Populism: a dirty word? Only for the elite

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Recently, former prime minister Goh Chok Tong said, in response to a comment about reducing ministerial pay, the following:

“This is a very populist kind of question, which will get you votes and make you President of Singapore! So it is a serious populist question which I want to debunk…. You said cut from defence, 1 per cent is enough. And on top of that, you said cut Ministers’ salaries. That is very populist. I am telling you the Ministers are not paid enough, and down the road, we are going to get a problem with getting people to join the government… So the point I am making is, don’t just ask populist questions. Before you ask such populist questions – just take from here and there to help old people – where would the money come from?”

It seems that nowadays, describing an idea as ‘populist’ is an easy way to discredit it. However, I argue that if we look closely at the word ‘populist’ and consider the contexts in which it is used, we will see that calling someone or something ‘populist’ adds zero-value to the strength of one’s argument and contributes nothing to the debate. Instead, used in this way, it is a mere rhetorical tool – empty, but nonetheless powerful.

A neutral word reclaimed by the elite

Many will be surprised to know that the word populist, in its original form, has no negative connotations. The Oxford English dictionary describes populist as “relating to or characteristic of a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. It is therefore a descriptive word that is associated with anti-elitism and ‘the people’, but on its own it carries no value-judgement.

Nowadays, however, ‘populist’ is used as a criticism in itself – we are beginning to get used to the idea that because something is populist, it is itself necessarily bad, or, that because something is populist, it is exceptionally bad.

I argue that this way of thinking is wrong – using the word populist is a critical rather than descriptive sense adds no value to one’s argument. Let me explain. If I were to ask Mr Goh whether cutting ministerial pay is bad simply because it is popular, he would probably say no. Just because something is popular does not make it bad. Why then is cutting ministerial pay bad? Mr Goh might explain that it is bad because it makes it hard to attract good talent into public service. I would say, “fine Mr Goh, but how has this got to do with the popularity of cutting ministerial pay?” You see, whether or not the policy of cutting ministerial pay is popular or unpopular, Mr Goh’s reason for not cutting salaries is exactly the same. His argument is not strengthened or weakened by the popularity of his opponent’s viewpoint. Yet, in the above extract he makes it a point to repeat over and over again that cutting ministerial pay is a populist idea. Why? Because somehow, labeling something populist somehow makes his opponent weaker, even though as shown above, when we think about it logically, it should make no difference whatsoever. Therefore, the use of the word ‘populist’ is a pejorative (rather than purely descriptive) way is a mere rhetorical tool – it adds no value to the debate, but is effective in making one side look bad.

The emptiness of the word as a pejorative tool is also demonstrated by the fact that the word is thrown around by all sides of the political spectrum.

For example, the Financial Times described the PAP’s policies as populist after its 2016 General Election victory where it garnered nearly 70% of the popular vote, warning that the PAP must “determine how far it pushes ahead with its populist policies in the face of a slowing economy”, highlighting the potential difficulty of the party in fulfilling its popular promises.

The point is, anyone can be attacked as a populist as long as their policies are popular. The only way to avoid this criticism at all is to only do things that are unpopular, but that is not how a democracy works.

Populism vs elitism

The only way populism can, on its own, constitute a value judgment is if you see something as automatically bad as long as it comes from the popular masses, or is contrary to the views of the ruling elite – there is a word for this phenomenon: elitism.

Kenneth Paul Tan, Assistant Dean and Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, wrote in a 2017 article that the way to avoid what he calls “authoritarian populism” is an “unashamedly elite government that is able to implement policies, even unpopular ones, that it deems to be in the long-term public interest”.

It is very curious that Professor Tan suggests that the solution to authoritarian populism is another form of authoritarianism – to be precise, authoritarian elitism. But if he believes in that, then of course the description of something as populist is also automatically a criticism of it.

Elitism, however, is defective. It is incorrect to think that the elites always have the right answer, partly because they may make mistakes (or worse, act in their self-interest) but also hugely because there are not always right and wrong answers when it comes to politics. Many political question are aspirational rather than technocratic – they involve questions of ideologies,  preferences and trade-offs. For example, should a state prioritize economic growth at all costs, or stifle growth in order to reduce inequality?

Some responses

One might argue that the word ‘populist’ has a purpose – it emphasizes the fact that a person is exploiting popular opinion for personal political gain. Donald Trump, for example, might be said to be populist because he says popular things that exploit the disgruntlement of disillusioned working class Americans to gain political power. However, this argument still does not address the fact the line between exploiting popular opinion and representing popular opinion is very unclear. If you think a popular opinion is exploited if you disagree with it and represented when you agree with it, then again, you are simply using populism as a rhetorical tool to mask an internal bias. If the issue is with alternative facts or fake news, then again the problem is not with popularity, but veracity.

In any case, even if this word has this meaning (and is therefore not ’empty’ as I have argued above), it is clear that we are not using it this way. When Mr Goh called the ideas 70-year old resident, Mr Abdul Aziz populist, surely he did not mean that Mr Aziz had a Trump-like demeanor, or that Mr Aziz was insincere and said what he said for some sort of political gain. Instead, he was using it, as explained above, as an empty (but effective) rhetorical tool to discredit Mr Aziz’s argument.

To summarize, calling something populist does not add or subtract from the strength of one’s argument. It is a rhetorical tool, and politicians should stop using it. Stick to the substantive arguments; the popularity of something does not affect how right or wrong it might be. Using populism as a dirty word to attack someone is not only unintellectual, but has strong elitist undertones.

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Photo credit: WSJ

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