The anti-populist?

In 2016 populism became the favorite word of the press, the political establishment and the middle class supporters of liberalism. Their perception of the world is based upon the premise that the liberal world order is under threat from the popular backlash against immigration and free trade. Whilst this is often not a fair characterization of the ‘populists’ demands, it carries as an accepted theory in the broadcasting world at least.

The history of populism, whether it be present in Trump’s election or the vote to leave the European Union, is varied and seems to be distilled into three categories. Firstly, the right wing, ‘chauvinistic’ populism, apparent today in Trump but, as Prof. Ferguson notes, is traced back to Daniel Kearney. Secondly, the left wing form of populism present in Corbyn and Sanders in the UK and USA: its goals differ significantly since whilst both forms tend to proclaim protectionism, left wing populism often downplays social issues particularly immigration. A final form of populism, its most extreme, is surely what has been in play in parts of Eastern Europe. The rise of the Law and Justice Party in Poland as been built upon the precepts of a corrupt, political elite imposing social liberalism on the masses. However, its methods to counter act such change are fundamentally illiberal and not conservative.

Whilst the characterization, debates about the history of populism and fortune telling are interesting, perhaps those worried about the rise of populism could turn to the history of the anti-populist. If the populist is the demagogue who gives the people what they want, then the anti-populist disagrees and not only finds larger causal issues for the majorities’ issues, but also attacks their innocence as the oppressed stakeholder. The effective anti-populist is also aware of the role of the political establishment, not only in dealing with populism but in causing it to rise in the first place. Thus the effective anti-populist must adopt pragmatism and be willing to view the world as it is, not how they would like to see it.

The example that clearly comes to mind is Cato the Younger in his speech against Caesar during the Second Catiline Conspiracy. Whilst the speech does not deal with the issue of populism, only the punishment of its conspirators, the content and principles provide an interesting guide to the stabilization of politics.

His credentials are established by his immediate attack on the citizens of Rome saying, ‘I have complained about the extravagance and greed of our citizens.’ As Sallust has previously elaborated on, much of Catiline’s initial populism comes from the greed of Romans, both upper and lower class, meaning that there is substantial disenfranchisement and anger with the political classes. This theme of the failure of virtue is one that Sallust has elaborated on in his quasi-prologue to the Catiline Conspiracy but forms an interesting filter through which to understand how unrest can happen. This is partially because it affects both the elite and the lower orders thus meaning social and political cohesion suffers.

Cato goes on to elaborate that instead of the traditional virtuous wealth the Romans have ‘private wealth’. Thus Cato provides the example of the “good” anti-populist as he criticizes the elites in society as well. This could well lead to criticism of my characterization. However, the effective anti-populist must surely deal with the legitimate failings of the elite. Firstly, so as to provide a compromise with the disenfranchised but also so as to prevent future rises in populism. Furthermore, Cato promotes his reasoning through use of reason to persuade that his policy is that which is rooted in the tradition. Citing the sacrifices Torquatus he draws attention to the fact that the elites must also change since what made Rome good once, is severely lacking in the methods of the politicians.

Cato’s speech thus provides two critiques of the current political status quo which provide important lessons to times of chaos. His contention, in my view, is that the whole of society has failed. Both the upper and lower echelons have failed morally and given into selfish vices. Secondly, he argues not only that politicians have failed but that they cannot even agree on the correct way of dealing with the populists.

Applying such lessons to the world of 2017 will be a momentous task. Primarily the contradictions inherent in pursuance of policy that would please these two aspects would make it hard for a politician or party to ever enter office. The recognition of the failure of the elites and their failure in methods of dealing with populism, thus the small justification in populist outbursts, would make one unpopular with the political class who still have a hegemony on funding and infrastructure. Secondly, the condemnation of the expectations of populists inevitably leads one to fall out with the masses.

No doubt this will be a hard task for those who control the centre of the Conservative and Labour parties in Britain. Self awareness will take some time to come. However, the outlook Cato provides on the complex issues surrounding unrest and populism is still worth adopting when considering the current situation: some woes are justified, though some expectations are false and the elites have some accountability in this. In 2017, we can at least hope for some adoption of a nuanced view of politics.


Further reading and works cited

W. Batstone, William Sallust: Catiline’s Conspiracy Oxford University Press, 2010

Applebaum, Anne In Poland, a preview of what Trump could do to America Washington Post, Sept. 19th 2016

Ferguson, Niall Is the US having a populist moment? Boston Globe, Feb. 29th 2016