2011/01/11

Populism and the tough political challenges of our time

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Populism was once a good thing; it was about politicians actually making policies that the population liked. It was a fresh and welcome approach after dozens of generations of self-serving political leaders.

The description "populist" is rather derogatory today. Something has obviously changed.
Many populists turned out to be extremely ideological or otherwise unfit for public service. Populists don't appear to be able to master today's political challenges. Freedom-endangering extremists are often successful only in a populist mode.


Some countries in the Western world drift(ed) towards populism and/or ideology while others appear to follow different paths, including the path towards technocratic governments.

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I've had some discussions about politics - both domestic and abroad - in which a simple model was very helpful for the explanation why I personally have an ambivalent stance towards populism:

There are popular AND effective answers.
All kinds of politicians tend to employ these. In fact, such solutions have already been employed almost without exception. Few if any good answers to our modern pressing problems fit into this category.

There are popular AND ineffective answers.
Populists use these to build and maintain their reputation. We need to replace these ineffective (often even harmful) answers with better ones, of course. Populists won't do this, ever.

There are unpopular AND effective answers.
This is where the solutions for the future can be found. Populists will avoid these answers, though. Technocrats like them and risk losing power because of the poor popularity.

There are unpopular AND ineffective answers.
Politicians only touch on these by accident. The least relevant category.

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Populists can be very effective at reforming a nation real quick with popular answers to pressing problems and their effect will usually be advantageous, but still mixed. The best phase for this approach to politics is a phase of rapid development; the founding or rebuilding of a country, maybe also a rapid growth phase in transition to an industrialized country.

Mature, highly complex societies are unlikely to benefit from a populist approach to politics. These societies have already used up the popular/effective answers, need to get rid of ineffective answers of the past and need to pursue unpopular/effective answers.

The latter is really, really tough - especially so since charismatic technocrats aren't exactly commonplace.

A society can flee into the arms of a charismatic populist - male of female (*wink*) - in times of crisis. I am convinced that technocrats are usually a better choice for a mature and complex society.

Both populists AND technocrats can be dangerous for democracy, of course.

Central banks are a popular example for an extreme form of technocratic rule (economists lead the central bank with great independence, even with marginal democratic oversight). 
Generals as war secretaries (or nowadays so-called "secretary of defence") are another rather problematic example (as evidenced especially in developing countries).

Both need to be tamed in one or another way.

S.O.
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