Populism and the Need to Win the Next Election

(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/edition03/6325.htm)

Democratic leaders have to receive votes in order to gain or retain power, so they have an incentive to veer towards populism – defined here as offering to respond to people’s expressed wishes without having a viable plan.   A populist tries to be seen as being one of “the people” against the elites and those who hold power although, as pointed out in Prospect, this is sometimes just Posturing behind “the people”.  The article pointed out, for example, that Donald Trump is not one of the people he claims to represent because he is wealthy.

Populists don’t exercise the prudence (2.6) that is required of people with leadership responsibilities.  Those who are articulate in describing problems and know how to resonate with people’s concerns might not be the best people to make improvements.  They might not have the people’s interests at heart (although people who deny that the problems exist aren’t going to fix them either).

Populism is particularly tempting in economic policy:

  • On 17 March 2005, The Economist published an article entitled The budget, subtitled And on to the election, which referred to Gordon Brown’s “electoral sweeteners” and which also referred to “the tax-raising budget in 2002 that followed the giveaways in his pre-election budget.
  • They can mortgage the future by borrowing, so that they can offer unaffordable (but popular) public services; these debts, though, have to be repaid ( and a future population bears the costs.
  • They can try to bribe the electorate with its own money, by offering ‘pork’, as in examples already quoted ( It seems that those who are not the beneficiaries of the ‘pork’ are unaware of their contribution to its cost.
  • Some tell lies about their economic plans in order to win an election, as in the example published by the BBC in 2006: We lied to win, says Hungary PM – referring to an election; although riots followed, he did not resign.

Sometimes the intrinsic complexity of economics enables politicians to play such tricks without being detected, and without people understanding which policies caused economic damage (

There is also scope for populism in other areas of policy:

  • Politicians can use legislation as a political tool, just to make themselves appear to be doing something, even if they could have used existing legislation (
  • As in examples which appear later in this chapter (, they can try to exploit ethnic divisions to gain support – even though this can lead to horrific outcomes for everybody.
  • They can consciously incite people’s fear and indignation, to gain support for going to war. As described later, both George W Bush (8.4.4) and Tony Blair (8.5.2) adopted this technique to gain agreement to invade Iraq in 2003.

When politicians appeal to people’s emotions, they can attract support even if what is offered is not in people’s best interests in the medium to long term.  All policies should be examined analytically and dispassionately, and even more care should be taken if a message is stronger on emotion than on substance.