Populism may be our last, best hope

Populism is in the news. This month I've talked about it on panels at Byron Writers Festival and at a FedTalks night (in Federal), and I contributed an essay on it to the new Griffith Review. 

Populism has become the catch-word for all political positions outside the mainstream, and I believe this is an abuse of a word, and of a noble movement. The American Populist party in the 19th and 20th century fought the Big Business parties, and the same spirit energised Australia's contemporaneous movements for independence and equality. In both countries, reforms such as universal voting, access to health-care and education, fair taxes, wages and working conditions, rights for women and children, and more arose not from beneficent businessmen or wise politicians but from people’s campaigns.

Against government oppression, the people united will never be defeated. Photo: Carlos Gutierrez

Against government oppression, the people united will never be defeated. Photo: Carlos Gutierrez

Aside from the damage done to this proud legacy, using populism as a boo-word also promotes the notion the “the people” want all manner of reactionary policies, like strangling immigration, demanding cuts in government-benefits-that-don’t-benefit-me-personally, and generally being ignorant and mean. Yes there are people like Trump and Australian senator Pauline Hanson, and some of their fans, who imagine immigrants and Muslims are coming their way in far greater numbers than they actually are. And they imagine Muslims are inherently terrorists. A big cohort of such people in the US voted for Trump, but he also got votes from staunch conservatives and people who believe Obama is a Muslim or an alien or both.

Today, our pollies and our commentariat are using “populism” in a lazy and unhelpful pretence that they’re making sense of the disillusionment in mainstream politics across the “developed” world. They push the idea that people are voting for nutbars like Trump, Hanson, Le Pen, Corbyn, and Sanders because of “populism”, but Trump/Hanson/Le Pen are guilty of multiple and separate social crimes, while Corbyn and Sanders are old-school social democrats committed to improving living standards for all of us 99%ers -- who each attracted more votes than racist and factually-challenged candidates did.

To rescue populisms past from being unfairly trashed, and to advance debate that illuminates rather than obfuscates today, I recommend that anyone calling someone a populist or any policy populism insert an adjective in front of the word. As in Trump is a SHAM populist, Hanson is a MUSLIM-HATING populist, and Brexit was not any kind of populism, it was a bullshit propaganda exercise financed by corporates to advance their business interests.

So, given that populism isn't what's disillusioning us about politics, what is? Answer: Politics since the 1980s has consisted of big business systematically taking over government by spending huge amounts of money to get its lackeys elected (particularly in the US) and by rigging the rules so that mass media are run by tycoons (Rupert Murdoch above all) who promote government by big business (particularly in Australia).

From Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US through to today, this march to corporatocracy was said to be creating new wealth and spreading it around: mainstream pollies and their talking heads said it repeatedly, telling us the economy was getting better when it wasn’t. Reality was that the corporates exported growth to wherever labor is dirt-cheap and gave themselves increasingly lavish shares of our tax-money – until their globaloney came undone in 2008, making us face the fact that cut-throat capitalism only works for those with very big and very sharp knives.

Now, in the US, UK and the many other “democracies” of the world, people are looking for political programs that redistribute power to the people, and asking how did we get conned into believing that big businessmen make great decisions on our behalf?

When the people have a chance to vote for policies that are based on the principle espoused by Jim Hightower, my long-time friend and collaborator from Texas -- that “Everyone does better when everyone does better” – they tend to vote for those policies. Hightower calls that "progressive populism". Mainstream media (MSM) however daze and confuse every issue their owners are invested in, such as by calling renewable energies bad and coal clean, or saying we can’t grow enough food for the world when we already do.

What’s wrong with our representative democracies today is who represents whom. We now have government by the corporates, for the corporates. Like Abe Lincoln said, we need "a new birth of freedom [so that] government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.

Also so the earth itself shall not perish from global warming or from Trump’s fat little fingers fondling the big red button. 

Phillip FrazerComment