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What is populism?

Should a party adapt to the ideas of the voters or should it lead and be followed by them?

By Alberto Fiorentino

First of all, what can be defined as populist: a political actor or an idea? Ideas move on the legs of men and must be embraced by someone to become concrete. Does the movement that adopt an idea automatically became that idea? Probably not immediately, but one can identify himself with an opinion to the degree that, when he comes to a disagreement with it, he will reject his own reason in favor of the narrative embraced. In this scenario, one would ask himself if such a person ever believed in his idea or if he was just defending it out of mere convenience, mental laziness or ideology. Applied to a political organization, would such a behaviour be the tipping point at which a party can be labelled as populist? In a Democracy, politicians want to be (re)elected to office, where they can exercise power and extract rents (material or not) for themselves and the coalition that supports them at the ballots. Of course, with few exceptions, there is an agency problem between the elected officials and their constituencies.

Assuming that the agency problem is so severe that what a party did in the previous legislative period has no influence on the current election (i.e. electors have a short memory), and so that the winner will be chosen only based on what he proposes on his electoral campaign, an adverse selection problem exists. The party that promises more is the most likely to be elected, but, since policy outcomes have no consequences on the likelihood of being reelected, it is not incentivized to stick to its commitments, nor to produce a single piece of useful legislation that will benefit the voters. If good policies and laws require effort, but they do not increase (enough) the likelihood of reelection, politicians will neglect them.

But then electoral campaigns would be the only determinant of an election, and the only way to prevent a party from promising the impossible, without mentioning why and how it is beneficial to the voters, would be through a law stating what parties can stand for and promote. National parliaments should then pass a law limiting the scope and topics of discussions and through them, the probability of a party to increase its chances of reelection via the campaigns. No majority in a parliament of a modern democracy would ever act in such an irrational way, as it would limit its chances of reelection. But the ruling party typically benefits from an incumbent advantage and such a draconian law, if written in a particular way, would increase it and thus weaken minorities challenging the ruling party for power. In any case, there would be no democracy if someone choses which ideas are good before election. That is precisely what elections are for.

The alternative solution to a regulation are some self-imposed rules, set by each groups of people only for themselves – they are called values. The fact that one chooses them means that he holds them as true, and when he goes against his own values, he is, in a way, going against himself too. It is then possible to ‘spot’ a populist party by looking at its ideas: if one of its proposal is incompatible with what it claims to be representing, if two of its proposals are in contrast (incompatible with the same set of values) or if a proposal can be compatible with any set of value because there is none this party has adopted, then we are looking at a populist movement.

What truly characterize a populist party is thus the lack of a framework of values in which its proposal can be coherently placed without clashing. Some ideas are not bad per se, but the reason for which they are adopted might make them became just a mirror for larks. After all, a populist organization is ready to find a solution to any problem, even fictious ones, without giving the slightest sign of recognizing counterindications, their solutions are just perfect and promoted as such. The truth is that they do not have any underpinning values to comply with and so they can attract very different electors just by changing their message. They adapt their proposals to best meet the demands of more people, even if it means changing themselves. Political parties, those who should propose and lead, happen to find themselves tailor-made to best fit the needs of people of any size, running after their needs. But populist parties do not satisfy needs nor do they solve problems, they only claim to be willing to do so – if elected – but once in office they will be unable to deliver. Not only due to a lack of incentives, but because it is impossible to find a unique solution that fixes everything while complying with the different needs and preferences of all their voters. Moreover, fixing something would mean eliminating their reason of existence. A real party does not live only to solve a single problem or to be voted by a group of people pretending or believing to have a problem, it has a long-term vision for the Country, principles on which solutions are based. Their proposals might evolve overtime (decades, not weeks) to incorporate the changes in the society derived for example from technological innovation but would still be in accordance with its funding principles. Someone might find himself in disagreement with the party’s ideas, but a complete commitment toward the same ideas of the entire electorate is only possible in a dictatorship – where there is only one voter, and decisions cannot be objected.

This should then clarify why values are so important in politics: they are the guarantee that a party will maintain its promises, they are the reasons for which it runs on a specific policy platform, even when some proposals are unpopular with certain fragments of the population. Values give rise to proposed solutions compatible only with its underlying ideas because the party believes in them and will honor its obligations toward voters even when they have a short memory.

In fact, if we remove or relax the short-memory assumption, parties will also want to be seen as reliable because the delivery of promised outcomes will motivate voters to trust them with their vote. The objective of what I call a ‘true party', a non-populist one, is not to be voted by a majority of the population, but to be voted by all those who share its same values, its same idea for the future. In the short run, a party cannot shape the values of the electorate, it takes them as exogenous, but in the long run, as the society changes, values may change as well and parties could leave their imprint. If it loses the elections, it simply means that a majority of the voters does not share its views. And so, what? Not all of the parties can win, or there would be no opposition and then no differentiation between parties.

Having defined what a populist party is, there are no ‘intrinsically populist’ ideas, they became such when a populist subject adopts them for its purposes. Nevertheless, there are some common traits to the issues this kind of parties claim to have a solution to. They all typically refer to the electors as ‘the people’ to create a sensation of shared identity and claim that the people’s interests are in contrast with those of a phantomatic elite. According to the narration, the ‘enemy’ can be personified by very different types of subjects; foreign powers, immigrants and TV networks are very popular choices. We can also find banks which are typically blamed for every economic problem and inculpated of being greedy, of sucking away the results hard working people have sweated for. Even politicians have become the target of populist movements, they are accused of not working for the citizens but for themselves and their merry bands. Responsibilities are always of the single person, as there might be corrupt individuals, there is not a corrupt political organization, run with the attempt of committing crimes. Accusing opposing parties of being bad is just nonsensical propaganda. Populist parties propose themselves as heroes who are going to save the people from the enemy.

To avoid the formation, or at least the growth, of populist parties it would be sufficient that citizens ask themselves what they want for their own country, how it could be achieved and by who. Just like shareholders that appoint a competent board of directors, citizens should choose competent and trustworthy leaders. Being a politician has become the only career path where inexperience is valued positively, this is just absurd.

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