You might have recently seen a political cartoon by Will McPhail, from the New Yorker, doing the rounds on Twitter. It depicts the passengers of an airplane, one man standing up to address his fellow passengers, “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” he says.
This, obviously, is poking fun at the populism of Donald Trump and his supporters – shouldn’t we let experts run things rather than someone who is no more experienced than the average man on the street? But this comparison ignores something very important: flying a plane is not the same as politics. You can go your whole life without ever even stepping foot in a plane; nobody can avoid the constant influence of politics in their life. The choices made in government at every level affect our daily lives, and the cartoon almost tries to suggest that ordinary people do not belong in politics. It quietly supports the entrenchment of a political class, where it’d be fine to have two Bush presidents and two Clinton presidents since the end of the eighties as long as they’re “experienced.” (This also has an unfortunate air of classism. Just look at how many MPs went to Oxford or Cambridge, or how many MSPs went to Glasgow.)
I want to emphasise that I don’t mean this as a defence of Trump. His views on practically every possible issue, from immigration to healthcare, are the exact opposite of mine. The same is true of Nigel Farage. Trump and Farage are terrible not because they are inexperienced or populist, but because their far-right ideologies are despicable. McPhail’s cartoon, on the other hand, implies that they are bad simply because they haven’t spent long enough in politics.
Another factor in the populism-experts debate, which goes much further than a single cartoon, is that populism on the whole is often conflated with right-wing populism. Trump is right-wing and populist, sure, but Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are solidly on the left. Conflating Trump with Corbyn based on nothing but their presentation is simply ridiculous and ignores the material effects of the policies they support. Corbyn supports closing tax loopholes while Trump exploits them for his own gain. They are similar only in that they don’t present themselves as centrist and instead choose populism.
It’s also interesting to note that populism is spreading into the mainstream, especially in the Conservative Party. It’s impossible to characterise Michael Gove (who was a Cabinet Minister for six years) or Theresa May as “anti-establishment”, but both have rallied against an imagined metropolitan elite of “Remoaners” (as the Daily Express likes to call anyone who has expressed any concerns about Brexit.)
What must be reconsidered are the tactics of politicians, which as they are often drive people towards populism. Certain mainstream strategies often give off an air of condescension – see, for example, Hillary Clinton’s tweet asking young people to describe how they feel about student debt in three emojis or less, or the reliance by many left-of-centre parties on celebrity endorsements. Many mainstream politicians also lack the ability to be critical of leaders from their own party – many current Democrat and Labour figures fiercely defend the Clintons and Blair – while populists on both the right and left are very much willing to harshly criticise.
Populism seems currently like it could be a winning formula, with Corbyn, Sanders and Trump each being initially considered as jokes but then going on to great success. Corbyn in particular has seemingly decided to double-down on populism in an attempt to combat poor polling – and if done properly could assist Labour greatly in the next few years.