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Day Of The Demagogue

Distinguishing cries of anguish from shouts of hate is vital for the health of democracy

The rise of populism is on everyone’s lips, but what exactly do we mean by it?

The Cambridge English Dictionary says it is ‘political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want’. Many people might think that is a reasonable working definition of democracy itself.


In contrast, Wikipedia says (at least the last time I looked it, said) populism is ‘a political ideology which holds that the virtuous citizens are being mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognise the danger and work together’. This feels like a very contemporary interpretation, rooted in the politics of the early twenty-first century.


If populism is in the eye of the beholder, many still think it comprises an appeal to the people’s baser instincts of fear and loathing by easy manipulation; the assertion that all problems have easy solutions. Populism’s rhetoric demonises strangers and creates policies to realise it. In 2015, Victor Orban’s Hungarian government sent out a mass questionnaire asking: Do you prefer the state to support Hungarian-born families or foreign refugees? A crude, binary question like this can offer the statistical evidence sought by demagogues.


Cynical populism is not restricted to the east. In accepting the Republican nomination for the Presidency in July 2016, Donald Trump said: I am your voice. I alone can fix it. Meanwhile, in a turn of phrase he has surely come to regret, Michael Gove said ‘the people of this country have had enough of experts’ when contending with economists who argued for staying in the European Union.


The rise of the new populism may be troubling, but it cannot be dismissed like a bad dream. The need to listen to, and to distinguish between, voices is an essential part of political leadership. Some voices may be uncomfortable, but grappling with the causes of the cries of anguish and sifting them from the shouts of hate are vital to the health of a democracy.


God had an early brush with populism in the life of his chosen people. In 1 Samuel 8, the elders of Israel confronted the prophet Samuel with their wish for a king to be appointed ‘like other nations’. Israel was unusual among nations in lacking a physical head of state; its commitment to Yahweh as King asked for something different: trust in an invisible sovereign. Feeling insecure among the peoples of the ancient world, the Israelites wanted a leader they could see, to match those who threatened their way of life.


God’s response to this is fascinating. ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all they say to you’, he answers Samuel. God granted the people their wish, despite his knowing conviction that it would lead to trouble. Several things emerge from this telling story.


The first is that, in granting people what they want, it is vital there is some clarity about likely outcomes before decisions are made. For Israel, this was the assurance that choosing a human king would lead to the unjust centralisation of power and wealth and the forced deployment of the people in service of the king’s desires for food and wine, women and war. The balanced Jubilee laws which protected individual land holders would be ripped up. Populism often harms the very people it is meant to protect.


The Israelite wish for a king emerged from a specific and understandable concern about their future after Samuel’s death. At this point in its history, Israel was governed by a series of itinerant, sometimes violent, leaders called judges. Samuel was the latest and best in this line, but the likely succession would fall to his sons who had a bad reputation. Eager to avoid their leadership, the Israelites spotted the chance for a new start. To counter the threat of populism, it is vital that a country has people with political capacity and the reputation for integrity.


As first king of Israel, Saul had the looks and outward appearance they were looking for. A tall, dark and handsome type who was easy on the eyes. However, he lacked the character to sustain good leadership and as situations deteriorated, which they usually do politically, he panicked and made rash decisions that cost him and the people dearly. As a summary of the typical populist leader, it is almost perfect.



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