Both sides of the Pond: A Reflection on Nascent Populism

If anyone still doubted that the recklessness displayed by the American electorate in 2016 by electing Donald Trump as President is not a uniquely American phenomenon, but rather part of a wider global trend, the recent general election in the United Kingdom should put that doubt to rest. There are substantial differences — of issues, personalities and governmental structure — between the recent British election and last year’s American Presidential race. But there are enough points of similarity to suggest that the triumph of electoral irresponsibility is not unique to the United States.

In both countries, a significant number of voters turned against a competent but colorless candidate (in each case a woman, though I’m not convinced that sexism was a significant factor) and gave an unexpected boost to an adversary whose views were more extreme than most knowledgeable observers had previously considered politically palatable. In both cases, the colorless standard bearer enjoyed wide support from party leaders and functionaries, but was seen by many ordinary voters as representing a status quo which they were eager to reject.

In both countries, many voters appeared to ignore the customary left-right political divisions. Their desire for change was paramount, and many didn’t seem to care what kind of change they were getting. Here in the US, that resulted in some voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, while either voting for Trump in the general election or casting a protest vote for a third party candidate. In Britain, the result was that many who who had supported the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), in past elections ended up voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party instead.

Many of the concerns that motivated voters in both countries were similar. Of course, economic concerns are usually prime factors in the voting behavior of democratic electorates, but the similarity here went well beyond that. Voters in both counties distrusted their politicians, whom they did not believe had their constituents’ interests at heart. Even though, by all standard measures, both economies were fairly strong, it is clear that the voters’ perspective was different from that of the economists. (In Britain’s case, the voters had already made those feelings clear by passing the referendum vote to take the country out of the European Union.) The voters seemed to favor “remedies” (like protectionism and restrictions on immigration) that, while emotionally satisfying, have little prospect of addressing the economic insecurity that lies at the heart of these voters’ concerns.

One tragic wildcard in the British election campaign was the two terrorist acts committed on British soil over the preceding few months: the car-and-knife attack outside the Palace of Westminster, which is the seat of Parliament, on March 22nd; and the bombing at an Arianna Grande concert in Manchester on May 22nd. Such terrorist incidents usually redound to the benefit of the party in power, particularly where that party is the more conservative one. In this case, however, the law-and-order advantage appeared to go the other way, probably because the Conservative Party’s austerity program had reduced the size of local police forces. The Labour Party spent much of the campaign attacking the Tories’ budget cuts, and while they hadn’t particularly emphasized reductions in policing (they were more focused on cuts to education and the National Health Service), it was an easy segue to make after the Manchester attack.

What may be the most significant (and anxiety provoking) similarity between the electoral results in these two countries is the demographics of the voters. In both countries, the rejection of the status quo candidate was most pronounced among younger voters, and the turnout among such voters was unusually high. That suggests that the support for the extreme but ineffective remedies and the indiscriminate rejection of the status quo are unlikely to be short-term phenomena.
For British voters, their country’s future relationship with the European Union was the paramount issue, although both major parties accepted the pro-Brexit vote. For Americans, it’s harder to identify a single overarching issue. Trump’s actions since his inauguration, however, suggest that he believes that abandonment of free trade and increased restrictions on immigration are the primary stand-ins for the voters’ more generalized economic discontent.

The most important difference between these two elections lies in the results. For all the disappointment at Theresa May’s loss of her party’s parliamentary majority, she was still capable of cobbling together a majority coalition, with the aid of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, and she thus remains Prime Minister. An alliance with the DUP comes with risks, as some senior members of May’s own party have been quick to point out, but in the short run, it gives her a viable alternative. Our governmental system is different, however, so barring impeachment or some other unexpected development, we’re likely to be stuck with President Trump for (at least) four years.

.At the risk of belaboring the obvious, Jeremy Corbyn, is no Donald Trump. Corbyn and Trump occupy very different places in their respective countries’ political spectrums. Corbyn’s foreign policy would be disastrous for both Israel and the United States, but I have seen no evidence that he is a pathological narcissist. (How’s that for setting the bar low?) He appears to be a rational human being, who is not more of an egotist than is typical in political leaders. If he were to become prime minister at some point, I would not have to worry that he might blow up the planet out of pique, though I would have to worry that he might undermine Britain’s long-standing special relationship with the US, and even more that he might strengthen the anti-Israel consensus that appears to dominate most of Europe..

But while Corbyn and Trump present very different kinds of risks, that’s not the main issue. The long-term danger underscored by these two elections is not the damage their current leaders are likely to do while holding office, but rather what it tells us about the moods of their respective electorates — particularly since they are not the only developed countries going through a similar upswing of populism. (See, for example, Marine Le Pen’s second place finish in the recent French presidential election.) If these election results prove to be harbingers of a new norm in the voting behavior of democratic electorates, then what could well be at risk is the survival of democracy itself.

Am I exaggerating? I hope so, but I fear not. The premise undergirding the democratic ideal is not that the majority is always right — clearly it’s not — but rather that the majority has the right to be wrong. When, as happened here in this last election, the losing candidate actually received more votes than the winner, the legitimacy of the result derives from our loyalty to the constitutional system itself.

Democratic government requires the careful balancing of the ideal of majority rule on the one hand and the protection against the danger of mob rule on the other. The American system of checks and balances is not the only way of achieving that balance, but it has been an extraordinarily successful one, a system that, to borrow a phrase from a completely different context was designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots — an option that, alas, many voters seem a bit too eager to exercise.

What has caused so many voters, as one commentator put it, to throw a brick through the window of government? In any era, and in any democratic country, most voters are not substantially engaged by politics. As long as life is going on more or less smoothly, and there is no crisis of note, many voters will ignore politics. The more diligent may pay attention in the few weeks preceding an election, but a significant number will not even bother to vote.

When a crisis erupts, or when they feel the political system is mistreating them , some voters will suddenly become more attentive They may react with anger, all too often directed at the wrong target. The less particular voters know about politics — the less engaged they have been in the political process — the easier it is for proto-tyrants to manipulate them. There is no shortage, unfortunately, of demagogues prepared to take advantage of their inchoate sense of grievance. If the mainstream political leadership is unable or unwilling to address their concerns, the pressure for doing something — anything! — may become irresistible.

Populism may bear a superficial resemblance to democracy, but it is a fundamentally different creature. A representative democracy — the only kind that can exist on a national level — relies on the ability and judgment of the people’s elected representatives. The classic formulation of that understanding was expressed by the eighteenth century English parliamentarian Edmund Burke in his address to the electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Populism, on the other hand, assumes the popular passions of the moment to be right by definition. Those who are best able to persuade a frustrated and frightened populace of the need for radical change earn not only the right to govern on the people’s behalf for a constitutionally prescribed period, but the right to change the ground rules to suit the popular whim or the needs of the aspiring leader. Populism often amounts to an implied covenant between a “strong man” who claims unique insight into the nation’s woes and a populace willing to see its rights curtailed in exchange for enhanced security, whether physical or economic.

In this day of instantaneous global communication, it is easier than ever to manipulate voters by propounding “solutions” that have nothing to do with the problems they are purportedly intended to solve. The internet, in particular, makes it easy to live in a political echo chamber, hearing only viewpoints you have already been persuaded to agree with. At a time when the problems we face are increasingly complex, the reliability of our sources of information has become increasingly dubious.. Even when we can figure out which information sources to trust, we no longer have the attention span to sort them out. Sound bites keep getting shorter, and we continually fall victim to the illusion that anything that can’t be said in 140 characters probably isn’t worth saying. In this atmosphere, it is easier to understand how Donald Trump, became the standard-bearer of the discontented.

Populism has rarely if ever been good for the Jews. .History suggests that when tyrants and mobs search for scapegoats, sooner or later they will find us. Too many times in our history we have been the scapegoat of convenience, serving as face of the local autocrat to the peasantry and sacrificed by him when the peasants’ anger became unbearable. So far, at least, the current wave of nascent populism has not targeted Jews, but in our fast-paced world things can change quickly. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.