Has the pandemic killed populism?
According to a study published by academics from the University of Cambridge, support for populist parties and politicians has ‘collapsed’ during the pandemic. The study claims that, during the pandemic, people throughout the world have decided to reject populist politicians in favor of experts and technocrats.
The report, The Great Reset: Democratic Attitudes, Populism, and the Pandemic, claims that by the summer of 2020, the conviction that experts should be free to make decisions ‘according to what they think best for the country’ had risen 14 points to 62% in Europe and 8 points to 57% in the United States.
The western mainstream media has responded with a tone of triumphalism to the supposed ascendancy of technocratic decision-making and the collapse of populism. ‘Populism has been a victim of the pandemic’, declared The Times. ‘The Great Reset: Support for Populist Politics “Collapsed” Globally During the COVID Pandemic’, reports SciTechDaily. Breathing a sigh of relief, CNBC asserts that ‘Populist politics lost support globally during the pandemic’.The celebratory tone of the media’s reaction to the report’s thesis of global populist collapse is understandable. There is nothing that the Western media hates more than the specter of populism. Indeed, in recent years, its attitude has resembled a ‘moral panic’ akin to the hysteria around heavy metal and violent video games in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
In Europe, anti-populist propaganda often evokes memories of the final days of the Weimar Republic. For Jean-Claude Juncker, the former president of the European Commission, the fight against populism is nothing less than a moral crusade against the forces of evil. When Juncker declares that “we have to fight nationalism” and “block the avenue of populism,” he frequently evokes memories associated with the good fight against fascism. Even religious figures have internalized the populism-as-fascism cultural script. Pope Francis has not yet issued a papal bull against populism, but he has warned that ‘populism is evil’ and could lead to the election of “saviors” who are similar to (of course) Hitler.
But when you scratch the surface of the elite hysteria around populism, it becomes apparent that it is animated by their distaste for the people and dissatisfaction with democracy. As I discussed in my study, ‘Democracy Under Siege, Don’t Let Them Lock It Down’, ‘Demophobia’ – or ‘the fear of the people’ – has become a pathology in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Since then, the elite has become habituated to using words like fascist, authoritarian, illiberal, and anti-democratic interchangeably with populism.
Populism is invariably represented as a ‘threat’ to democracy and yet, at the same time, the reaction to it is animated by a powerful mood of suspicion towards democracy. The real reason why they despise populism is not because it is a threat to democracy, but because people who support it reject the moral authority of the elite. Populist movements believe that decisions should reflect the will of the people, not the outlook of experts and technocrats.
According to anti-populists, the greatest sin of this populism is that it is prepared to question the judgment of the expert. In a tone of disbelief, two leading American political scientists, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, observed that populists embrace the voice of ‘ordinary citizens’ even when at odds with expert judgements – including those of elected representatives, judges, scientists, scholars, journalists, and commentators! If that is the case, the anti-democratic hierarchical pyramid that situates the expert at the top and ‘ordinary citizens’ at the bottom is turned upside down!
The most important argument advanced by ‘The Great Reset: Democratic Attitudes, Populism, and the Pandemic’ is that, during the pandemic, pre-existing suspicion towards expertise has given way to support for technocratic authority. It reports that people increasingly look to technocrats for authority and support ‘non-political’ experts making decisions.
If the Cambridge report is right in its assessment of public attitude towards ‘non-political’ experts, then it represents a massive erosion of the cultural value of democracy. No doubt anxiety about the threat to life posed by Covid-19 has led many people to place their hope in medicine and science. This, combined with the politicization of public health during the pandemic, has ceaselessly promoted the claim that ‘following the science’ is the only way to survive the crisis. Concern about survival was heightened by pedaling the politics of fear – which encouraged people to view others as vectors of disease rather than fellow citizens – and lockdowns that cut us off from normal socialization. All of which, no doubt, has corroded public life.
Regrettably, the cumulative impact of the politicization of public health and the confusion surrounding the pandemic has been a loss of trust in political institutions. The significance of this point has been lost by the authors of the Cambridge Report, even though their survey provides evidence of this development. The report indicates that, in the US, the percentage of people who consider democracy a “bad” way to run the country more than doubled from 10.5% in late 2019 to 25.8% in late 2021. Decline in support for democracy is the case in Germany, Japan, and Spain. The estrangement of a significant section of the public from democracy is bad news. This is a regrettable development that should have made headlines.
That democracy is in trouble is not a big deal for opponents of populism. They frequently assert that ‘too-much democracy’ was responsible for the rise of populist movements in the first place. So those who hail the collapse of populism and rise in support for ‘non-political’ experts are not in the least worried about the erosion of support for democracy. The de-politicization of public life insulates the governing elites from popular pressure and frees them from having to respond to public opinion.
It is likely that the Cambridge Report’s obituary to populism is premature. Its ‘Great Reset’ is more a form of wishful thinking than an accurate depiction of future trends. The populist aspiration for a voice continues to influence millions and people will not put up for long with the exhortation to ‘follow the science’.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.