The ideology of the elites is now actively opposed to the ideology of the masses.

The word populism is now most commonly seen wielded as a cudgel to beat down those people who express views that think to set foot outside the rigidly structured and contained debate space that the cultural, societal, and political elite of Ireland have seen fit to grant the people of this country.

To call someone, or something, populist doesn’t really tell anyone anything useful about the person or idea in question, but that’s not the point of calling something populist; to call a person or an idea populist is to mark them as unworthy of consideration in proper society. It is to mark them and to allow the elite to ignore and belittle them without ever having to actually engage with them. It is a social signifier that tells the elite that they should not deal with that person or idea, that it’s ‘not the right sort’ for people like them.

Fundamentally the growth of the idea of populism as a mark against ones character appears to be linked to the growing ideological division between societal elites and the general mass of citizens. Amongst the elites, doctrines such as religion, nationalism, family and community, doctrines that could bind a people together, that could give them a sense of common purpose, of commonality, have fallen increasingly out of fashion, replaced by a vague and undefined sort of geographically unrooted, secular globalism, generally combined with some variant of blank slate view of human nature, and the view that nations and cultures are mere accidents of fate, no more important or worthy of preservation than a sandcastle when the tide comes in.  The ideologies of the masses are seen as quaint, at best, or actively harmful and worthy only of derision or destruction, in many cases, and thus the idea of populism as an insult finds fertile ground.

The elites look down upon the ideal of populism not because they don’t want to be popular (they deeply want to be popular) and not because they don’t want the people to agree with their views (they very clearly think their views should be the only views), but rather, they look down upon the ideal of populism because they view the citizens not as rational adults, but instead as children who need to be prodded, nudged, and incentivised to take the proper view of matters, by which of course they mean their own view of matter. They don’t want to serve the people, they want to be the engineers and architects of an explicitly parental state designed to change the people into lesser versions of themselves that they can trust to make the ‘right’ choices.

The danger here is that populism does not mean simply doing what is popular at any one-time, swinging from one position to the next as opinion polls are released, rather populism is, in its purest form, a belief that the citizens of a country, as a whole, should be represented and that government should serve the people of the state. Populism is not a detriment to a democratic society, it is in fact an intrinsic part of a democratic society. To say that one is against all manifestations of populism is to say that one is against the representation of the people, and that is a profoundly undemocratic viewpoint to have. Unrestrained populism is an issue, but to forsake any ideal of populism out of fear of unrestrained populism is to say that neither the people nor their political representatives can be trusted and that is to say that you do not believe democracies can be trusted.

And that is what we have seen, in America following the election of Donald Trump, in Europe following the rise of new nationalistic movements, a movement amongst the elite, particularly the socially liberal elite, to disavow large segments of the population and, in doing so, to both disavow the principle of equal representation and to fully showcase that they do not think the views of certain segments of the population are worthy of representation. One need only look at the mass of articles produced in the American media in the months following the election of Donald Trump to see that there was a substantial movement aimed, not at explaining why people would vote for Trump, but rather to identify those who had voted for Trump in order to more effectively condemn them for having had the audacity to reject the candidate of the elite and vote for someone so populist, so far outside what elites would tell us is acceptable. We’ve seen the same sort of thing happening in Europe to those who argue that perhaps the EU has too much power, that perhaps the EU should have a hard external border, that perhaps integration is an important part of keeping a society functioning following an influx of migrants, and that perhaps we should be asking ourselves if multiculturalism is a god that failed.

It is not possible to decry the will of the people, neither to use charges of populism to lessen the people’s ability to speak about the issues that concern them, nor to seek to hammer the people into a shape more fitting to your eyes without moving from the servant of the people to the master of the people. And that is precisely the point here. The movement against populism is merely one part of a greater movement of the elites against the people, against the idea that it is the people themselves who should shape and control their own lives, not the state, nor the cultural apparatus, not the media, but the people, and that the state should be an organic outgrowing of the will of the people as to how they will rule themselves, not a machine architected by those who tell themselves they are greater than the people they seek to shape, and ultimately rule.

Posted by Gary Kavanagh