Why the populists failed

Why the populists failed. By Miquel Vila.

The decay of liberal elites has been the central political narrative of the last decade across the West. Surely, then, the time is ripe for a populist upsurge?

And yet, while a handful of insurgent leaders and parties have reached top office promising to shake up the liberal establishment, the first wave of populist and anti-establishment governments of the 21st century has so far shown itself utterly incapable of replacing liberal elites.

The recent ousting of Boris Johnson is the perfect example. Thanks to Brexit, Johnson had the strongest mandate of any British leader in the last half a century. To the disappointment of many, however, the incompetence of his cabinet reproduced the same vices of the elites he aimed to supplant — elites to which, it must be said, he always himself belonged. …

We can classify a diverse range of anti-establishment forces and leaders which rose to power in the period from 2014 to 2022, whether Donald Trump, Syriza, or the coalition government between the Movimento 5 Stelle and La Lega. These movements all represented different ideas and varying degrees of claimed distance from liberal power brokers, but they all campaigned under the slogan of taking power from the elites and giving it back to the people, promises they all singularly failed to achieve.

The promise and virtue of anti-establishment forces lay in their capacity to build their strength by gathering support from aggrieved sectors of the working and middle classes who felt the system was failing them. They introduced topics to the public agenda that were excluded from political debate. …

Effective governance requires either a willing bureaucracy or — the nuclear option — eliminating bureaucracy and going private:

The constraints of real-life governance will always water down any promise of revolutionary change. Nevertheless, the problem with that recent wave of anti-establishment governments is not that the reforms they implemented fell short, but that such reforms never even began.

The first thing Trump did was to suspend the TPP and the TTIP agreements, but then his government failed to present a programme to re-industrialise America. Boris Johnson eventually got Brexit done, but his real merit was preventing Brexit from being actively undone by technocratic liberal activists. Leftist Syriza passionately campaigned against EU austerity measures but, in the end, surrendered before a humiliating memorandum imposed by the Troika. Overall, almost no remarkable policy change was delivered by any of the numerous anti-establishment governments that took office during the past 10 years.

The deep state also prevented Trump’s singular promise from being implemented — the wall.

This is because these new forces were always weaker than hysterical liberal pundits wanted us to believe. To begin with, populist platforms have often been unwieldy coalitions of the disenchanted, united around a charismatic leader and common contempt for liberal elites. Their leaders have often been excellent communicators — especially compared with the boring centrist grey men — but they rarely had deep ideas of their own. If populist governments did not deliver meaningful change, that is partly because they didn’t know what exactly they wanted to do once in power. Political opportunism may get you into office, but it can’t reform a country. …

Regardless of the lack of clear vision at the top, populist platforms lacked a competent, reliable line of middle-ranking officials able to translate the orders of the command staff to the tailored demands of everyday politics. History teaches us that reliable bureaucracies are the backbone of good governance. Every visionary start-up leader needs a bunch of boring Excel drones, but the boring work of government was never quite to the populist, crowd-pleasing taste of Johnson, Trump, or Salvini.

So, during their time in office, they often combined chaos and poor governance with the tendency to delegate their day-to-day responsibilities to individuals linked to the old political elites — their purported opponents. The introduction of technocratic figures with no interest in implementing the changes populists promised sucked out all transformative energy those governments might have possessed. …

Criticising the elites is both a necessary task and an enormously satisfying one. But voters who gave their confidence to anti-establishment leaders expected something more than just seeing liberal elites being owned on Twitter. They expected reformers that would govern well on their behalf, changing the functions of the state in their image.

Now what?

The discontent that populist movements represented isn’t going away. In this state of permanent crisis, we will keep witnessing continuous social eruptions with strong anti-elitist sentiments: just wait for this winter when European voters leave their freezing homes to warm up the streets.

Some of the new anti-establishment forces will try to recycle the old, failed populist form. Turbocharged with fiery rhetoric but incompetent at dealing with the most trivial tasks of governance, they will likely meet the same end.

Others, however, will learn the lessons of the previous populist wave and go beyond the outdated formula. This has been the historical pattern of past anti-establishment movements, from Chartism to Socialism; from the völkisch movement to the German Conservative Revolution; from the Russian revolution of 1905 to 1917; from the dispersed groups of American populism and the victims of the Great Depression to the coalition that brought the New Deal.

In all of these, we can see the historical tendency to evolve from disorganised eruptions to disciplined structures, maturing from a general intuition about what is not working in our society to nuanced theories and complex doctrines, from the enfant terrible to visionary leaders and effective organisers.

Bring it on. The bureaucrats won’t implement the populist policies, because they reverse the priorities of the bureaucratic class and their rich mates. So remove them from power.