Populism loses its popularity

Has the election of Joe Biden in the US and the growing disillusionment with the UK Government cemented the deterioration of populism?

Photo by Jabin Botsford for Getty Images.

— 7 minute read — By Will Jones

It’s far from unusual for the UK and US to venture through an episode in which they become fascinated with a certain brand of politics. These stances, and the leaders that purvey them on the global stage, come to define an era and mould the lives of a generation. If we think back to the political sphere of the 1980s, one immediately focuses on the adoption of right-wing governing with a focus on traditional Christian values. This was figure-headed by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US.

The past five years, however, have been submerged in a new wave of populism – one categorised by a chauvinistic ‘us versus them’ attitude. It became abundantly clear that the people no longer wanted two squeaky-clean career politicians on the ballot paper. Divisive and charismatic figures rose to prominence and, on an international front, membership of global organisations and trading blocs were traded in for introspective, go-it-alone approaches. With Joe Biden’s election in the US and a burgeoning disillusion with divisive media opinionists and the UK Government, for the first time in half a decade, it seems as though the tide may be retreating.

Perhaps the best way to look at this strain of populism is through the extended metaphor of the ocean. For decades politics had lapped at the coastline, very rarely overtopping the concrete sea wall of convention. In recent years, a storm surge of opportunistic politicians and ordinary citizens who have felt disregarded by established elite groups crashed through the sea wall and inundated the civilizations that lay below.

The first glimpse of new-wave populism – at least in the UK and US – was gifted in 2016. David Cameron’s 2015 manifesto promised to deliver an opportunity to leave the European Union if he was to retain his residency in 10 Downing Street for a second term. The UK joined the EU (previously known as the EC) in 1973 – enabling the adoption of an internal market and facilitating the free movement of people, goods, services and capital across the geographical barrier of the English Channel. When a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU was held in 1975, the population resoundingly voted to remain. 41 years later, that result was far from being repeated.

In a sense, the right-leaning centrism of David Cameron expedited the growth of far-right populism by offering the perfect opportunity to pursue it. The UK, and the remain campaign itself, failed to predict the call for leave in 2016. When the political sphere had experienced such an extended period of plain sailing, the same latitude was expected to prevail in the referendum. Instead, the two respective leave campaigns re-awoke a portion of the electorate that felt abandoned by the monotonous rigidity of conventional discourse.

The Nigel Farage-led ‘Leave.EU’ campaign was fuelled on a fanatically obstinate mandate against immigration. If a refugee completed the perilous journey from their ravaged homeland to any European country, they could claim residence in the UK. Feeling – and perhaps more importantly, fearing – that these migrants were having a detrimental effect on the country, Farage inspired vast swathes of the electorate to vote in their favour.

Nigel Farage’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster played on the fear of immigration and over-population.

The other, more revered, leave campaign (Vote Leave) was spearheaded by Conservative MPs – most notably, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. They sighted the referendum as an ideal opportunity to advance their political image – putting them in prime candidacy positions should their side win and the incumbent Cameron resign. Using their constantly reiterated campaign mantra of ‘Take Back Control’, they quite literally aimed to take control of parliament. Four years later and we can see that this came to fruition – the Boris Johnson-led cabinet features multiple vocal pro-leave politicians: Michael Gove and Priti Patel both have high-status places on the front bench.

What the 2016 EU referendum demonstrated then, was the first sign of a seismic shift in the Conservative Party’s direction. Vote Leave pioneered aspects of populism to present the referendum as a means for the British people to bravely break away from the elite bureaucrats in European Parliament – as though the population had been thwarted by the perverse, and highly unfair management of the union. Almost half a decade has passed, and the Conservative-led government still continue the narrative that the people have been unjustly treated by almost everyone but their own cabinet. Populism is constructed on the foundational idea of ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, what Johnson’s cabinet have perhaps failed to realise is that they represent the latter.

Photo by Jessica Taylor for Getty Images.

The situation in the UK is somewhat mirrored across the Atlantic. Following Obama’s two terms as president, many anticipated their latitude of conventional centrist politics to continue. When Donald Trump, a huge media personality and business magnate, faced up against Democrat veteran Hillary Clinton, many assumed the race was over before it had begun. Yet Trump prevailed, fuelled on a populist wave of anti-immigration and anti-political elite mentality.

Trump personifies this new brand of populism. He stands solely for the American, disregarding the interests of other global nations, religions and treaties – best demonstrated when he pulled out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and inflicted a travel ban on certain religious demographics. In the eyes of Trump supporters, he was the man that could protect their way of life from Mexican migrants, radical Islamic terrorism, the corrupt elite and the rising prominence of leftism in the US. Trump’s outrageous manifesto plans (building a wall along the US-Mexican border), twinned with a charismatic no-nonsense approach to anyone who stood in his way, cemented his model of populism as a hugely influential force. Ultimately, it sealed him the role of most powerful man in the world.

Trump’s status as a populist politician is truly proven by the interaction and mindset shared by his supporters. Trump is viewed by his fans as someone who can do no wrong. Colossal rally crowds gawp at him and take in every, often ignorant and false, word as though it is gospel. This coalescence between politician and electorate breeds a dangerously loyal and deeply tribal band of supporters that use the words of the leading figure and take them onto the streets. Trump’s words may not directly inflict considerable harm, but the response they provoke in vast swathes of the population do. Tweeting about the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests across US cities, Trump stated:

“I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right…”

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts”

Weeks later and a white teenager had opened fire on protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin – fatally injuring two activists with an AR-15 assault rifle.

This is when populism is its most perilously effective. Trump inspired such a bizarre level of loyalty from his supporters that they were happy to carry out his ideology in physical form. They were also largely content in standing aside and allowing Russian interference in their election if it meant the winning candidate would protect the values they felt were under attack. When an individual is raised above democracy in terms of importance and is carried by a wave of tribal public support, populism has prevailed.

Photo by Carol Guzy for NPR.

Whilst 2020 has borne witness to many tragic events, the decline of populism is perhaps a small, but very significant beacon of hope. Populism seeks to divide us – the very last thing we need in a global crisis. We go into the final month of the year with a new Democratic president-elect, Joe Biden. Biden served as vice president in Obama’s administration, and thus, he arguably represents a return to conventional centrism. He won the previously Republican safe states of Arizona and Georgia, whilst also taking back the Rust Belt states of Michigan and Wisconsin that Trump beat Clinton to in 2016. The scenes of unrest that dominated our television screens in the summer have been replaced by scenes of post-election jubilation.

Trump triumphed in 2016 because he held the ticket to a departure from well-polished, elite career politicians. He also stood for a previously culturally dominant social group (in the white working/middle class population) who felt threatened by a rise in migrant populations and the adoption of more progressive, left-wing attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality. In Laymen’s terms: Trump spoke to these people, played off the idea that they were losing their cultural dominance, whipped them up and used it to take the White House.

In America at least, Trump’s presidency can be viewed as a brief crack in the path to a more progressive future – a period in which a populist form of politics was trialled and quickly scrapped in place of a return to accustomed discourse. At least for now.

Whilst there hasn’t been one notable political event in the UK to enable one to hypothesise that populism is on the decline, there is evidence of a shift back towards conventional attitudes. COVID-19 has exposed the Conservative government’s gross mismanagement and lack of care for the public. Boris Johnson’s pandemic response was fatally late. Populism breeds a go-it-alone attitude and perhaps this is why COVID-19 was largely ignored until it arrived on British shores. Johnson didn’t want to lockdown the country too early and risk damaging the economy – this was merely the first in a long line of incidents whereby the people, that the Conservatives wanted so desperately to represent, weren’t prioritised.

When Dominic Cummings, ex-Chief Adviser to Boris Johnson, broke lockdown rules by driving his family from London to Durham whilst his wife was showing coronavirus symptoms, the Conservative cabinet resoundingly backed him. The scandal generated huge outrage in both the media and public sphere. Boris Johnson’s decision to support him and his (fairly poor) excuses, cultivated the notion that it was one rule for them and another rule for the people.

Photo by Aaron Chown for PA.

This is a discernment that has stood the test of time as the pandemic has developed. The ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme was widely noted for only being implemented to benefit the economy, with research suggesting it created a sixth of the COVID-19 case clusters over the summer. Furthermore, Boris Johnson’s humiliating backpedalling on a second national lockdown served as a microcosm for their horrific underestimation of the crisis as a whole.

When Marcus Rashford – an English Manchester United player – led a campaign against the government’s decision to not support free school meals provision for impoverished children in the holidays, vast swathes of the public were outraged. Once again, the cabinet embarrassingly had to overturn their initial decision. The Conservative Party threw away a substantial amount of public support, the same public support that they utilised to whip up a populist ‘us versus them’ separatist attitude merely a year ago. Populism is dependent on establishing a narrative of the people versus the elite. The people have now finally realised that this incumbent government do not represent their interests, they instead embody the elite.

Divisive media opinionists in the UK are also seemingly deteriorating in popularity. The first nationwide lockdown oversaw the banning of controversial commentator Katie Hopkins from Twitter. Her social influence has thus declined hugely – one can’t consume her contentious opinions when she has a lack of platform to promote them. Similarly, ex-English Defence League leader, Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), has also witnessed a recession in support. He’s featured very little in the media since the pandemic began. In early 2019, Tommy Robinson was banned from Facebook and Instagram, losing much needed access to over a million followers. A matter of months later and his YouTube account was restricted – his videos are now not as easy for casual users to find. In physical form, Tommy Robinson’s support has waned. At an August rally, less than a hundred people gathered outside Parliament.

Tommy Robinson used to attract huge crowds at his rallies.

It doesn’t matter how influential a government is, it needs media opinionists to promote a message. Whilst the populist opinions of Hopkins and Robinson are more extreme than those of the government, their decline in popularity has coincided with the decline of Conservative Party support.

In this sense, can one profess that the people of both the UK and US have become disenchanted with new wave populism? Perhaps finally, yes. The nature of politics, however, means we are never far away from a new strain of discourse.