Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Populism’s Popularity

“Irish Parties Put Their Car Keys in a Bowl as Coalition Talks Begin”
—Headline on the satirical Irish web site Waterford Whispers News on Monday
What exactly is a populist? It’s a word that you hear a lot, and perhaps you even use it yourself. Do we all understand and mean the same thing when it is used?

For a while now my own handy definition of populist has been a politician who is very popular but whom I personally do not like. That is because the word usually seems to be used in negative connotation, usually in relation to President Trump.

I have now gone to the trouble of looking up the dictionary meaning, and this is what at least one online dictionary says: “A person, especially a politician, who strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition is even simpler, not mentioning elites: “A person who seeks to represent or appeal to the interests of ordinary people.” That suggests that, if you consider the word populist some kind of epithet, then it must be because you have little regard for the concerns of “ordinary people.”

In a democracy isn’t appealing to most people, presumably including ordinary people, the whole point of the exercise? Yet in many uses of the word populist I get a sense that the word’s target is branded as manipulating or deceiving simple-minded folks. I suppose it comes down to one’s confidence in the judgment of the electorate as a whole.

The dictionary definition does not ascribe any particular ideology to populism, so pretty much any politician—left, right or center—can be one, as long as his or her rhetoric is aimed squarely at ordinary folks. President Trump certainly qualifies, but you would have to say that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren do as well. Their clear message is that ordinary people are being exploited by the rich and powerful. In Ireland I think you could say that, similarly, Mary Lou McDonald, head of the Sinn Féin party, qualifies as a populist. She claims to speak on behalf of ordinary people in rejecting policies of the two parties that have governed the Irish republic since its founding.

Since very few politicians would claim not to represent the interests of ordinary people, does the term populist have any meaning at all—other than to to frighten the supporters of longtime, well-established politicians or parties?

If we think of populism as simply a rejection of politics as usual, then there is certainly a lot of it around.

Having now won a popular plurality in the first two Democratic primary contests, Sanders is certainly worrying the “elites” in his party. Is it more important that he came in first in New Hampshire, though, or that candidates more “moderate” than he and Elizabeth Warren (Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden) collectively took more than half the vote? That depends on whether Democratic voters are mostly making their choices by looking at the candidates through a left/moderate prism or through an electable/non-electable lens. In voters’ minds candidates are unlikely to shift between left and moderate lanes, but they can easily move been electable and non-electable categories. Joe Biden, for example, seems to be making such a transition.

Of course, the U.S. primaries are merely the first stage of the presidential election. Once the two parties have their nominees, then we will move on to the final vote in November.

In Ireland, the process is a bit more complicated, but with any luck it will be a lot less time-consuming. The country has the results of its general election, which was held on Saturday, and now a government has to be formed. Since no party has a particularly sizeable plurality—let alone a majority—the top vote-getting parties must enter into negotiations to work out some kind of governing coalition or arrangement.

Of the 160 seats in Dáil Éireann, 38 have gone to Fianna Fáil, 37 to Sinn Féin, 35 to Fine Gael (the incumbent governing party), and 12 to the Green Party. The remaining 38 seats are spread out over a collection of smaller parties and independent politicians. If you enjoy a good round of Sudoku, then have fun trying to put together a combination of those numbers to get to or above the governing threshold of 80.

The simplest solution on paper is a “grand coalition” of the two establishment parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) plus the Greens, but there are a whole lot of reasons why that is a problem for at least two of those parties. For one thing the Greens—as well as Labour (which tallied a mere 6 seats this time) and the now-extinct Progressive Democrats—have previously seen their fortunes seriously dashed by going into coalition with one of the big parties. Fianna Fáil has also been burned by propping up Fine Gael for the past four years. Such arrangements do nothing to dispel the increasingly popular notion that FF and FG are merely two wings of a single virtual political party.

Mindful that Sinn Féin actually won the popular vote and would have actually won the most seats if they had only run more candidates, the big parties seem content for now to let McDonald see what she can manage by combining her party’s 37 seats with those of smaller parties and independents. If she succeeds—and it has to be seen as a pretty darn big if—it will result in a history-making “coalition of the left.”

It will also mark a stunning triumph of populism.

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