Trump and other pop­ulist lead­ers are a symp­tom, not the dis­ease

The Peterborough Examiner - - Opinion - GWYNNE DYER Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work).”

of the world’s largest democ­ra­cies now have pop­ulist gov­ern­ments, claimed The Guardian last week, and pro­ceeded to name four: the United States, In­dia, Brazil and the Philip­pines. Which is the fifth? At var­i­ous points it name-checks Turkey, Italy and the United King­dom, but it never be­comes clear which. (And by the way, In­dia’s prime min­is­ter, Naren­dra Modi, is not a pop­ulist. He’s just a na­tion­al­ist.)

It’s em­bar­rass­ing when a re­spected global news­pa­per launches a ma­jor in­ves­tiga­tive se­ries and can’t re­ally nail the sub­ject down. Nei­ther can the peo­ple it in­ter­views: Hil­lary Clin­ton, for ex­am­ple, ad­mits the she was “ab­so­lutely dumb­founded” by how Don­ald Trump ate her lunch ev­ery day dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. She still doesn’t get it.

“We got caught in a kind of tran­si­tion pe­riod, so what I had seen work in the past ... was no longer as ap­peal­ing or di­gestible to the peo­ple or the press. I was try­ing to be in a position where I could an­swer all the hard ques­tions, but ... I never got them. I was wait­ing for them; I never got them. Yet I was run­ning against a guy who did not even pre­tend to care about pol­icy.”

Yes, Trump is a clas­sic pop­ulist, but why did he beat her two years ago when he wouldn’t even have got the nom­i­na­tion 10 years ago? She doesn’t seem to have a clue about that, and nei­ther do other re­cent lead­ers of cen­tre-left par­ties in­ter­viewed by The Guardian, like Bri­tain’s Tony Blair and Italy’s Mat­teo Renzi. So let us try to en­lighten them.

Pop­ulism is not an ide­ol­ogy. It’s just a po­lit­i­cal tech­nique, equally avail­able to right-wingers, left-wingers and those (like Trump) with no co­her­ent ide­ol­ogy at all. In this era, pop­ulism seems to part­ner best with right-wing na­tion­al­ist ide­olo­gies, like those of Jair Bol­sonaro in Brazil, Vik­tor Or­ban in Hun­gary and the Brex­i­teers in Eng­land, but even now there are pop­ulist left-wing par­ties, like Syriza in Greece and Pode­mos in Spain.

How does this tool work? It claims to be on the side of “or­di­nary peo­ple” and against a “cor­rupt elite” that ex­ploits and de­spises them. It’s light on pol­icy and heavy on emo­tion, par­tic­u­larly the emo­tions of fear and ha­tred. It usu­ally scape­goats mi­nori­ties and/or for­eign­ers, and it only works re­ally well when peo­ple are an­gry about some­thing.

The anger is about the fact that the jobs are dis­ap­pear­ing, and what’s killing them is au­to­ma­tion. The as­sem­bly-line jobs went first, be­cause they are so easy to au­to­mate. What’s go­ing fast now are the retail jobs, killed by Ama­zon and its ri­vals.

The next big chunk to go will prob­a­bly be the driv­ing jobs, just as soon as self­driv­ing ve­hi­cles are ap­proved for pub­lic use. And so on, one or two sec­tors at a time, un­til by 2033 (ac­cord­ing to the fa­mous 2013 pre­dic­tion by Ox­ford econ­o­mist Carl Benedikt Frey) when 47 per cent of U.S. jobs will be lost to au­to­ma­tion. And, of course, it won’t stop there.

Why don’t clever politi­cians such as Hil­lary Clin­ton get that? Per­haps be­cause they half-be­lieve the fantasy statis­tics on em­ploy­ment put out by gov­ern­ments, like the of­fi­cial 3.7 per cent un­em­ploy­ment rate in the United States. A more plau­si­ble fig­ure is Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute scholar Ni­cholas Eber­stadt’s find­ing in 2016 that 17.5 per cent of Amer­i­can men of prime work­ing age were not work­ing.

That’s three-quar­ters of the way to peak U.S. un­em­ploy­ment in the Great De­pres­sion of the 1930s, but it goes un­no­ticed be­cause to­day’s un­em­ployed are not starv­ing and they are not ri­ot­ing. You can thank the wel­fare states that were built in ev­ery de­vel­oped coun­try af­ter the Sec­ond World War for that, but they are still very an­gry peo­ple — and they do vote. A lot of them vote for pop­ulists.

Pop­ulism thrives when a lot of peo­ple are an­gry or des­per­ate or both. Don­ald Trump and peo­ple like him are not the prob­lem. They are symp­toms (and ben­e­fi­cia­ries) of the prob­lem — yet they dare not name it, be­cause they have no idea what to do about au­to­ma­tion.

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