Understanding and defeating the current enablers of populism


Dear Partners in thought,

As we approach the November 3rd US election, I thought it would be relevant to understand what happened in our democratic world and why populist-leaning leaders – some stronger than others, most still staying within the democratic institutional confines – were able to capture the interest of many “lost” voters and at times lawfully gain power.

This understanding process, that requires intellectual honesty, is a very sensitive one and its features could be offensive to many of the people who went for simple solutions to complex issues given an affinity with the message, a cultural closeness to the messenger or, in the American case, an overriding end-game. The conclusions of such a process may also today counter-productively strengthen the resolve of such voters who would react angrily to any adverse opinion by whom they see and reject as “experts” or members of the traditional elite. However, such a process should be carried out.

The rise to power of both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are probably, given the key countries they lead and what happened under their terms in office, the most important Western electoral events of the new political century, alongside the rise of a more assertive China, the meanders of an unstable Middle East and the rear-guard battle of a struggling Russia, all while the European Union is still a work in progress. While there might still be a debate as to the qualities of a Boris Johnson, it is increasingly challenging to find any to a Donald Trump in terms of leadership, competence and values. Yet and putting aside the vagaries of the US electoral college process, he was elected President. So why?

The new times that we know, especially in the West, have been marked by a wider and more active involvement of people, many of whom have become very vocal about their beliefs on all things, including political, and who vote. Rationality or facts are no longer priorities for many as if critical thinking in the classical sense was no longer relevant. More people vote, which is their right and might be seen as a positive development, even if they are not equipped to make a rational decision and are influenced by the new age of media, social and otherwise, with its news flows where truth is harder to detect.

Populist leaders and their movements or parties, the latter often hijacked by the former (the Republican party in the US being a perfect case in point), have benefited from a unique convergence of the societal failures of the education system and the worst sides of otherwise positive tech developments that drove more societally-aggrieved people to access “comforting” news they really wanted, regardless of rationality or facts involved, so they could feel some form of vindication and express their deepest resentments and need for drastic change at the polling booth.

In a new world of tech, which has undeniably brought many positive developments to society, many people sadly have not tried to think critically anymore. They also have preferred to listen to what they wanted to hear by way of news, truth being unimportant, rather than being informed. They have vigorously put their views out on social media as if they were as valuable as any other under a perverse democratic sense of “one man one vote”, this without grounding in facts or knowledge. The relative lack of education of some of these newly tech-empowered individuals, which is not a crime in itself and is often a poor reflection of the fairness of our societies, compounded the problem in creating in too many individuals little or no historical memory and an absence of any understanding of the boring workings of government or the complex issues of our times, increasing the drive toward unusually and welcomingly simple but hollow solutions to societal problems and their frustrations. The convergence of un-education and tech has unleashed an irrational drive to find new ways to change the politics of our societies, even if allowing at times conspiracy theories to prevail and tested governance means to be under threat. The end result of this convergence logically created “majorities” (even if technically not in the US in 2016) for populist-leaning leaders who offered a different set of untested style and ideas that would change the status quo, to prevail at the electoral booth.

The dual solution to the rise of populism is first to ensure, especially in America but also across the world, that governments focus on education so their citizens are trained in independent thinking, which is a classical feature of Western civilization. The more people have the tools to think independently and critically, the less they will follow beliefs that are groundless and potentially dangerous to society and indeed the world. This strategic focus on education needs to involve a complete overhaul of the teaching profession in order to attract the highest quality candidates for the role. The parallel solution is then first to ensure that parents from an early age of their children structure their use and timing of tech tools like social media so they do not fall victims to cheap elixir salesmen at an early age and can grow up as independently-thinking adults. Additionally, Big Tech should be driven further by government regulators to take enhanced measures to prevent the display of blatant hate speech and fact-less news fed by any domestic or foreign party onto their popular tech tools. Democratic societies should always want more educated people who can think for themselves and make rational decisions at the polling booth.

Trump got there as its core support base comprised a large number of non-college graduates (male non-college graduates being one of his very few “majority segments” today) who liked simple solutions to complex issues and the finger-pointing at a combination of targets like foreigners stealing their jobs, the Deep State, the megalopolises or the experts and the establishment – all deemed responsible for a perception of being “left out”. In addition and this time regardless of their education levels, Trump was supported by many religious conservative, two-hand raising, evangelicals, a group numbering 60 million, 80% of which will likely vote for Trump (so ironically his other key “majority segment”), who never liked the individual but convinced themselves to tolerate the “baby Christian” as they saw him, whatever harm he might bring to America and the world as well as the presidential role, as long as he could change the Supreme Court and overturn landmark Western liberal decisions like Roe v. Wade. So crucial was their overriding Supreme Court goal that supporting evangelicals would not mind unwittingly undermining Christian values along the Trump way. Un-education allied with societally-motivated religion, the latter at its core also faith-based (however good principles it may also project), created an odd “enabling” and at times unwitting coalition for an unusual form of hidden or soft populism, that would be harmful to both America and the world, personified by an oddly value-less Donald Trump. In all fairness, it is clear that regardless of their shortcomings or end game, Trump supporters’ objective was not to weaken America and its standing in the world, incidentally furthering the agenda of rival and challenging powers. However, by backing easy populist solutions to complex issues, unbeknownst to them, they did, all while eventually not seeing their own core problems and frustrations solved (even if evangelicals would rightly argue that current Supreme Court nomination hearings proved them right, if only focusing on their narrow end game).

To be sure, not all non-college educated and evangelical Americans voted or will vote for Trump (some evangelical groups, a minority, are indeed rooting for Biden) but these two segments do form the bulwark of its support and voting base. Similarly, many college-educated and non-evangelical Americans also voted for Trump for ideological reasons, Republican party habit, or rejection of some of the left-leaning planks of the Democratic party (likely an even more acute aspect today) as well as the probably unfairly perceived “entitled” personality of the candidate in 2016. The convergence of non-college education (as well as the absence of any professional qualifications) and the advent of all-empowering, truth-blurred and easy-to-use tech tools created a large and active group of voters who decided that the societal status quo and its tested recipes could and should change and new solutions and even governing style be implemented.

One key point for Western liberals in addressing the roots of populism tainted of nationalism (or national-populism if the term was not a dreadful and overblown reminder of another age) is not to mock the increasingly tech-enabled and vocal un-educated “left outs” but respect them and understand the grievances explaining their electoral choices that may lead to leaders with autocratic tendencies at the helm of our Western democracies. As an example, cultural identity, often a key universal focus of the left outs, indeed matters and should not just be the remit of the populists. We should always show respect and debate peacefully, though strongly, with the supporters of these populist leaders and movements and keep trying pointing to the disconnect of their views through facts and rationality.

There is a reason to hope, which is based on results. While populist movements and leaders have been very good at seizing power electorally in recent years, their results have been rather poor and have not changed the lives of their core supporters for the better. These movements and leaders are not good at governing, which many see as an afterthought to winning. Governing is indeed painfully detailed and boring, involving more debates than grand-standing rhetoric, something that populist leaders are not good at as we now vividly see from the standpoints of an appalling US pandemic leadership to dreadful Brexit negotiations, both clear self-harming populist demonstrations.

While democratic societies need to focus on increased education budgets associated with richer programs, also involving a key overhaul of the teaching profession, and a more sensible role and responsible use of tech, there is reason to hope that the waves of nationalistic-favored populism that we have known in the last five years will recede due to the inability to deliver results when in power. Austria’s latest election is a timely case in point. And so should America’s in November.

Going beyond the debate about populism and its enablers, one of the key side aspects to ensure that this quasi-pandemic wave will not come back will also be to make or remake capitalism more human and better shared in its successes or, as Joe Biden recently said, “reward work” and not see economic success only through a Dow Jones index lens. While rewarding work more, democratic societies should keep ensuring that more voters are educated and trained for jobs to come so the smallest number of non-qualified individuals will be left on the roadside when robots come in and we finally need to introduce an inevitable Universal Basic Income as a new social security cushion in an inevitable future.

Warmest regards,