Friday, August 28, 2020

A defence of liberal populism

Embed from Getty Images

Populism, all right-thinking people agree, is a Bad Thing. Yet in the far-off days when I was a Liberal activist and then councillor, there was a definite populist strand to our campaigning.

We were the people who stood up for the unfashionable end of town. We were the people who stood up for the voters against council ruling groups and senior officers.

I remember doing a survey on council house repairs here in Harborough and being told the next day that the council offices were thronged with people we had encouraged to make complaints. I was proud of that.

Somewhere along the way we have lost much of that spirit.

I blogged that immediately after last December's general election, commenting on an article on the 'Liberalism of the left-behind' by Peter Sloman.

So I am pleased to read a liberal defence of populism by Sarah Smarsh in the Columbia Journalism Review.

She notes that 'populist' is now used in a pejorative way by all liberal journalists and then reminds us: 

Populism is neither right nor left—nor anti-science—by definition. It is merely a concern, whether genuine or feigned, for the common people. Today’s most prominent populists include Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Bernie Sanders—people who base their policies on valid evidence and have given their lives to fighting everything that the far right represents. 

Indeed, the most crucial progressive political movements of our time—Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, climate marches and gun-reform rallies—are by nature populist. Founded at ground level, often by victims of racism, sexism, environmental injustice, and lax gun laws, they were then energized by the fed-up masses.

She concludes:

At the very least, journalists and commentators should provide an ideological qualifier when tossing “populism” around: “right-wing populist,” “progressive populist.” The more precise word for describing leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, and Donald Trump, though, is not “populist” but “demagogue.” The latter is by definition disingenuous, exploiting social fissures, manipulating media, and misleading the electorate in pursuit of selfish gain. A demagogue may use populist strategies to win support but has little or no concern for the masses. 

I recommend her article and the one by Peter Sloman too.

The photo above shows Huey Long, the populist governor of Louisiana. He was no liberal, but a fascinating figure none the less.


nigel hunter said...

Sara Smarsh -too true.Johnson,bent bananas,devious comments ,piccanninie smiles. His comments on 'Rule Brittannia' .Manipulating media(hiding in fridges),letting some papers have interviews others not. Leaks to papers.False comments on media (Tory fact checking sight). Lots of things that he and Cummings and Gove etc deal in.YES ALL DEMAGOGUES.
We should start talking populist.We should start changing its meaning.For one 43% of population is NOT the mass who voted for Brexit. It was not the will of the people. Surely that is an arguement that could be used

Phil Beesley said...

Life is about complex stories. My dad was a straightforward man but...

Ostensibly, populism favours the right. However, it is impossible to count the number of occasions when liberals have raised populist arguments (father of three, Oxbridge candidate, NHS worker, local volunteer) in support of immigration claims -- campaigns which right wing newspapers approve, to demonstrate their humanitarian values. Similarly, campaigns to support foreign nationals -- soldiers and their assistants -- Gurkhas, Afghan translators -- have drawn support from left and right.

Liberalism needs simple stories, which can draw from the particular case to the general one.