prime Minister David Cameron rides to the House of Commons on his bicycle to show how environmentally conscious he is, but omits to tell us that all his necessary papers are carried by a car travelling behind him, is that a populist gimmick or principled leadership? The idea that “mainstream” political parties never adopt the same tactics as their “populist” opponents is, of course, moonshine. Mr Obama assured the electorate before his first election to the Presidency that he would immediately close the notorious Guantanamo Bay camp in Cuba, but the promise was not kept and it stretches credulity to pretend that he could not have known of the difficulties this would involve. Sometimes the attempts of mainstream politicians to emulate the wicked populists end in farce: a British Labour Minister was wont to speechify affectingly on the theme of his poor agrarian upbringing, implying a tough boyhood of struggle and rural poverty. The political journalist Alan Watkins enjoyed pointing out that the Minister’s supposedly horny-handed father actually trained as an accountant (and the Minister himself went to a prestigious Oxford college). Watkins was (recklessly) sued by the indignant would-be proletarian, who of course lost the case – an interesting example of the tendency of politicians to believe their own propaganda and of the danger in doing so.

A more insidious form of populism by the parties that claimtoes chew it is the use of abstractions such as “fairness”, “equality”, “society” and so forth in political propaganda designed to create a touchy-feely image that has little or nothing to do with the tough decisions and difficult mediation required of effective and ethical governance. In June 2014 the British Labour Party polled its members under the slogan “What does Labour mean for you?” Interviewees were invited to choose from a rather limited range of qualities: “compassion, equality, fairness, opportunity, progress and solidarity”. They were also asked to complete a sentence that began: “Above all, I believe Britain should be…” – here the choice was “compassionate, diverse, fair, pioneering and respectful”. All this is an egregious example of populism dreamed up by spin doctors, since it is evidently designed to promote the party’s caring image without putting forward anything so vulgar as a policy with which the party members might or might not agree. You may as well ask people whether, as party members, they are in favour of paedophilia or homicide. Moreover “solidarity” is a particularly weaselly abstraction: in a democracy people show solidarity on opposing sides of important issues. Mediating between them is what democracy is for. “Progress” is even worse, another dog whistle slogan, this time on the left of the ideological spectrum. A dark side of the otherwise mainly altruistic Progressives in the USA referred to above was their enthusiastic espousal of eugenics as government policy. It was indeed an enthusiasm shared by many progressive persons at that time, carried away as they were by the scientific potential of manipulating the gene pool.(21) However the horrors of Nazi crimes have resulted in most people today considering such ideas dangerous and unacceptable in a civilised society. Technical progress can of course be scientifically measured; but “progress” in terms of ethics and civilisation is a contentious and subjective notion. Its presence or otherwise will be decided by posterity. The Labour Party’s poll is essentially a marketing exercise which, like any other sales campaign, tries to associate feeling good about the product with feeling good about yourself.


A problem for those taking the higher ground against populism is the difficulty of distinguishing between their own self-interest and the democratic principles they seek to uphold. According to Max Weber, the state is defined as having “the monopoly of legitimate violence”, but this definition does not tell us whether the state in question is democratic or not. Without such a monopoly, the state cannot carry out its function of enforcing law and order, as we can observe in places like Somalia or for that matter Ukraine. Populism is often seen as stoking the forces that would challenge the state’s monopoly on coercion, forces with democratic roots that would however sooner or later bring down democracy itself. Such an objection to populism cannot simply be waved away, but on the other hand constantly evoking the potential horrors of anarchy or worse (“Hitler came to power democratically” is a favourite cry) may equally be a tactic to distract attention from the behaviour of the entrenched elite that has provoked the mass discontent in the first place. In the mature democracies of today, provided reasonably inclusive institutions survive, it is not very likely, though it is always possible, that a Robespierre will succeed in establishing a reign of terror.

The most clichéd excoriation of populism, but also the most ambiguous, may be found in the disdainful rant of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Deprived by intrigue of the consulship that he felt was his due on account of his patriotic military feats, Coriolanus rages at the impressionable crowds who are easily led by the nose, the “common fools” and “mutable, rank-scented many” as he calls them. Allowing the plebs to have power over patricians, he decides, would be like allowing “crows to peck eagles”. Yet Coriolanus’s pose of disinterested patriotism seems a bit hollow when he later joins the Volscian enemy, in the wars against whom his military reputation had originally been earned. It is an uncomfortable play (George Bernard Shaw mischievously called it Shakespeare’s greatest comedy), its moral compass difficult to read, its main protagonist by turns noble and petty, his final murder hovering between good riddance and tragedy.(22) And that’s the problem with populism too: it is a great force for beneficial change and social justice, except when it’s a great force for their opposite. The career of the archetypal populist, a tribune of medieval Rome, illustrates this very well. Cola di Rienzi came to power with the support of the church and started well by passing sweeping laws that checked the noble factions then bleeding Rome dry, as well as clearing streets and roads infested with robbers. Yet power corrupted him, the church became alarmed and the people turned against him. After the few years of Rienzi’s internal exile, the whole process was repeated – a triumphant return to power, misuse of same, finally assassination on the Capitol where he had taken refuge.

It is not surprising that the career of Rienzi fascinated Wagner, who made him the protagonist of his first successful opera premiered in Dresden in 1842. Wagner fancied himself as a Socialist revolutionary and the story’s ingredients of popular liberation vitiated by hubris and corruption enabled him to project the corruption of power in a dramatic setting. It is even less surprising that the semi-educated and impressionable Adolf Hitler was bowled over by the opera when he first saw it as a young man in 1906 or 1907. The manuscript was given to him as a fiftieth birthday present in 1939 and was reportedly with him in the Berlin bunker when, like the Rienzi of Wagner’s opera, he was himself immolated. The Wagner scholar Thomas Grey has written that “in every step of Rienzi’s career – from acclamation as leader of the Volk through military struggle, violent suppression of mutinous factions, betrayal and final immolation – Hitler would doubtless have found sustenance for his fantasies”.(23) Rienzi’s charisma, his famed eloquence, were sufficient initially to bring order and temporary stability or to restrain others, but not sufficient to restrain himself.

While all politicians tell the people what they want to hear and then invoke the small print or unforeseen circumstances in order to avoid delivering what they should never have promised, the populist tends to become a prisoner of his own rhetoric. He invites the assumption that he is delegated by certain sections of the electorate to deliver what they demand, rather than acting as representative of the public interest as a whole, one who has to make judgements between competing interests. Trapped in a sort of political Ponzi scheme, he has to keep making new promises that are paid for by people to whom he has made previous promises. While the populist tells the people what they want to hear, a more courageous public figure, like Dr Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, tells the people precisely what they do not want to hear (and by doing so, may end up paying the same price as the ultimately spurned populist). The perspective of a play like An Enemy of the People is somewhat Coriolanian, the “common fools” of the town being easily manipulated by financial interests to believe that the man who intends only good actually intends them harm. Just as Shaw claimed to see Coriolanus as a comedy, Ibsen himself said he couldn’t quite decide whether An Enemy of the People was “a comedy or a straight drama” (most audiences are in little doubt). The stupidity of people may be a matter for humour, but lynch mobs are usually not. Mark Twain, a master of comedy and an acute, if benevolent, observer of human frailty summed up the danger of the herd mentality thus: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”(24)

It is possible, but extremely rare, to become a figure as widely admired as the charismatic populist by telling people truths about their behaviour that do not flatter their self-images, but yet flatter them enough to suggest that they are capable of attitudes that are infinitely more dignified than those they currently aspire to. Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps the most celebrated example of this and the secret of his success seems surprisingly simple: he practised what he preached, which is a great deal more than can be said of most populists. Since he did not seek power for himself, but rather sought to influence people by moral axioms and personal example, it was impossible to accuse him either of opportunism or hypocrisy. When he said that “in matters of conscience the law of the majority has no place”, he was enunciating one of the fundamental principles of a civilised democratic society. As a moral force, Gandhi’s courage and persistence are almost unequalled; importantly, we can verify the facts of his life, and know that he spoke the words that he did, which we cannot in the case of Jesus Christ, whose words and deeds we only have at second-hand from propagandists. However, as a political strategy, his influence depended on his opponents actually having a conscience and a code of morals, as well as being at least partly accountable to the population of the mother nation at home. As Orwell (among others) pointed out, Gandhi would not have lasted long under Stalinist or Nazi rule – indeed we might very well never have heard of many Gandhi-like figures that were liquidated under such regimes. This is not to diminish Gandhi’s stature, any more than the fact that white South Africans changed course partly through sanctions and outside pressure in any way diminishes the towering achievement of Nelson Mandela. It is merely to say that the political environment ultimately determines whether such figures prevail, whereas in another context they would simply be murdered and forgotten like so many others. The moral force of a Gandhian commitment to non-violence (as opposed to St Thomas Aquinas’s legitimisation of the “just war”) is something that appeals unequivocally to the best in human nature. The danger of the populist’s rhetoric is that it may achieve its effects, sometimes even potentially desirable ones, through appealing to the worst.


However one judges an individual populist movement, be it that of Pierre Poujade, Beppe Grillo, Adolf Hitler, Cola di Rienzi or Nigel Farage, one thing is clear: the rise of populism is invariably linked to the behaviour of a ruling establishment that abuses its power, whether it be today’s EU mandarinate, a corrupt oligarchy in America, or an extractive dictatorship run as a family business that suppresses what Acemoglu and Robinson call “inclusive” institutions.(25) The extent of the extraction or inclusiveness of course varies, little extraction being tolerated in a reasonably functioning mature democracy, total extraction prevailing in a basket case kleptocracy like the Democratic [sic!] Republic of the Congo. At least in democracies where rulers still have to pay some attention to the ruled, the homage that mainstream politicians pay to the populists is to move towards their policies while abusing the men who have proposed them. Indeed Mr Farage, the leader of UKIP, used to say that he was not very interested in seats at the Westminster Parliament because he was moving the two main parties in his direction by scaring the wits out of them at by-elections and at the European elections. Perhaps UKIP will in the end fold into the Tory Party just as the American People’s Party folded into the Democrats. If so, it will probably have achieved its mission – until another movement is required to destroy the complacency of an arrogant elite that has begun to take the electorate for granted…

1  Stephen Hazell-Smith of Penshurst, Kent, UK (Financial Times letters, 29 May 2014).

2  Bromwich, op cit., also writes the following, echoing Burke: “are presentative not only has a duty to resist mandates; he must pry himself loose from intimidation by political threats, popular insurgencies, and all that two centuries later goes under the American name of lobbying”.

3  George Orwell: “Politics and the English Language”, Horizon, April 1946. Reprinted in The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 17, Ed. Peter Davison, Secker & Warburg, London, 1998, Items No. 2815, 2816, pp. 421–438, this citation p. 437.

4  Of course, accusing those you are attacking of “paranoia” is a staple of political propaganda. The Fidesz regime led by Viktor Orbán has been subjected to violent attacks in the western, particularly German press, so a certain amount of paranoia is perhaps understandable. A splendidly Hungarian adage may be very apt in Orbán’s case, namely “just because I’m paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me”.

5  Gary Silverman: “An all-American cheer for populism” (Financial Times, 30 May 2014).

6  Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), regarded by many as the greatest of the Republican presidents, eventually split his party and founded the Progressive or “Bull Moose“ party (a reference to his claim that he felt as “fit as a bull moose”). He ran for President on the Progressive ticket in 1912.

7  Woodrow Wilson: The New Freedom, A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People (1913), p. 286.

8   Poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, September 2013.

9   Christopher Caldwell: “Brat reconnects Republicans with an angry electorate” (Weekend FT, 24/25 June 2014).

10  Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America, published in 2 volumes, 1835 and 1840, Vol. I, Part I, Chapter 3 in the translation by Gerald E. Bevan (Penguin, London, 2003), p. 67.

11  De Tocqueville, op cit., pp. 110–111.

12  The liberal government of Graf Eduard Taaffe had already extended the franchise to this group for the Reichsrat elections in the Cisleithanian (Austrian) part of the Dual Monarchy in 1882. Universal male franchise was first achieved in 1907 for the Reichsrat, but in Vienna Lueger and his successors, fearing for their Christian Social electoral hegemony in the face of the rising Social Democratic forces, managed to postpone a widening of the municipal franchise until the end of the Dual Monarchy in 1918.

13  “Wer a Jud’ist, bestimme ich…” Ironically Lueger’s original political mentor was a Jewish physician and local politician named Ignaz Mandel, on whom he modelled his image as the “advocate of the little people”. Lueger is described as an open and pleasant person who was not offensive to Jews on the personal level, and under whom the Jews suffered insofar as Jewish big business and banks were deliberately thwarted in their commercial aims. The Jewish author Stefan Zweig, who has left us the most vivid picture of Vienna at that time in his memoir The World of Yesterday, went so far as to claim that Lueger’s administration was “perfectly just and even typically democratic”. Lueger’s investments in city infrastructure may be likened to those of his near contemporary István Bárczy in Budapest, although Bárczy remained rooted in the big ticket Liberalism that Lueger, a zealous Catholic, had replaced with Vogelsang’s “Christian Social“ doctrines and his own opportunistic anti-Semitism.

14  “Thieving and inhuman”. In old age Poujade became a real pussycat, even being appointed to Mitterrand’s Conseil économique et social in 1984 and busying himself with the promotion of biofuels.

15  Mrs Thatcher, as every schoolboy knows, was the daughter of a Grantham grocer. As such she had a better grasp of grass roots sentiment than the privileged liberals whom she gradually had to weed out of her cabinet – to the accompaniment of a great deal of patronising sneering from the same.

16  Pascal Bruckner: The Tyranny of Guilt, translated by Steven Rendall (Princeton University Press, 2010), pp. 108–109.

17  Peter Oborne: “UKIP’s triumph” (The Spectator, 24 May 2014).

18  Thomas Rietzschel: Die Stunde der Dilettanten (Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Wien, 2012), p. 116. (Translation N. P.)

19  Christopher Caldwell: “Obama shows his weakness through executive powers“ (Weekend FT, 5/6 July 2014).

20  Christine Ockrent: “Don’t be fooled by Marine Le Pen” (Prospect, July 2014).

21  In the USA such luminaries as the liberal Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr and the birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger espoused eugenics, while in Britain the Fabians (G. B. Shaw, H. G. Wells, the Webbs), as well as the Huxleys and Havelock Ellis, all favoured a more or less aggressive eugenics policy, often including sterilisation. Despite sustained attempts subsequently to give the opposite impression, it was frequently “reactionaries” like the Catholic G. K. Chesterton who were most vigorous and morally courageous in opposing this trend (e.g. in his tract “Eugenics and Other Evils”, 1922). The difficulty that this has presented to progressive writers attempting to apply the double standard is epitomised by the following from Alan Wolfe writing in the New Republic: “Racial conservatism has its roots in biological and eugenicist thought. Liberal theories of racial damage, by contrast, grew out of a twentieth-century concern with the impact of social environments on individuals.” Would the victims of eugenics policies benefit from knowing that progressives were actually showing “concern” for them? For an amusing, but also chilling, survey of eugenics as a progressive fad see: Jonah Goldberg: Liberal Fascism (Penguin, London, 2009), Chapter 7: “Liberal Racism: The Eugenic Ghost in the Fascist Machine” (pp. 243 ff.). The quotation from Alan Wolfe appears on p. 246 and is from New Republic, 7 July 1997.

22   It is interesting that a production of Coriolanus by the Comédie Française in 1934 provoked right- wing riots, while the Nazis extolled Coriolanus and even compared his patriotism to that of Hitler. Bertolt Brecht’s Marxist version of the play, produced in East Berlin, portrayed the masses as the heroes of the piece. Günter Grass’s Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising satirises Brecht directing Coriolanus during East Germany’s 1953 anti-Communist uprising. [Information from Essential Shakespeare Handbook by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding (Dorling Kindersley, London, 2004), p. 387].

23  Thomas S. Grey (Ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Wagner (Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 36.

24  This is generally attributed to Twain, who used the same ideas in variant forms from time to time in public speaking. In Mark Twain’s Notebook, edited by Albert Bigelow Paine (1935), p. 393, the quotation appears as “whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform”.

25Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (Profile Books, London, Paperback, 2013). See particularly pp. 79 following: “Extractive and Inclusive Political Institutions”.

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