College Green Group blog

Populism: pernicious, or praiseworthy?

Populist leaders in Hungary, Israel and Türkiye defeated opposition electoral alliances. Contrary to the liberal consensus, cobbled-together coalitions are doomed to fail. Voters crave authenticity. Time for pragmatism to die and ideology to rise?

Populism is a political philosophy which attracts ordinary voters who feel disregarded and ignored by the elite. To some, it sounds reasonable, appealing strongly across the political spectrum. So why is it much-maligned and the source of such ire amongst the establishment consensus?

Populists champion people. From the left, Bernie Sanders and his insurgent Democratic primary campaign and Jeremy Corbyn both campaigned ‘for the many, not the few’. From the right, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán embodies populism, and is now the country’s longest-serving leader. These candidates elicit establishment responses ranging from howls of rage to amiably articulated anger about defeating populists before they subvert the system.

Today’s Polaris Leadership Summit drew a hundred or so think-tankers, campaigners, academics and consultants from across Europe. It was thought-provoking, and (for me) blog-provoking. Panellists and speakers dealt with disinformation, addressed autocracy, and talked about trust.

Slaying the strongman

Chatter died down in the room as Sir Chris Powell delivered his keynote. The way to beat ‘strongmen’ is for diverse opposition parties to compromise and band together, going against the grain of tribal politics, he claims. Powell is articulate and experienced (he was chief executive of Boase Massimi Pollitt in its heyday). His speech drew applause, but I’m afraid the Emperor has no clothes.

Sir Chris cited the 2021 Israeli opposition coalition, designed to bring down prime minister Netanyahu. For the fifth election in less than three years, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and six other leaders cobbled together an improbable team, drawing parties from across the political spectrum. They scraped 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, delivering a government that lasted 18 months, achieved little, and paved the way for Bibi’s return and the appointment of what’s been described as the most right-wing government in Israeli history.

Powell heralded the metropolitan success of the anti-Erdoğan opposition in winning Istanbul and Ankara in 2019 and in this year’s presidential election, but deftly sidestepped the fact that its presidential candidate in 2022, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, crashed to a 52/48 defeat, garnering 25 million votes, two and a half million short of the incumbent’s support.

Parsing the playbook

Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoğlu, is an engaging man – even via video. He railed with rhetorical flourish against authoritarian and populist politicians. He damned dictatorships and defended democracy. But his explanation for the opposition’s defeat was weak. The mayor correctly noted that the populist playbook – whether conservative, nationalist or socialist – is the same the world over, using a similar discourse. He characterises it as a relentless drive to power, and states that oppositions tend to echo and imitate them, leading to defeat. İmamoğlu believes that anti-populists must define themselves through the prism of democracy, rather than imitating the politics of ‘struggle’. It sounds noble and insightful. The problem? It doesn’t work. Why?

Inauthenticity, integrity and ideology

We live in an age of inauthenticity. There’s a dearth of integrity. In lauding pragmatism, we bade farewell to ideology. The pendulum is swinging.

People hunger for truth-tellers, politicians of conviction, those who have a defined and heartfelt set of beliefs. Voters want the real deal. Like it or not, the populists set out a clear stall: their politics comes from their gut, not from the polls. They have core beliefs, emerging from deep-set worldviews and values, not from focus groups. They have political principles rather than plastic policies picked from polling and perceived popularity.

Today’s populists might repel you. But if you don’t like them, the answer is not to dilute your beliefs and club together in uneasy coalitions. That’s a short-sighted recipe for disaster, which will (at best) lead to a short-lived, bittersweet victory.

Want to know more? Sign up to our newsletter here.

About the author