Monday, May 21, 2018

Populism against democracy

Like many political terms, the word 'populism' is used loosely. You are most likely to see it in the press as describing something that I would call 'soft populism,' a pandering to supposedly popular opinion or sentiment. This often divorces ends from means and so is contradictory. For example, more money to the NHS is popular; raising the necessary taxes to pay for it is less so. People may be opposed to immigration; deporting their immigrant friends and neighbours makes them shudder with horror. Lower taxes sound good; cuts to local services bring protests. Soft populism is basically incoherent vote chasing. It's very common but doesn't help explain the populist movements of our times.

What we are witnessing today is 'hard populism,' a coherent ideological position. You can see it in power in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey. Trump is explicitly hard populist. Though it is predominantly nationalist, there is a loose international hard populist alliance, drawing the alt-right together. It's focus and main sponsor is Putin's kleptocracy. Parts of the Brexit campaign were hard populist and all borrow from its arguments to justify Britain leaving the EU. There is a growing body of analysis that is firming up the definition and I particularly recommend Jan-Werner Muller's short book, What is Populism. 

Hard populist ideology has a number of related elements:

1. It asserts that societies are divided into two coherent and antagonistic groups, the elite and the people.

2. There is a legitimate will of the people and anyone opposing it is on the side of the elite.

3. The will of the people can be revealed in different ways, but its essence is expressed by the populist leaders/parties that interpret and embody the people’s will. Those leaders are still 'the people' even when they form the governing elite.

4. Populism may encourage voting, but it’s a form of electoral totalitarianism. The populist leadership's interpretation of the will of the people may be confirmed through electoral and plebiscitary endorsement, though that can be abandoned or manipulated if necessary. An electoral defeat can only be considered an elite victory against the people. The definition of the legitimacy or otherwise of an election is the result, not the process.

5. A single vote is the only permitted form of democracy; anything else is elite sabotage.

6. Rather than seeing opposition as an integral and legitimate feature of democracy, it delegitimises it as being for the elite and against the people. Opposition is treason, not reason.

7. The divide between the elite and the people is Manichaean. It is the divide between good and evil.

8. Populism denies the existence of pluralism. There is only the people and the elite.

8. Wisdom lies with the people's will, with their impulses and their prejudices. Hence, where evidence clashes with the people's will, populism rejects it and is anti-intellectual, anti-expertise, and anti-scientific.

9. The definition of the elite is not based on wealth, but on opinion and culture. Hence hard populism is anti-socialist, often led by the super-rich, and is a vehicle for the venality and corruption of the leadership. There are three common terms that populists use to describe the elite, which they sometimes refer to as the establishment: a) "liberal" - belief in equal rights etc. is 'political correctness gone mad,' opposed to the wisdom of popular prejudice; b) "metropolitan" - large cities are inauthentic, hedonistic, decadent, filled with effete latte sipping hipsters, and, in an ever-present implied subtext, not wholly white; c) "cosmopolitan" - ah, those rootless cosmopolitans again, you can never escape the anti-Semitic impulse.

Not all elements are present in hard populist movements simultaneously, but most subscribe to one version or another of them. If you listen to speeches by populists, this is what you will hear. At his inauguration speech Trump didn't declare that he had taken power, but that the people had. After the Brexit vote, Farage talked of it being a victory for “real people.” If you are not a “real person” in that sense, you are one of the elite. The Brexit ultras all use this formulation. The echoes of 20th century totalitarianism are loud and clear.

Populism uses the language of democracy, but is anti-democratic in practice. Though populists point to elections as the basis of their legitimacy, they are using electoral politics as a way of undermining democracy. That is because elections, however central they are to democracy, are insufficient in isolation for creating democratic societies and practice.

There are four main reasons why hard populism is a counterfeit democracy.

First, the 'will of the people' is a fiction. It is a fiction that denies democratic legitimacy to dissenting opinion. Whilst there may be some areas of broad consensus, for example over the NHS, on most issues there is not a single will, but a multiplicity of wills that often conflict. Class, ethnicity, gender, region, age, and many other factors produce divergent interests and opinions that have to be managed. At best, populists can claim that they are talking about the 'will of some of the people,' though what they really mean is the 'will of the people we agree with or who we can exploit to gain power.'

When populists reject expert opinion because it contradicts their interpretation of the 'will of the people,' it compounds this fiction. They end up basing their politics on ideological fantasy rather than material reality. It's also worth mentioning that we use the term expertise far too narrowly. It's often solely associated with technocracy. Instead, expertise is gained from people's real, everyday, lived experience. Just as managers overrule the expertise of their workers, populists elevate the sentiments of people who know absolutely nothing about an issue over those who are intimately concerned with its reality.

Let's take a couple of examples. In Brexit, there is a huge amount of expertise in the technical aspects of trade and regulation that is ignored or dismissed, but I would rather look at some grass roots issues. In two regions the vote to remain was overwhelming. Catholics in Northern Ireland voted by over 80% to remain in the EU, especially in the border areas. Gibraltar voted by 96% to remain. The experience and interests of the people in both regions determined those votes. They are the experts. The question that all democrats must ask is, when is it that the wishes of 96% of citizens in Gibraltar should be overruled by larger numbers of voters in Surrey? Even more troubling, in the context of the deep communal conflicts in Northern Ireland, is the question of why the smaller Protestant vote to leave should negate the larger Catholic one to remain. Where here is the 'will of the people'?

Then there are the British citizens who have lived in the EU for more than fifteen years and EU citizens legally living in the UK, often for decades with British extended families. They can raise the same question. Their lives could be turned upside down by Brexit and they weren't even allowed to vote in the referendum on something so profoundly important to them. Are they not part of the people? Don't they have a right to shout out, "Hey, what are you doing to us? Stop it!" They also have a right to be listened to. There are times when majority opinion has to give way because of the consequences for minorities. After all, majority rule in an affluent society can discriminate against the poor, and a majority ethnicity can oppress minorities.

Of course there are times when majorities should take precedence over minorities, but democracies insist that the views and interests of those minorities should be given proper consideration and representation. Populists deny them any legitimacy at all. They have lost so should shut up and obey the majority, however small, even if it means putting their lives and livelihoods at risk. To continue to object is to be a saboteur.

Secondly, in representative systems, like the UK, sovereignty does not lie with the 'will of the people.' Instead, it rests with the judgement of the people's representatives. Representatives are accountable to the people, but not bound by their will. Populists favour referendums (whether manipulated or not) as a way of legitimising their rule because they bypass representative democracy in favour of a crude majoritarian mandate. They distort the idea of a mandate too. I get tired of reading Brexiters going on about having the biggest mandate in history because seventeen million people voted to leave. The strength of a mandate isn't based on the number of people who voted, that's just a reflection of the size of the electorate. It's based on the size of the majority, in this case around 4% - very small indeed. Anyway, as they see themselves as the embodiment of the will of the people, this is also scarcely necessary.

Thirdly, democracies are pluralist. They allow voices outside the formal system of government to have influence. There are all sorts of roles played by voluntary associations, including political parties and independent trade unions, by NGOs, by pressure and lobby groups, by an independent media, by universities, and by community action groups. I could go on, and it is this proliferation of politically active groups that is necessary for a democratic society. They are centres of autonomous, collective decision making. It is one of the reasons why the first action of authoritarian governments is to eliminate any independent centres of influence.

Of course there are many compelling critiques of the way that power, wealth, sectional interests, and inequitable ownership can distort the representative nature of powerful lobbies (see Paul Evans' stimulating tract for some examples). But this is a reason for reform, not abolition. Hard populists try and eliminate outside voices, and thereby end effective opposition.

Finally, democracies make it possible to rectify mistakes. Often this is through electoral politics where a defeat, or the fear of one, forces a change of policy. But it is also possible for the electorate to make a mistake. Democracies may see the people as the ultimate source of sovereignty, but they can never be the ultimate source of wisdom. That means that democratic systems always contain correctives, such as courts, tribunals for citizens' redress, international bodies to uphold human rights, devolved assemblies, local government, and institutions that hold government accountable. Where such institutions are absent or subservient, then no number of elections can make a polity democratic. Let's look at one uncontentious example.

In the two elections of 1932 in Germany, the electorate voted to make the Nazis the largest single party in the Reichstag. This is a classic example of the voters getting it spectacularly wrong. However, there was no reason why this should have brought Hitler to power. Throughout 1932 the other parties refused to deal with Hitler and include him in a coalition. The President refused to appoint him Chancellor. Institutions were defending democracy against an election result. If they had held out, Hitler would have been a footnote in an academic text. Instead, the ambition and misjudgement of one man, Franz von Papen, undermined the resistance and showed the fragility of democracy when its institutions are not robust enough to hold off a challenge. Around fifty million people died as a result. Institutions matter. Populists undermine them and make them subservient.

In Britain today there are no hard populist parties outside the fringe. UKIP came nearest to being one, but has collapsed. There are some wealthy and decidedly creepy individuals hanging round the Brexiters, and there is a Putin fan club on both the right and the left. This isn't a significant threat to democracy – yet. However, hard populist language is being used everywhere. The populist style is in vogue. The simplification of democracy as the outcome of a single referendum vote is hard for people to resist. But this is not democracy; it is its undoing. Democracy is complex and pluralist. It is inclusive, no one is excluded from being 'the people.' It can correct errors, even those carrying the democratic seal of the majority of votes. It protects minorities. It allows dissent and permits independent organisation. It doesn't use language like "enemies of the people," or "crush the saboteurs." And it matters. It needs defending as much as it needs reforming. Democracy is a human right. Hard populism is its nemesis.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Standing up for standing

A great day out at Stoke, standing in the raucous away end.

Of course the stadium is all seated, as is required by law in the top two divisions, but, as is now tradition, all away fans stand throughout the match, as they do in sections of the home areas. Standing is banned in all seater stadiums. It is unenforceable. Standing makes for a great atmosphere, but those who want to sit, or who have to for health reasons, can't, despite buying a seat. And when you are standing in seating areas, there is nothing to lean on or to prevent spectators stumbling, you only have the hard plastic back of the seat in front, painfully placed at shin height. Useless.

The solution to this is simple. Have properly designed safe standing areas for those who want to stand and seating areas for those that want to sit. Yet still the government persists in turning down requests to build safe standing areas, despite the fans' campaign. The Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, said that there was no demand for safe standing from clubs and from only a vocal minority of fans. She has been widely ridiculed.

Safe standing is nothing like the old terraces. Every spectator has a numbered allocated space behind a crush barrier, for support and protection. The Football Safety Officers’ Association says that it is far safer than the current customary practice. In the name of safety the government is digging in its heels to make grounds less safe. This is madness. Let's give the last word to Palace fans at Selhurst.