Aren’t we all “populists”?

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Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan


Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan

Populism is supposed to be taking over the world. Every old-time charlatan, from Tehran to Toronto, Istanbul to Edmonton, is claiming the mantle as though it’s the latest in political sliced bread.  Populism is not new at all; the concept stretches at least into the 1800’s with political parties using that term in their name or advertising, especially in
the US and Russia. Then, populism was left-of-centre, advocating for collectivization in Russia and the nationalization of public goods, like railways, in the US. Their promise was that their party represented all of the people, not certain economic classes, regions, or oligarchic groups.
Genuine US populists (The Peoples Party, 1892-1904), besides nationalizations, argued for a graduated income-tax, so it’s curious that today’s born-again populists are pushing to reverse tax laws, so the wealthiest citizens pay no more than the poorest.
Today’s populists – Trump, Bibi, Salvini, Duarte, Canada’s Kenney and Ford – did
not appear from the ether.  They are too well-funded!  Mussolini, the classic, rose to power on a populist platform, mixing genuine social benefits (a few), with outrageous steals for his financial supporters. Many compare Trump to Mussolini, but only in their personal styles, their bravado, buffoonery – and viciousness – while ignoring the political machines both built on base appeals to self-interest (rather than communal interests), supported by very-dark money not from “the people” but from their very exploiters.  Climate change does not
matter, in the new populist songbook, for example, because it interferes with our ability to exploit and enjoy the riches of our planet without restrictions; in genuine
populism, it would be a top priority.
Mussolini weaponized his populism with the chant that “might makes right” and
called it Fascism. Which lives on in today’s populism, under various word-decorations. 
Justin Trudeau is not a populist. He pitches clearly to the “Middle Class”, not “the people”. Populism often attacks middle class “elites” in competing for the support
of working people and various “underclasses”. Today populism openly courts the lumpen, which, say, the Bolsheviks rarely did. Anyone see the movie, Roma, on this recruitment topic?
These boundaries seem blurred and, it’s a liability for politicians to appear too specific or too “intellectual” in their distinctions: they’re all for “the people”, including those who earn what you and I earn in a year. Curiously, “the people” does not include LGBTQ and most non-white people. Blurring of distinctions is an important part of populism. Ignoring and hiding class distinctions, any intellectualism, and, basically, any thought lasting longer than a social-media moment is pretty common today. Is this where we all become populists?
Take our most sacrosanct notion of a democratic vote.  Politicians and media regularly condemn regimes for any lack of democratic elections. But implying that any vote, by virtue of just being a vote, automatically yields a democratic result, manipulated or not, is pure sleight of hand.
No ordinary citizen votes for Canada’s prime minister.  He/she’s elected by her/his party. Trump was defeated in the popular vote; the Electoral College gave him the presidency. Yet most feel Canada and the US are the world’s peak examples of democratic
systems. Doesn’t that make us populists? We claim the will of the people is unquestionable, that popular elections, merely the act of making choices, are the essence of a democratic society, yet you and I cannot vote for our country’s prime minister. Our system does not respect the definition, without some verbal gymnastics to explain why parties, not voters, are in democracy’s driver’s seat. The media assures us this is how democracy ought to work, and, since corporate media itself is the result of the finest rising to the top via free-market competition, who can question our nation’s creds?
Given all this, guess I am a populist. Aren’t all of us? And so why should we think these Rich White Guys who dress themselves up as “speaking for the people” are doing more than disguising old prejudices and self-interest? Because
history, itself, tells us so?