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Finding an antidote to populism

  • 15 June 2015

One 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