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Institutionalizing populism

A ‘national conversation’ about important matters is becoming almost impossible under these circumstances. Half the population does not want to listen.

Grahame Thompson
22 November 2016
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Gina Miller outside the High Court in London where three judges have ruled against the Prime Minister's decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and start the UK's exit from the European Union without the prior authority of Parliament.Dominic Lipinski/ Press Association. All rights reserved. The key aspect of populisms as political programs is to be found not in what populist politicians proclaim, particularly not in their campaigning activity, but in how this is translated into an institutionalized form – how they are going about reconfiguring the existing institutions of social and political life.

It is when populisms confront the actual concrete organizational institutions of everyday life that we will perceive their potential real effects.

Perhaps populisms are more comfortable with what might be termed the social institutions of contemporary society – like the family, religions, community (and in the UK, even the monarchy) – than they are with the organized institutions of civic and political life.

Of course, they want to ‘reform’ the family and religious institutions, to make them conform to a more authentically conservative purpose but they do not want to completely destroy the contemporary institutional form these have taken (in western democracies, however, populisms are often openly hostile to Islam). On the other hand they do want to confront head on, and often radically transform – if not destroy – organized institutions like the media, political parties, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

Populists seem to have nothing but contempt for these aspects of contemporary life. Indeed, it is these four institutional manifestations of a civilized democratic life that will form the key battlegrounds where populist rhetoric and its practical application meet and will take effect.

The media is the most obvious site of the contemporary disgust shown by populists towards their adversaries. And the traditional forms of media dissemination – newspapers, TV, Radio – are already under siege from technological transformations which have little or nothing to do with populisms as such. But populists have taken advantage in the most effective manner of these changes already under way, and are thereby aiding their further development.

As a result we are entering a period where the traditional ‘liberal’ journalistic aspirations (if not always realizations) of honesty, truth telling, fact-finding and evidential reporting are being rapidly eroded.

In addition, the fragmentation of media dissemination means people only listen to themselves and others like them. A ‘national conversation’ about important matters is becoming almost impossible under these circumstances. Half the population or so does not want to listen, and it feels there is no need for it to do so to form its political opinions.

The second organized institution that is within the sights of populists for their radical transformation is political parties. Of course, populists need political parties to advance their claims – Donald Trump needed the Republican Party in his campaign for the US Presidency, Nigel Farage needed UKIP for the Brexit adventure. But the role political parties play is different for populists. They operate as a personalized and instrumental organizational body for filling the hall during political rallies or getting the vote out at election time.

Populist parties do not operate either democratically to generate policy or as an educational body to cultivate debate and train for political activism. Political parties are in danger of being further hollowed out by populisms, left to form a shell that can be used by the leadership to simply advance its personalized aggrandizement.

Populisms show nothing but contempt for the normal procedures of ‘representative democracy’. This is where the ‘political elite’ reside so it is ripe for their condemnation and dismantlement. Real day to day decisions of a political nature should be made as executive orders, and referendums should replace considered judgement by the legislature for the big decisions.

Arron Banks (the main funder of the populist UKIP party) has advanced just such an agenda as a condition for his future funding of any radical populist party in the UK. Plebiscitary democracy would replace parliamentary democracy as we have traditionally understood it.

The final and perhaps the most insidious object for populist ire is the ‘rule of law’. An independent judiciary is another one of those places where the establishment resides, so it needs to be condemned. It needs to be transformed into an ‘instrument of the popular will’ via the appointment of politically compliant judges. This was clearly manifest in the UK as the High Court ruled that Article 50 to leave the EU could not be activated without the consent of Parliament. None of the main political parties or politicians resolutely condemned the onslaught initiated by the right wing popular press against the three presiding judges who made the judgment. They all ran for cover.

None of the main political parties or politicians resolutely condemned the onslaught initiated by the right wing popular press against the three presiding judges who made the judgment. They all ran for cover or hid in a corner. Although this decision has been referred to the Supreme Court the damage was done.

Of course there are other institutions that have attracted the attention for condemnation from populists: central banks come immediately to mind, which have been accused by them of fostering inequality and failing to tackle low economic growth.

However it is the four main organized institutions that will bear the brunt of a specifically populist onslaught. Whether populisms will be able to dismantle these, either partially, let alone fully, remains to be seen. And it is important to recognize that many of the charges brought against these institutions by populists are mirrored within mainstream political forces.

The populist agenda has infected all political parties. At the moment much of this remains at the level of rhetoric and intention. But it is institutional changes that will secure populisms their enduring legacy if and as they can engineer it.

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