Populism

I have been trying to explain a number of political ideologies, and their implications for Malawi. We have

  • Conservatism: conserve (keep) what is there, or change only very slowly.
  • Liberalism: liberty from state intervention
  • Socialism: the state redistributes power, knowledge and wealth, so equal opportunities are realized for everyone.

These major directions have dominated western politics since the industrial revolution from the late 18th century. But there is an interesting political phenomenon that keeps popping up, that is not so much a political ideology as a political style. The style influences the type of politics that can be populist, but it can be anywhere on the political scale of left-right (or socialist vs either conservative or liberal).

Populism means (from the same root as population) appealing to the people, and in this case the people is taken as meaning the “common person”. This means political ideas are explained in simple terms, often very simplified, and often so simplified that they do not work when implemented. Populist movements usually do not have long staying power: the simplicity of the ideas and style usually attract people with simple minds who may lack the skills to run the organization well enough for it to stay around.

In the current political climate of the world, populism is usually right wing (which means conservative in American terms). A recent example of a short lived American right wing populist movement was the Tea Party. It had simple economic ideas: small government, so abandon welfare policies, cultural policies, state subsidized health care and education. Enigmatically they did not oppose agricultural subsidies (maybe because of the farmers in their constituency). At the moment Donald Trump is the leading populist in American politics.

In South Africa, left wing populism is practiced by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) under charismatic leadership of Julius Malema. He holds on to the 1955 Freedom Charter, which advocates for economic transformation so the poor get their rightful share of national wealth. Unfortunately Malema in actual practice is as corrupt as the elites he fights against, and in his home province of Limpopo there is very little development as a consequence of the corruption.

In Europe the current wave of populism is mostly anti immigration (which gives it racist, and xenophobic undertones). There are successful populist parties in Belgium (the Flemish Interest is even tribalist in that it wants to split up the country!), France (National Front), Denmark (Danish People’s Party), Netherlands (Freedom Party), Norway (Progress Party), Sweden (Sweden Democrats) and others. They have in common that their constituency is mostly white, lowly educated, indigenous, low income and more male than female. Many of these parties have connections with Fascist and strongly racist (xenophobic) organizations, but the successful ones keep a distance from these organizations.

Usually European populist parties promote:

  • Anti elitism: the current ruling class is elitist (highly educated and high income) and does not represent the interests of the “common people”
  • Anti immigration (they are xenophobic): immigrants are seen as an economic burden and a threat to local culture
  • Nationalism: anti European Union, closing borders for foreign influences be it people, goods or culture
  • Charismatic leadership: strange is that the movements are anti elitism but internally not democratic themselves, but they all have a top down structure. (see how Trump ignores the democratic party structures of the Republican Party, and if he is not endorsed by the Party he will run independently)

If we look at Malawi, we see some of the hallmarks of populism being strong:

  • nationalism (here usually called patriotism, for instance President Mutharika recently: Mutharika)
  • undemocratic internal party structures
  • Anti immigration is not that strongly represented in the discourse, but it does pop up sometimes when a number of illegal aliens is rounded up, or when a foreigner (often of Asian descent) is suspected of a crime.

Interestingly, we do not find much of the anti elitism in the discourse. Even though the media are often strongly critical of the government policies, there is no sense of anti ruling class sentiment. The distance in power, income and education between the large majority of the population (with 85% small holder farmers) and the ruling class is very long in Malawi. But we find no systematic criticism of the whole ruling class as the way it functions. We see some analysis by political scientists and commentators about cronyism, clientele politics, corruption and more, but we see no populist sentiment organizing against the political (and economic) class. See how the leader of the opposition, the honorable Reverend Lazarus Chakwera, accepted a brand new luxury vehicle against a general government ban on buying vehicles as a means of austerity.

Maybe an idea for a political success: a populist movement that goes against the current ruling elite, and represents the people, with simply worded policies, preferably lead by a person from the common people?

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