Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 21 June 2023

Stop try­ing to ration­al­ise

west­ern pop­u­lism

Sea­son ticket renewal time. Thirty-five years on, I can’t explain why I chose Arsenal. It wasn’t the nearest club (Crys­tal Palace) or the most suc­cess­ful (Liv­er­pool). Once the decision was made, though, it became self-rein­for­cing. Attach­ments deepen with time and habit until their ori­gin is beside the point.

I can tell, though not without fail, which mem­bers of the polit­ical class fol­low team sport and which don’t. Those who do are quicker to under­stand that Boris John­son is, in truth, Boris John­son FC. He has “fans” who joined a long time ago and for dif­fer­ent reas­ons. For some, it was Brexit. For oth­ers, it was something more instru­mental: his vote-win­ning poten­tial. Yet a third group hoped that he would do something for Bri­tain’s poorer regions.

But whatever the ori­ginal attrac­tion, it has long since stopped being the point. Once aboard, once asso­ci­ated with the man, there is no climb­ing down again. Something of their ego and even iden­tity is tied up with him now. Such is the cir­cu­lar pro­cess of fan­dom.

It should now be clear that west­ern pop­u­lism is not, in the end, about very much. Don’t waste any more time ration­al­ising it as a back­lash against inequal­ity, “neo­lib­er­al­ism” and other things that you your­self don’t like. If tan­gible griev­ances once spurred this move­ment, they have since given way to tri­bal feel­ing as an end in itself.

Con­trast this against what might be called (with journ­al­istic crudity) the “east­ern” pop­u­lists. Whatever else is said of it, Nar­en­dra Modi’s polit­ical project has some con­tent. So does that of Viktor Orbán, Vladi­mir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. By this I mean that it is pos­sible to think of something these lead­ers could say or do that would ali­en­ate their sup­port­ers.

What would it take for Don­ald Trump to lose his? What heresy? His expli­cit endorse­ment of the Covid-19 vac­cines cost him little of his often stridently anti-vax fol­low­ing. Enthu­si­asts for the late Silvio Ber­lusconi didn’t for­sake him after he broke or barely even attemp­ted to keep prom­ises.

Ask your­self, had John­son gov­erned exactly like Rishi Sunak — the same tax bur­den, the same immig­ra­tion num­bers, the same reten­tion of EU laws — how much of his sup­porter base would have deser­ted him as a sel­lout? Nowhere near as much as regard Sunak as one. John­son could set light to £50 bank­notes with a Dav­idoff cigar, and tabloids would still salute him as the worker’s friend. So would, I’m afraid, a large minor­ity of the elect­or­ate. Their club cap­tain is their club cap­tain, and that’s that.

To ration­al­ise this raw tri­bal­ism is a fool’s errand, and yet it is one under­taken by people of the highest intel­li­gence. Pub­lic dis­course in Bri­tain is full of pro­pos­als to cure pop­u­lism with devol­u­tion of power, five-point growth strategies for “red wall” towns, pub­lic and private sec­tors work­ing in con­cert with key stake­hold­ers to tackle very real con­cerns about such and such. It is a sort of McKin­sey Global Insti­tute view of how polit­ics works. To be clear, some or all of these ideas are worth­while on their own terms. The ques­tion is whether they have any­thing to do any longer with why people like John­son.

In this sum­mer of wall-to-wall Nad­ine Dor­ries, of clas­si­fied fed­eral doc­u­ments in chan­deliered toi­lets, what stands out about west­ern pop­u­lism is not its destruct­ive­ness (how much has the median cit­izen’s life changed?) but its empti­ness. It has turned out to be a vast, grift­ing, bom­bastic noth­ing. And those voters who fois­ted it on the rest of the elect­or­ate don’t, on the whole, seem to mind the betrayal. If Trump is the Repub­lican pres­id­en­tial nom­inee in 2024, he should win more than 40 per cent of the national vote. If John­son were to face the Con­ser­vat­ive mem­ber­ship again, god help his oppon­ent.

Back in 2016, some of us had to sit through ser­mons about the need to “listen” to “legit­im­ate griev­ances” against “broken cap­it­al­ism”. Per­haps, at one stage, pop­u­lism really was a howl for a fairer eco­nomy. That passed a while ago. It is now a tri­bal­ist game.

In ret­ro­spect, John­son and Trump should never have been bunched with Putin and Erdoğan under the “strong­man” tag. They con­verge on tac­tics — rule-break­ing, insti­tu­tional sub­ver­sion — but the dif­fer­ence in sub­stance is unbridge­able. The east­ern dem­agogues are nation­al­ists. If the west­ern ones have an -ism, it is nihil­ism.

And what a mercy that is. Bet­ter a chan­cer than a zealot. Bet­ter John­son than Orbán. Bet­ter, in the end, polit­ics as team sport than polit­ics as something all too thought­ful.

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