Here’s an excellent, albeit highly depressing article in the Economist.
Whilst I broadly agree with the central thrust of the argument, some of the observations are not entirely in the context. Also the Economist implies that Populism is a phenomenon of the Far-Right.
Firstly, let’s look at the context. In a practical sense, in any large or moderately complex country in a democracy, the people elect their parliamentary representatives, often because of their perceived expertise and their political values. This is representative democracy and the aspiration is to preserve the sovereignty of parliament and effectively hold the executive branch of government to account. However, in the post WWII era, the boundaries have become blurred. Enormous bureaucracies have been established, a very long way removed from representative, examples include the UN agencies, the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, the IMF and the World Bank. Towards the end of my career, I was a special advisor to the head of a UN agency. It’s important to understand that these are essentially political organizations, with executive and professional appointments exclusively decided by national governments. Even clerical appointments are driven by nationality, trying to enforce representation of less powerful countries. Over the years, there has been enormous evidence of corruption, political bias and absence of good management, like for example providing audit certification of the institution’s accounts, especially in the EU. Another example is with the Arab League’s infiltration of many United Nations’ organizations – for further evidence open this link,.
In international agencies, funds are received typically from national governments and deployed in an enormous number of donor programmes – unfortunately, corruption often prevails, bringing into question the central purpose of the agency. This is often done with institutional political bias that ignores the reality of poverty, absence of education and democracy in many of the countries appealing for aid. This context is important because it has been consistently ignored angering an increasing number of voters in established democracies who want greater accountability and a return to representative democracy. These voters are angered by the liberal elites who have preserved the power of international agencies. Shrewd politicians have capitalized on this anger and we have the modern political force of populism.
My second issue with the Economist’s argument is the implication that populism is the exclusive preserve of the Far-Right. I would argue that populism is just as much a tool for the Far-left. For example, the leader of the Uk’s Labour Party has a history of Far-Left protest politics, highly dubious associations, institutional bias etc. I could imagine a Far-Left Labour government in the UK, quickly turning to Trotskyist dogma of permanent revolution, dismantling great and historic institutions.
So for me, both the Far-Right and the Far-Left would probably quickly turn from representative democracy, with their leaders arguing that the end justifies the means.
Many who have turned to populist leaders are angered by the status quo of the elitism of the liberal order and the international bureaucracies that they have spawned since 1945. Of course, the populist leaders will protect their own interests, plus those of their families and cronies.
The Economist article’s title blames populism for corrupting democracy. Surely, it was already corrupted by the elitist Liberal order, their cronies and the international bureaucracies?