Searching for the kryptonite against populist superpowers

Anyone just about recovered from the Brexit shock should spare a thought for Italy.

About a decade ago, many middle-class Italians considered Silvio Berlusconi, a populist billionaire convicted of bribery and tax fraud, and known globally for his “Bunga Bunga” parties, to be the worst-case scenario for their nation.

After the March 4th election, many middle-class Italians now find themselves rooting for Berlusconi, given that two even more populist parties, the leftist Five Star movement and the far-right League, appear likely to become the largest parties in parliament.

The lesson from Italy’s troubles? Under the right circumstances, populists have political superpowers. Once populists start winning, it is very hard to get rid of them.

The definition of a “populist” is a politician who campaigns on behalf of the people against a corrupt elite. To quote President Trump’s classically populist formulation: “On every major issue affecting this country, the people are right and the governing elite are wrong.”

That approach tends to dictate tactics for populist candidates. In a democracy, if the (numerous) people are right and the (narrow) elite are wrong, the people ought, by rights, to get their way. If they cannot, there is something wrong with the system.

And so, in most cases, populists end up claiming that the political system is broken.

Again, quoting Donald Trump: “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

Of course, the Brexit campaign was, in a rather literal sense, about fixing a broken system as well.

That focus on the broken political system provides populists with their first superpower. Messages about the system can pick up support from people with very different views on politics and policy.

Most mainstream politicians tend to campaign on platforms such as lowering taxes, spending more on education, or bolstering the national defense. Those kinds of messages tend to attract coalitions of like-minded voters.

By focusing on messages about the system, however, populists can appeal to voters with wildly dissimilar ideas and thus pick up political support from unexpected places.

The Brexit campaign, for instance, was led in part by traditional Conservative Party figures like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, but picked up a lot of support from former Labour voters, particularly in England’s North.

Donald Trump campaigned as a Republican, but won with an unlikely coalition of voters, including evangelical Christians who voted Republican on values issues, but also disgruntled former union Democrats, particularly in regions dominated by “smokestack industries.”

The man often said to be the greatest populist of all time, Argentina’s Juan Peron, during one magnificent campaign in the 1970s managed to bring together support from the fascist right and communist left of his country at the same time.

That kind of superpower is very useful when politics becomes polarized.

Of course, there are costs. Populist victories that involve stitching together a winning coalition from people who disagree on crucial matters of policy can leave turmoil in their wake. Donald Trump’s top advisors have clashed repeatedly, and UK political administration post Brexit has threatened to become a comedy of errors.

But it could be worse. At some of Juan Peron’s political rallies in the 1970s, his supporters started shooting each other.

Populists also have another superpower. Namely: their messages about the broken system tend to mobilize the politically disaffected.

Hence populists can take nonvoters and turn them into voters. In Latin America, populists like Peron mobilized the poor, illiterates, women who had been denied the right to vote, and even teenagers to win power.

In the Brexit referendum, some 2.8 million people turned out to vote who had not voted in the previous general election; indeed, many had never voted before in their lives.

These kinds of superpowers make it very difficult to keep populists down. Indeed, once populists start winning, other politicians tend to turn to populist strategies.

And so Britons who do not desire for themselves an Italian political future might well wonder: is there any kryptonite to use against such populist electoral superpowers?

Indeed there is. Populist messages about the political system being broken tend to work best when something has indeed gone very wrong.

In Argentina, Juan Peron campaigned against repressive military-dominated governments that, when they allowed elections at all, rigged them enthusiastically. Against that miserable excuse for democracy, Peron’s populist message were vote-winners.

The Brexit campaign railed against a European Union that, for all its economic benefits, suffered a serious democratic deficit. Crucial decisions were often made by intergovernmental agreement or unelected bureaucrats.

The European Parliament tended to feel like an afterthought, and voters (not only in Britain) tended to treat it as such, turning out in low numbers, and when they did bother to vote, casting ballots for populist parties like UKIP.

One way to blunt the superpowers of populist candidates, then, is to fix the system. To their credit, the Italians did try. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi put forward an ambitious program of constitutional reform.

Unfortunately, he only made it halfway before the program went down to a crushing referendum defeat.

Britons now have their chance, post-Brexit, to fix their system as well. Of course, in the wake of the referendum, most attention has focused on the at times ugly business of negotiating a least-worst post-Brexit trade deal – a crucial economic priority.

But there is a more positive issue on which one could focus. Unlike, for instance, the Italians, Britons will no longer be saddled with the ‘democratic deficit’ of European institutions. Britons can now focus on reforming politics so that people feel their voice is heard.

That is not happening now: the proportion of Britons who say it is not worth voting in general elections has risen steadily, from a couple per cent in the 1980s to nearly 20 per cent today.

To turn the advantages of populist political strategies into weaknesses, fix the system in a way that lures these people back into politics. Responsive democracy is the kryptonite for populist superpowers.

It is, of course, easier said than done. But the March 4th elections in Italy foreshadow the possible dangers of failure.


This essay is based on my forthcoming book, History Repeating: Why Populists Rise and Governments Fall (Profile).