Populism is a loser’s game
Former US secretary of state John Kerry rolled into town this week to talk about one of the things that is keeping the world’s sane people awake: the rise of populism. Kerry, who stood against the incumbent George W Bush for the presidency in 2004 and then served as Barack Obama’s international pointsman in the second term, is, at 73 years old, a grand patriarch of American politics. I’m not sure whether it is the years or the tens of thousands of kilometres of crosscontinental travel, but his gait is now betraying his age. The brain, however, is betraying nothing. He is as sharp as a brand-new razor.
At this week’s Old Mutual Wisdom Forum, Kerry laid bare the bankruptcy of Donald Trump, and the clear and present danger that his populism poses to the world. He outlined, with passion, how Trump is taking his country and the world backwards, all in the name of fulfilling his vacuous slogan of “making America great again”.
Besides everything else he stands for, Trump has angered Kerry on two main counts – fundamental issues that could shape the future of the planet and its inhabitants. It was on Kerry’s watch that the US joined the rest of the world’s sane nations in signing the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.
So passionate was Kerry about the Paris breakthrough that he had his granddaughter on his lap when he signed the document, a symbolic but pertinent message that it was about preserving the earth for future generations.
The other issue on which Trump touched Kerry on his studio was the deal to prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear arms programme. The negotiations leading up to the deal saw the foreign ministers of two sworn enemy countries meet face to face for the first time in 35 years. The eventual agreement – signed by several world powers – ensured Iran was handcuffed and deprived of the freedom to ever become a nuclear power. It is regarded as one of the great legacies of the Obama administration. Kerry is rightly very proud to have been at the centre of it all.
Then along came Trump, determined to undo all the achievements of Obama. Driven by maniacal populism and an uncontrollable hatred of Obama, Trump set in motion the dismantling of his signature projects. The Paris accord and the Iran deal – so crucial for the world’s future – fell victim to this. Trump’s actions disregarded the fact that his administration could have reaped great benefits from Obama’s policies, benefits he could narcissistically claim credit for. However, all he could think of was the support of the rednecks to whom he had fed populist rhetoric during his 2016 election campaign.
What Trump is learning is that an election won on a populist ticket becomes a headache for the victor. The victor is expected to fulfil even the most ridiculous of promises, or risk losing the adulation of his gullible constituency. Failure to deliver breeds restlessness, instability and a breakdown in trust in public institutions.
This is a lesson the populist camp in the ANC’s leadership race should well be aware of. They have been running around the country promising the people that if their vision of radical economic transformation is implemented, all their problems will vanish at the speed it takes to make instant noodle soup.
At times, it has been difficult to differentiate between what they promise and the stuff that is written in Prophetess Abedina’s pamphlets and in the declarations made by dodgy pastors. Branches have been made to believe that the silver bullet to obliterate poverty and end inequality is to solve the land question overnight and parcel out wealth like Christmas presents.
What we learn from history – distant and contemporary – is that it is a bad idea to raise expectations. There will always be a chunk of the population whose hopes will be raised. And in that group there will be those willing to act on broken promises.
Should their ticket win in the ANC elective conference in December, the populists will be faced with the impossible task of trying to fulfil these impossible promises on the back of a tanking economy.
Even when the economy does begin to pick up, it will be ages before any of the promises can be met. More likely, these crazy solutions are likely to send the economy into reverse gear, thus breeding even more anger and backlash.
And if they do not win, the blame for the failure to achieve instant results will fall on the victors, who will be punished for promises they did not make.
Either way, everybody loses.
The ANC’s December conference may be what sports teams call a do or die contest. But it need not be the thing that puts us in the terminal ward. The populist crusade may do just that.