Finding an antidote to populism


Ancient Greece politicsOne of the most used epithets to describe policies and governments is 'populist'. It has most recently been applied to the Coalition Budget and its retreat from the stringencies of the previous budget. State governments' tightening of jail sentences and building of more jails have also been described as populist. Although the word itself is not illuminating, its background raises interesting contemporary questions.

Populist is normally a pejorative word, used to describe governments or policies we don't like. It is used to refer to governments of the left and right, to policies that are more indulgent or authoritarian than we would favour.

Its use and ambivalence go back a long way. In ancient Greece the relative merits of autocracy, oligarchy and democracy as a framework for wise governance were widely discussed. But the dreaded elephant in the room was always ochlocracy — mob rule. The mob was seen as wild, changeable, unstable and violent. It was a challenge to good and wise government. Populism has shades of the triumph of the mob over the wisdom that, say, a philosopher king might provide.

From this perspective the development of the representative democracy we know can be seen as the simultaneous taming and incorporation of the mob into governance. It does this by having the people vote for representatives who will take part in governance. Their deliberations, universal education and the framework of law generate the wisdom that they will need in governing.

The difficulty with this political framework is that it easily develops into oligarchy, and so separates those governing from the governed.

This is evident in Australia today and has many contributing factors. The power and influence of large corporations and interests and their capacity to influence media gives them a hand in shaping policy. Political parties, too, select their candidates increasingly from people who have already been involved in the party. Politics has been their life and separates them from the experience of their constituents.

They and those with whom they consort also share the view that the business of government is best defined in economic terms, and should free individuals and businesses to make and keep wealth.

Because they are subject to occasional popular vote, politicians who are separated from the mob are vulnerable. At this point they introduce popularist policies, not to serve the national interest but to placate the mob and so to secure their own interests.

The easiest form of populism is to pander to the passions of the mob, particularly to hatred and prejudice. The making of scapegoats such as asylum seekers, the unemployed, drug users, Indigenous Australians, and now Muslims, and targeting them through laws that humiliate them has long been a feature of Australian democratic politics, as indeed of all political systems.

There is not much difference between the Australian treatment of asylum seekers and that of the treatment of the Rohingya by the Burmese military government. Populism and authoritarianism and brutality go hand in hand.

This kind of populism offers to governments the advantage of consolidating support in ballots. It also enables rulers to strengthen their power by drowning out reasoned opposition and weakening the rule of law. One of the paradoxes of popularism is that it is inherently autocratic.

In Australia, however, the smooth path to oligarchy is also now impeded by the vagaries of the electoral system. The difficulty of commending unpopular policies to a fragmented Senate makes the governing party appear both brutal in introducing harsh policies and incompetent in addressing the national needs these policies are designed to meet. Public alienation from the political process deepens.

Such alienation leads governments to show a Janus face to the people. Instead of the stern executor of public security, we now see the nursemaid to the reborn status quo. Previously urgent national needs fade away, and policies designed to offend no one, and cost no one anything they are likely to notice, are introduced. After the red meat of public executions follows the dessert of bread and circuses.

This is one way of running a nation. But it might be better to conceive politics and governance as about the good of human beings and society, to regulate public life so that it does not become oligarchic, and to respond to people as responsible and not as molls to be codded.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, representative democracy, mob rule, populism



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Existing comments

Having recently finished reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and watching past episodes of "Yes, Minister" I am able to appreciate Andy's learned discourse. King Henry VIII wanted a male heir, badly, but history shows us that Elizabeth I was a ruler of rare distinction. I very much agree with the final paragraph of this well-written article.
Pam | 12 June 2015

This is awesome. Recalling to my mind Jesus' prophetic and priestly witness. Such as I have not heard elsewhere. Praise Our friend Jesus!
Lourenel | 14 June 2015

An interesting discussion of ochlocracy and populism which makes the optimism behind calls for genuine democracy seem naïve. Did Andrew mean to compare the Australian Government's treatment of asylum seekers with Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia rather than the the treatment of the Rohingya by the Burmese military government?
James Grover | 15 June 2015

Much more poetic in parts than much of the "poetry" written as prose!
john frawley | 15 June 2015

Seems to sum up the situation admirably. Woe for democracy as we have known it, for my impression of the world as it is now is that we, the not-elite people, are in this para-helpless state because we are overwhelmingly choosing to be coddled molls. Perhaps the world is just too fast and our noses are too close to the grindstone for there to be the time and energy available to consider the equality of freedom and liberty of grave importance. Did I mention distractions? Circuses are an endemic lifestyle in Oz. Can't see how this golden land of Oz can be a frontrunner in a dialectical conversation that will restore democracy to something we actually take an active part in. The (Melbourne) Argus, Sat 26 Sept 1885 carries an interesting and timeless article called "Legislation in the Molly Coddle Islands", and is basically about protectionism and how ultimately it paradoxically benefits the most powerful in society. A line - "The high priests of the Molly Coddle doctrine have constructed an ideal working man of their own. He is such a timid, helpless creature that he will fall and bark his nose if allowed to drop his nurse's hand and walk alone." A great read. Thanks Andrew
MichCook | 15 June 2015

Thank you for this voice of reason, of enlightenment. One can hardly argue with Cicero when he argues 'the good of the people is the chief law'. How to determine that 'good' and how to enunciate it as 'the chief law' is another matter. That acute observer of human nature, Alcuin (735-804AD) warned: 'Those people should not be listened to who declare the voice of the people is the voice of God, as the riotous behavior of the crowd is always very close to madness'.
John Nicholson | 15 June 2015

We make decisions about issues or problems usually in two ways - either based on emotion or reason. Most people would argue that decisions they make are reason-based. But are they? Advertisers would disagree. Roman emperors employed the "bread and circuses" strategy. Their greatest fear, occasionally realised, was the mob unleashed. So bread kept the peasants fed, and circuses diverted aggression away towards captured prisoners or other undesirables in the arena. The key was to channel emotion to your purposes. Today, the inescapable spin and point-scoring of our politicians stifle reasoned debate and rational decision-making. Shock jocks continually whip the public into hysteria over the moment's pet issues. Many other media now also obfuscate, rather than illuminate. Our opinion-drivers are often the last to want reason to enter discussions! Powerful influences want us to fear for our future, to learn to loathe certain groups, especially all those "thems" out there threatening "us". As a result, we are increasingly degenerating into 'Mobthink'. At present, a devastatingly destructive potential of such thinking still seems inconceivable. But at least 15 million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, left-wingers, handicapped, forced labourers, regime critics and others in pre-Nazi Europe undoubtedly thought that early on too.
PaulM | 15 June 2015

PaulM - I am definitely driven emotionally and look for reasonable explanations to contextualise my fears. Reasonable is a very subjective reckoning so it's not fair to promulgate anything 'reasonable' without some justification. The fear that our hard won democratic society, that once embodied mores encapsulated by "a fair go mate" and "fair suck of the sauce bottle" , the fear that the trough our society is in is getting deeper and that ultimately we'll scrape bottom and be wrecked is palpable, as evidenced by Andrew's article. We are driven not so much by decisions as by rationalised feelings. Feelings are the great motivators to thought beyond a simple sentient existence. That's my reply re your "based on emotion or reason". It's both, and too much either way loses sight of our humanity. As such, linking Nazi doctrine (which wasn't public but could be imputed by those that had the most horrific imaginations) is no more informative than Stalin's, or Pol Pot's, or Rwandan irrational (to us) fears. So, coming back to what we can get our hands on, the fears that propelled Andrew to write this article are summed in last paragraph. Mine are that we have gone past recovery. Indeed, all the Western democratic tradition is faced with as yet unarticulated and under articulated problems that have already emasculated the better results we have a right to expect, as per Andrew's summary. But, perhaps that expectation is ill founded. Perhaps the expectation is an illusion that's supposed to mirror our scientific and technical progress. Perhaps our anthropomorphic brains can't keep up. Perhaps this world is really Satan's domain. Perhaps the best we can do is love, as Jesus of Nazareth loved. Perhaps all I can do is prioritise my understanding of God's love, and prioritise my efforts in living by mirroring that understanding back into the world I experience. Perhaps I fear alienation. I do. I also experience paradox, but have chosen to move in a certain direction, not always with complete certainty. That sounds a bit like a Molly Coddle Islander. But the Islander has no gaze towards horizon, and swims in the flow of other Islanders hoping not to stand out, and to be invisible to sharks. Your 'Mobthink'. The antidote is to make decisions, from the heart.
MichCook | 16 June 2015

I must confess myself vaguely disappointed at the description of Ancient Greek politicl theory, which gets the categories right but the dynamics wrong. The principal Ancient Greek political theorist here is Aristotle as refracted through Polybius and both considered exclusivity bad thing, and a recipe for instability. Monarchy descends to tyranny; tyranny is replaced by aristocracy; aristocracy becomes oligarchy and is replaced by democracy which descends into ochlocracy, out of which monarchy returns. This political cycle (anakyklosis) is most effectively broken by a mixed constitution which combined the best elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy (mikte). If we wished to follow this analogy through to the contemporary world, the Westminster system with its basis on the doctrine of the separation of powers is not a bad modern version of a mixed constitution. It is this that we need to protect, most especially - in the current climate - the independence of the judiciary and the limitation of executive authority. Having said that, the fundamental point that Andrew makes remains unchanged. The populism that feeds the worst in us is a far bigger threat to our democracy than terrorism or asylum seekers.
Bill Leadbetter | 16 June 2015

Sorry MichCook, I also worry about the directions our society is taking - obviously. But I found it a little difficult to pin down the key underlying message(s) of your arguments. I agree that a major cause of our sense of helplessness is the 'too-fast world' and 'noses always to the grindstone'. And that good decisions should be a blend of both reason and emotion. Certainly they should be highly influenced by the welfare of others, including the "thems", and not just the "usses". As far as "reason" is concerned, I think that much of what masquerades or is propagandised as reason (eg. neo-liberal economic rationalism or shock-jock diatribes) is anything but rational and reasoned, but often tribal demagoguery (and even deliberate deception) in disguise. The only reason I mentioned Nazis was because they were the acknowledged masters of scapegoating in their propaganda. And because a consequence of the resulting dehumanisation was atrocity on an industrial level, which people at first either refused to believe was possible, or thought would never go so far. You could equally apply those horrific effects to the regimes you mentioned, but scapegoating and the breakdown of reason into Mobthink were the key points to my argument. On one hand I sympathise with your belief that we should be making decisions based on emotions and then rationalising them later. I presume you mean that we should pay more attention to our intuition, to our soul feeling about what the right course of action is? I don't disagree. But following the message of your intuition or emotions (or divine inspiration?) may be all well and good, if your emotional nature is benign and driven by love for your fellow humans and a wish to do good for others. What about if your emotional nature is greed-based or psycho- or sociopathic? Furthermore, acting purely on emotions is what a two-year old does. And rationalising emotion-driven actions later on such a basis is surely what for thousands of years has caused untold suffering? Can we not be more grown-up? We should be trying to evolve ourselves out of this sort of behaviour. People have been making progress in evolving as reasoning humans for thousands of years, through the Greek philosophers, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which proclaimed the Age of Reason - all very positive developments, as far as I'm concerned. And if a policy-maker is using true reason in his/her decision-making (in the spirit of the great humanist and theological thinkers) they would be making decisions that benefit all, not just some. That's why I put enlightened reason over emotion and that's what I think was also the central theme of Andrew's article.
PaulM | 16 June 2015

Whatever theory/ies of politics you subscribe to it would seem patently obvious that our current governments at all levels are basically concerned with hanging on to power in the relatively short term at whatever cost. Professional politicians are so attuned to the 24/7 news cycle with their attendant minders, lobbyists, journalists, polls, shock jocks and Twitter that Australian politics has become narcissistic, inward looking and poisonous and going nowhere fast. It is not just what can be termed social justice or equity matters which suffer but basic economic planning for the future. There seem to be few politicians these days with the economic nous and public honesty of a John Hewson or Peter Walsh. I think many/most politicians need to relocate their moral compass. We need to have a vision of what we are and where we are going. We need to believe in something. Deakin, Menzies, Whitlam and others did. We don't need politics which is merely reactive to the news cycle, a politics of "baby food sound bytes".
Edward Fido | 16 June 2015

PaulM - for yourself and other readers I need to clarify meaning. I took issue with your phrase "based on emotion OR (my emphasis) reason", which was clarified at the end of my argument re that. Up front Mcself says " I am definitely driven emotionally and look for reasonable explanations to contextualise my fears." You mistake that position as using reason to legitimise a decision already made, on the basis of emotion. I totally agree, that's a horrifying position. It's not one I aspire to or believe in. But being flesh, Mcself is susceptible to it. Emphasising , "It's both",(emotion and reason) "and too much either way loses sight of our humanity." My "key underlying message" is that the heart is at the base of humanity, not (in capitals?) reason. Fundamentally we are on the same page. We both agree with Andrew Hamilton's article. Because I can, as you do, I'm advancing ideas tacked to Andrew's assessment. If we take his use of the word oligarch literally, even in light shades of grey, then the situation resolving itself based upon those in power seems hopeless. No persona that attracts oligarch is or has voluntarily reversed the process that gave them strength. The process is overtly on display and is aggregating more power while dissipating the power of the Molls of Coddle Land. We Molls are not going to be given (capitals) more personal responsibility. We have to take it. That bears repeating - We Take Personal Responsibility. Jesus of Nazareth is our guide and mentor in the revolution necessary. He promulgated a new message (The Good News) that defines us as love, as (capitals) the Father is Love. The revolution is about two millennia young, a long way to go yet. Needs subscribers for a different outcome.
MichCook | 17 June 2015


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