Populism and Agency
Those with populist impulses make the point that the dignity and worth of each person does not depend on one’s position in the meritocratic hierarchy.
"He genuinely does not like Keir. He sees this man as part of a privileged, metropolitan, narrow-minded elite uncomfortable with the raw instincts of the vast majority of British people."
–an unidentified ally of Boris Johnson to London’s Sunday Times
Marine LePen’s loss to President Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election seemed like a major blow to the right-wing populist movements across the West, as other populists also suffered from their ties to the Putin administration as it continues to wage an unprovoked war on Ukraine. But the populist right has recovered, and already finds itself on another run. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán won reelection convincingly, Republican primary results in the United States over the last month, together with events in states like Florida and the apparently imminent Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade have shown the continued strength of Donald Trump and Trumpism. Despite Conservative losses in British local elections, Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks more secure than ever. In Canada, Pierre Poilievre maintains a firm grip on the front-runner position in the Conservative Party leadership race despite his increasingly extreme rhetoric and threats against major Canadian institutions..
What accounts for the staying power of right-wing populism? The populists have mounted the most powerful and sustained challenge to the politics, economics, and culture of the society that has emerged since the renaissance of free-market capitalism that emerged after the stagflation crisis of the 1970s that discredited the Keynesian welfare state. Many social scientists expected the challenge to Reaganian and Thatcherism to come from the left, calling for a return to redistributive social policy and a redirection of national income from capital to labor. This showed the continued influence of Karl Marx’s writings on the Western left, specifically his idea that economic inequality will lead to growing class consciousness among workers. Marxism, however, is resolutely materialist, and dismisses both culture and nationalism as distractions from economic class, the only meaningful social distinction. But when labor has been under pressure over the past century, it has turned to the populist and anti-democratic right. At two major junctures, in the 1930s in central Europe, especially in Germany, and during the 2020s across the West, the reaction to inequality and social stress has played to parties and political figures that focus on cultural and demographic change.
So what do the right-wing populists understand that the Marixists and social democrats do not? One could argue that the populist right is simply more in touch with the collective “id,” the “raw instincts of the people” than is the left, but there is a more down to earth answer. Populists are aware that the frustration toward the modern world is not ultimately rooted in economic justice, though economics is part of the equation. Populism finds its root in the lack of agency, that is, power or control, that many feel characterizes their lives. The roots of this lack of agency come from the increasing complexity of society, something that dates from around the 1960s.
After World War II, economies in the West grew at an impressive pace for several decades, driven by a large expansion of higher education and the number of people with specialized degrees. Individuals with degrees came to dominate high-status professions, notably medical professionals and attorneys, but this extends to other areas such as government, consulting, the financial sector, and leadership positions in large companies, as well as teaching, especially at the university level. Those holding such upper middle-class jobs were not fabulously wealthy, but in addition to the social status of upper middle-class work, were in a position to dictate some small aspect of life to others and charge a fee for doing it (whether a mortgage would be approved, whether a business license would be approved, professors whose cooperation was needed to finish a degree). Most accepted the system, as it was a meritocracy with what Napoleon dubbed “careers open to talent.” But those who were not able to climb the meritocratic ladder would be left out, and would need to seek the service of paid experts needed to deal with the more complex aspects of modern life.
The institutions in which these experts work have themselves been in decline, be they churches, financial institutions that needed bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis, or governments in which professional misconduct is forgiven or in which poor performance results in “failing upwards.”
Robert Reich, the economist and former Secretary of Labor, writes that the lack of agency goes beyond interactions with high-level professionals. It extends to interactions like customer service, where one spends hours on hold trying to speak to an agent at an airline or a bank, or a company with which one wants to cancel a subscription. There are other examples of what are daily indignities, but also examples of institutions and individuals who hold power over others but face no real accountability for their actions.
The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened the sense of powerlessness that many felt as they waited for the virus to recede. In the meantime, they faced lockdowns, closures of businesses and inability to obtain goods of services, vaccine mandates and dependency on a credentialed medical system for help when it was needed, and helplessness when dealing with the virus, a natural phenomenon that responded to no human rules.
With these observations, some of the rhetoric we hear from populists begins to make more sense. During the Brexit debate in the United Kingdom, the “Leave” side campaigned with a three-word slogan: “take back control.” Brexiters did not need to define control–their voters already understood. Donald Trump has spoken of “chaos that threatens our way of life,” and who promised to challenge “big business and elite media.” In Canada, Pierre Poilievre calls for “firing the Gatekeepers, whether they be the consulting class, politicians, bureaucrats, or agencies, create roadblocks for progress and charge a hefty fee for anyone who would want to build anything.”
In the end, we depend on credentialed experts like doctors and engineers, as well as lower-status experts such as plumbers and mechanics. In addition to calls for the the end to lockdowns, masking, and vaccinations, many are unconsciously wishing the government could legislate the coronavirus out of existence. The world is a complex place, and most of us enjoy the higher standard of living that comes along with the complexity. However, those with populist impulses make the point that the dignity and worth of each person does not depend on one’s position in the meritocratic hierarchy.