Friday, May 31, 2019

Perhaps they should listen rather than sneer

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, 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.


Andy Espersen said...

Words - and their changing meanings. In the normal development of languages words very often change for no specific reason. But that wasn't what Lewis Carroll meant.

"When I use a word", Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less". "The question is", said Alice "whether you can make words mean so many different things?". "The question is", said Humpy Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all".

Brendan McNeill said...


I appreciate your contribution to the cultural and political conversation that's taking place in New Zealand.

Well actually that's not entirely correct. We are not yet having a conversation. While our MSM remains content to engage in the promotion of stereotypes, and dismissive commentary about the views held by 'populists' we are (at best) simply talking past each other.

It is no small surprise to me that you are able to have articles published in Stuff. I suspect the quality of your writing makes them difficult to reject without engaging in deliberate and conscious bias. Maybe there is hope yet.

I have long been impressed with the UK conservative commentator Douglas Murray, who has the ability and desire to pursue truth, and ask questions of ourselves that are difficult or socially unacceptable. Murray's contribution is further enhanced by his ability to nuance his answers, and not simply to repeat the expected boilerplate.

The following clip shows him speaking in Jerusalem to a conservative audience, and is worth the time. I might add Murray is a gay atheist, which makes his approach to culture and politics all the more unique.

Unknown said...

Prior to the last election, Labour were languishing somewhere in the 20s in terms of percentage popularity (opinion polls). They swapped out their leader, and with no change in policies, their popularity increased by about 50%, almost overnight. The only reason I can see for this was a populist view that we needed a shiny leader, a celebrity politician.

They can’t have it both ways. Dismissing “populist” policies when it is the same populist perceptions that got them into power in the first place.

Graham Hill said...

The actual danger to democracy is anti populism as was written about recently by Brendan O'Neill in Spiked On-Line: