How Populists Hijacked the Inequity Agenda

Inequities were accentuated by the financial debacle of 2008; neoliberalism is still in crisis. The right does not believe in neoliberal economics, however, they still use core tenets of it to run government and society. Populist economic policy claims to design policies for people who fear losing status in society, and those who believe they have been abandoned by the political establishment. The populist economic agenda focuses on single and salient political issues, over emphasizes negative aspects of international economic exchange and immigration, and/or blames foreigners or international institutions for economic difficulties. Much like other populist plutocrats who have come to power around the world, Donald Trump used anti-elite rhetoric to gain office, then performed an about-face to govern for the benefit of the very economic elites he derided as a candidate. He ran as a populist; but governs as a plutocrat. Conservative populists target those with a monopoly on representation (journalists, scholars, established political parties) rather than those with a monopoly on production.

Neoliberals promote the market as being perfect, as success or failure is a personal reward. Neoliberal core tenets include deficits are dangerous, jobs are only created in the private sector, and a dynamic market dictates part-time and casual work. The promotion of ‘flexible labour markets’ in the name of growth and competitiveness has not made many better off when it leads to the proliferation of insecure work. The economic policy has been handed over to those who benefit from it – they understand that in the world of the market there is a trade in lies as much as truth. Governments have absorbed neoliberal operational templates and the Orwellian language that naturally accompanies this. More and more people live with the poverty and job insecurity that flows directly from inequities exacerbated by neoliberal welfare and austerity policies. Rather than values, money is the only universal means of exchange.

It may seem strange that the slogan of the doctrine of failing neoliberal economics that promised change should have been, “there is no alternative.” Why have neoliberal economics and populist politics coexisted in several Middle European countries? Populists and neoliberals concentrate power at the apex of the state to boost their personal leadership and enact painful reforms. Finally, populists and neoliberals see the deep crisis facing their countries as an opportunity, for populists to prove their charisma and for neoliberals to discredit the state-interventionist development model. The populist economic agenda rejects compromise as well as checks and balances and favours simplistic solutions. Populist neoliberals declare that knowledge, goods and ideas should be free to migrate, but people do not need to move in large numbers. Rather movement should be based on the concept of human capital, applying right to immigrate for a fee, or an IQ screen.

Populism is a phenomenon which can emerge in all forms of a democratic system. Political theorist Cas Mudde, defines populists as sharing three key characteristics. They are anti-establishment, having faith in “plain talkers” and “ordinary people” as opposed to the “corrupt establishment” of business, government, academia, and media. They are authoritarian, favoring strong leaders over democratic institutions and traditions. They are nativist, putting their nation first. The most exposed to its influence are political systems which experience an institutional transition. Populism is a political discourse that imagines a struggle between a good and virtuous “people” and a nefarious establishment. In advanced democracies a more relevant, negative aspect of populism is that it undermines the civility of the relations among citizens. It erodes the respect for the dignity of political opponents and of minority groups and weakens the culture of reasoned debates. Serious flaws of neoliberalism created the inequities that helped the rise of populists.

Slogans offer a new way to connect with voters – another world is possible! Many people left behind since 2008 do not respond to political debate, these people become responsive to slogans, symbols, and sensations. Donald Trump, a political outsider, set himself up as the populist candidate and the voice of the unrepresented. To the admirers of Trump, for example, facts and arguments appear irrelevant. Trump’s victory marks the victory of divisive rhetoric, disregard for facts, promises of simple cures for all ills, nativism, demagoguery, and the power of seductive slogans, which are a common feature of the new populism. The most pressing environmental problem we face today is not climate change. It is pollution in the public sphere, where a smog of adversarial rhetoric, propaganda, and polarization stifles discussion and debate, creating resistance to change and thwarting our ability to solve our collective problems.

There are critical vulnerabilities in contemporary journalism practice that allow populist parties and their supporters to actively manipulate the press and subvert democratic processes. Journalists need to be aware and respond to a role played in their success, by giving them a disproportionate amount of coverage. Social media gives populist actors the freedom to articulate their ideology and spread their messages. Politics of fear is used to get people to vote a particular way, allow excesses in spending, or accept policies they might otherwise abhor. In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies. These “populist” voters now live in a media bubble, getting their news from sources that play to their identity-politics desires, which means that even if you offer them a better deal, they won’t hear about it, or believe it if told.

On the surface, neoliberalism and populism appear to be conflicting narratives. Both share several assumptions that pertain to the role of welfare, individuals and society. Both populism and neoliberalism interpret virtually everything in purely economic terms. Neoliberalism has reduced citizens to being consumers and accepted lobbying by companies as a standard modality to influence policy making. Populists get elected fighting such things as economic inequality, unemployment and dislocation of firms. Both neoliberalism and populism support individualism and the pursuit of self-interest. However, material welfare is still the greatest achievement in life for most people, but neither neoliberalism nor populism can help most. The failure of neoliberalism over the past 30 years has left many workers angry and frustrated. With lives being determined by impersonal forces leaves people feeling helpless, with increasing inequities, while at the same time they are obliged to compete, or at least see themselves as in competition with other people.

Populists claim to be the only legitimate representative of the people. Populists also increase citizens’ anger over a perceived lack of representation by the institutions. Marginalizing minority voters is part of right-wing populism – teach voters to view those who cast ballots for rival candidates not as fellow citizens of a shared democracy but as immoral and illegitimate “takers” who need to be defeated — enemies of civilization who need to be crushed. Neoliberalism relies on intellectual conformism and fashion, whereas populists condemn any criticism as a form of complicity with the establishment. The failing neoliberal project, harbinger of austerity budgets, is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression – difficult times fall disproportionately hard on minorities and members of the working poor. This underemployment and increasing inequities occur in the US in parallel with austerity budgets – cuts to Medicaid, welfare and food stamp programs and funding for public education.

The populist economic agenda rejects compromise as well as checks and balances and favours simplistic solutions. The answer to this new hegemony is to abandon economicism – the primacy of the “market” and considering human beings in terms of what they have rather than what they are. The populist plutocrat is a leader who exploits the cultural and economic grievances of poorer, less-educated voters against traditional elites in order to achieve and retain power, but who, once in office, seem substantially or primarily interested in enriching him- or herself, along with a relatively small circle of family members, cronies, and allies. Countering this includes replacing money with moral, organizational, and cultural values. Moral values include respect for others and social justice. Individualism must give way to the struggle for social justice – justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.1

Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony – the dominant ideology of society reflects the beliefs and interests of the ruling class – around the way ideas are transmitted by language. Answering the populist challenge to democratic communication requires a paradigm shift that buries the meanness of a culture of austerity and aloofness of individualism. In order to confront a populist plutocracy, the system needs to be free from the corrupting influence of corporate money. Inequities – the unfair, avoidable differences arising from poor governance, corruption, or cultural exclusion – reduce the freedom and opportunities for an individual to reach their full potential in general, and wellness or good health, in particular. It is necessary to focus on the economy with its multifaceted connections to social issues, and build more equal societies. The new system must address the existing inequities to prevent this era of fear and hatred from evolving into a populist regime.

1 Marco Senatore – 29 March 2018. Beyond Neoliberalism and Populism: Values, individual autonomy and authentic communities https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/29/03/2018/beyond-neoliberalism-and-populism-values-individual-autonomy-and-authentic

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