(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, May 30.)
During a visit to Wellington earlier this year, John Podesta, a man described as a top American political adviser, gave a series of media interviews.
Among other things, he praised our “superstar” prime minister and said she had given hope to social democrats everywhere.
Jacinda Ardern’s election success in 2017, Podesta said, was a bright spot at a time when populist movements were winning political success around the world – a trend Podesta obviously saw as undesirable.
As a former chief of staff to US President Bill Clinton, adviser to President Barack Obama and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful election campaign in 2016, Podesta is an influential player in the US Democratic Party.
He would feel a natural affinity with Ardern, whose soft-Left politics are broadly aligned with those of the US Democrats.
But while it was Podesta’s glowing remarks about Ardern that captured headlines, his warning about the supposed dangers of populist politics said more about the strange political mood of the times.
He talked about social media whipping the public into a frenzy, and about democratic values being placed at risk by politicians exploiting fear and unrest.
Predictably, he cited Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as examples. He also mentioned the success of anti-immigration parties in Europe – an obvious reference to Italy, Hungary and Poland, where voters have installed Right-leaning governments that resist policies imposed by the EU.
By implication, populism is bad. It is the opposite of the “progressive” politics embraced by Podesta, our Labour-led government and social democratic parties in much of the Western world.
But hang on a minute. If Podesta looked in a dictionary, he would see that a populist is defined as a person “who holds, or is concerned with, the views of ordinary people”.
It follows that there should be nothing shameful about the word populist. It comes from a Latin root word meaning “people”. Perhaps Podesta needs to be reminded about the origin of another important word, one that we got from the ancient Greeks: Democracy. It means “rule by the people”.
The words “populist” and “democracy” are joined at the hip. But “populist” has become a dirty word used by the political elites to discredit any policies they disapprove of.
They try to deride populism by equating it with extreme nationalism. But populism is on the rise for a very obvious reason: throughout the Western world, Left-leaning elites have grown distanced from the views of “ordinary people” whom they dismiss as ignorant and worthless.
Parties that once had a working-class base have been captured by inner-city ideologues and intellectuals. At the same time, we have seen the emergence of a new breed of politician who has known no career outside politics and had no direct exposure to the issues that most concern rank-and-file voters.
The result has been a profound re-orientation of traditional politics, with blue-collar voters moving to the Right because they perceive social-democratic parties as being elitist and out-of-touch.
As far back as the 1980s, so-called “working-class Tories” supported Margaret Thatcher. The same class of voter had a decisive influence on the outcome of the recent Australian elections.
It was the blue-collar vote that got Trump elected (wealthy people overwhelmingly supported Clinton) and it was mostly working-class, Labour-held British electorates that voted in favour of Brexit. If that wasn’t proof enough, the clincher was last weekend’s EU elections – a triumph for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
Surely the solution to all this is not to sneer but to listen and respond. Yet blue-collar Trump voters, who would once have been natural Democratic Party supporters, were dismissed by Clinton in 2016 as “deplorables” – a remark that encapsulated the elite’s contempt for ordinary people and may have lost her the election.
Okay, so the Left hates Trump. But he won the 2016 election according to the rules, odd though they may seem to us; and until such time as the Democratic Party and the American media come up with proof that Trump rorted his way to victory, they should get used to it.
Brexit, too, was the result of a popular vote by ordinary people who, not unnaturally, wanted to be governed from London rather than by a largely unaccountable bureaucracy elsewhere. But because it ran counter to the Left’s grand project of a united Europe, the political elites insisted the majority of British voters got it wrong and went to great lengths to thwart their will.
The problem, clearly, is that ordinary people are stupid. They can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. They don’t know what’s good for them. They should have taken the advice of their political betters. Perhaps the solution is not to let them vote at all.