Populism–Should it be this popular?
Op-ed by Annemarie Cuccia
The rise of populism across the globe has been widely reported. From the Brexit vote, to the election of Donald Trump, to separatist movements across Europe, populism has saturated Western politics. The merits of these movements must be questioned, as well as their adherence to a true theory of populism.
Any political philosophy is an attempt to balance your personal desires with those of your community, your country, and the world. What differs is the way the scales tip, how much weight is put on the well-being of any given community. Populism is, in its purest form, support for ordinary people. Unfortunately, because definitions of “ordinary people” differ, populism has become associated with those who emphasize their own goals above those of their neighbors, distorting its goals and ultimately valid purpose.
Populism in the political process creates a unique challenge. Government is inherently personal. Unfortunately, it is also inherently professional. This creates an odd dilemma where qualified candidates must insist they are just like the average person, who is, for the most part, unqualified. This is why the Founding Fathers of America warned against the “tyranny of the masses” – they knew that people would be involved beyond their level of capability. Here, we must walk a fine line between elitism and practicality. We can not require our leaders to have attended Harvard or be top in their profession, but we also can’t pretend those with no experience in government have the ability to do one of the hardest jobs in the world. The dream of having a leader “just like you”, standing for only your interests, is both alluring and elusive. An attempt to awake in this dream threatens democracy, which cannot become a likeability contest where no qualifications are needed.
While populism in governing may seem more straightforward, differing interpretations complicate movements. Unfortunately for true proponents of pure populism, those who champion the rights of the people, white nationalism has worked its way into many of these movements. Pride as a response to a globalizing world has led to resentment for those who don’t share the dominant ethnicity, background, or religion. One merely needs to look at the rhetoric surrounding Brexit to see how populism can quickly shift into xenophobia, hatred, and disdain for those who “don’t belong” in a specific country.
This problem is not isolated to western countries, but generally higher rates of development mean that more immigrants are attracted to these places, compounding the nationalistic response. The economic concern is a valid one; not only for white citizens but for citizens of any ethnicity. It is easy to see how representatives may be disconnected from their constituents who spend all day in a field, behind a cash register, or at a desk, and still barely make it by. It is easy to see how this slips into a narrative that only these people understand the struggle, only these people truly have it bad, only these people know what to do.
However, I would urge to not go too far down that slope. I do see how the ordinary worker has been slighted in this economy, but I also see how the woman, the Muslim, the African American, has been slighted. It is only by combining all these experiences that a global solution may be found for what is a truly global problem. Yes, not everyone understands what it is to work as a farmer, but more understand what it is to sell food, to market food, to buy food, to cook food. There is no longer any industry unrelated to another, any worker without a boss that understands things differently from him. There is no longer any community that can exist in isolation, not if it attempts to have any prominence on the world stage.
The urge to clutch to what is known is in all of us. But it is necessary to open our hands and minds, realize that in a world so large, we can only see one piece of the puzzle. We must trust there are others out there working to solve it with us.