6.3.2.7 Mitigating the Impact of Populism in Democracies

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6327.htm)

As described in the previous two sub-sections, politicians in democracies may be tempted to offer populist policies in order to win an election (6.3.2.5) or may promise to make people feel better with a form of nationalism known as ‘authoritarian populism’ (6.3.2.6).

It is difficult to counter populism with facts or arguments, because populists construct their narratives to align with what people want to hear.  The voices of ‘experts’ are discounted or ignored, as was the case with Britain’s vote to leave the EU – which is described in more depth later in this chapter (6.6.5.8).  Experts always run the risk of sounding condescending, of appearing to think that they know what is good for the population without really understanding people’s concerns.  Governments tend to be ignored because, rightly or wrongly, people tend to regard those in power as responsible for every problem.

There are other ways of mitigating the problem of populism:

  • Political parties wish to retain power for prolonged periods, even though individual politicians might want to respond to short-term pressures. A party’s desire to maintain a reputation for reliability is an incentive for it not to be irresponsible; it can withdraw support from populist individuals who appear to threaten its long-term interests.  The party and the politician need each other, though, so they negotiate – as was demonstrated by How Donald Trump convinced the Republican party to revolve around him, as reported by the Guardian on 12 May 2016; those tensions weren’t fully resolved two years later, though.
  • Some democratic systems have mature institutions which are independent from the government, such as central banks which manage inflation (3.3.8.3) and which take a long-term view.
  • It is necessary to expose populists who mislead the population to gain, or retain, power. Some measures to ensure that politicians behave responsibly are described later in this chapter (6.8.5).

Whatever countermeasures are taken against populism, though, democratic politicians are more likely to resort to short-term expediency than those in authoritarian systems who wish to keep power for an indefinite period.

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