The Divided Kingdom

A Review of  National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, Pelican (October 25, 2018), 336 pages.

While reading National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, I got the impression authors Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin were betting men. They point out—in the first few pages—had you bet £100 on Leave winning the 2016 Referendum on the day of the vote, June 23, you’d have won £300 in the morning and £900 in the evening. That betting markets tacked against Leave during the course of polling gives one a sense of the groupthink among much of the UK’s commentariat—something Goodwin, in particular, doesn’t share, even though he voted Remain.

I suppose I should confess to being a betting woman. The day before Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered, I put AUD$100 on Leave. After her murder, however, I changed my mind. Like some of the pollsters, I thought a single, terrible event would change the course of an entire political campaign, something that’s actually quite rare—although I didn’t know it then. Remain, I suspected, had succeeded in painting Leave as “the side that murdered Jo Cox.” I couldn’t change my bet, however, so when Leave won on June 23 I received a pleasant text. I took a friend to an expensive supper.

At the time, I was living in Australia and working for a politician. And it must be said, I was focussed on Australia’s July 2 Federal Election—I wanted to get my boss re-elected. Nonetheless, paying attention to one campaign forced me to take note of another. I kept a watching brief on Brexit from February 20 onwards, when David Cameron announced the Referendum date.

Unlike Goodwin, I voted Leave, and long suspected Leave would win. I’d seen so much Euroscepticism while living in the UK—even when studying and working in Oxford and Edinburgh—that I was willing to trust a distinctly unscientific poll consisting of “all the people I know” (I do know a lot of people).

Brexit for Dummies

In National Populism, Eatwell and Goodwin have clothed hunches like mine in rigorous and careful scholarship. Their book—coupled with a thoughtful piece Goodwin wrote for Quillette — is the best explanation for why Leave won in 2016. Interestingly, one thing that emerges from polling data the authors have compiled over decades was how well Remain did to get to 48 percent. If anything, Euroscepticism is the UK’s default position, and “Project Fear” probably shifted 5–10 percent of people inclined to vote Leave across to the Remain column:

Contrary to rumour, Brexit was supported by a broad and fairly diverse coalition of voters; large numbers of affluent conservatives; one in three of Britain’s black and ethnic minority voters; almost half of 25-49 year-olds; one in two women; one in four graduates; and 40 per cent of voters in the Greater London area. Brexit appealed to white pensioners in England’s declining seaside towns but it also won majority support in highly ethnically diverse areas like Birmingham, Luton, and Slough. You don’t hear much about these groups in the media vox pops in retirement homes and working men’s clubs in poverty-stricken communities. Had these other groups that are routinely written out of the debate not voted Leave then Britain would probably still be in the EU.


Brits were the least likely to hold a positive image of the EU; the least optimistic about the future of the EU; and, though few observers noticed at the time, were only behind the Cypriots as the most likely to believe that their country “could better face the future outside of the EU.” Given such findings, one might ask not why Leave won the referendum but why it only attracted 52 per cent of the vote [Footnotes omitted].

However, National Populism does a great deal more than explain Brexit. It’s a splendid field spotters’ guide to populism as a global phenomenon, drawing together clear-eyed analysis of individuals from Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán and parties like Poland’s Law and Justice to Italy’s Lega. Relatedly, it also dispatches the fashionable notion that populism emerges only on the right, and points skillfully to those aspects of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour program with clear populist roots.

If National Populism has a flaw, it’s that it scoops up entirely legitimate parties with genuine platforms and a respect for liberal democratic norms and practices (Podemos, UKIP, the Sweden Democrats, Movimento 5 Stelle) with movements and individuals that probably or certainly don’t (Jobbik, Orbán, Chávez). Nonetheless, relevant similarities and differences and internal disputes are all addressed carefully and comprehensively in either the body text or the book’s detailed annotated bibliography.

Other reviewers have focussed on the four factors Eatwell and Goodwin argue are feeding populism globally: distrust, destruction, deprivation, and de-alignment. The Economist—in a recent Bagehot column—summarizes this “four factor” argument neatly:

Messrs Eatwell and Goodwin also emphasise the importance of immigration, which they somewhat ominously classify under “destruction”, one of four Ds that they believe explain populism.

The second is distrust, of established elites. Some 58% of Britons who thought that politicians “do not listen to people like me” voted for Brexit, compared with only 37% of people who thought they did listen. About 2.8m habitual non-voters, who had given up on politics during the Blair-Cameron years of identikit politicians with interchangeable policies, turned out to vote Leave.

The third D is deprivation. It is important not to exaggerate this problem. Many people, rich and poor, voted for Brexit because they worried about democracy and accountability. But a growing feeling of both absolute and relative deprivation nevertheless tipped the balance for significant groups of voters, particularly in Labour territory, where local MPs fought a losing battle against the Brexit tide.

The fourth D is the “de-alignment” of politics, meaning the abandonment by voters of their usual party. This is the most counterintuitive of the authors’ claims when it comes to Britain. In the election last year, Labour and the Tories won 82% of the vote, their highest share since 1970. But the potential for de-alignment is there. In 2015 and 2017, 43% and 32% of voters respectively changed their votes from the previous election. Brexit cuts like a knife through both main parties: Labour represents the most passionately pro-Remain constituencies in the country and the most passionately pro-Brexit ones.

No reviewer, however, has paid close attention to what (for me) is the book’s standout achievement—the 100 or so pages Eatwell and Goodwin spend comparing populism and fascism, pointing out how different they are from each other, and explaining just what populists represent.

Populism v. Fascism

Key to understanding populism—of both left and right—is its desire “to give a voice to ordinary people and curb powerful elites who threaten their interests” (p 47). Populist thinking is ancient: Pagan Rome had Populares senators (yes, that’s the Latin term) who gave off more than a whiff of what we would now call caudillismo.

This desire for an amplified popular voice should not be mistaken for a form of Rousseau’s “General Will,” however—something characteristic of fascism, as Eatwell and Goodwin go on to discuss. The “General Will” makes possible a mystic identification of the leader with his people, something with no need of confirmation by so mundane an apparatus as the ballot-box. By contrast, populists of all stripes have detailed policies designed to give “the people” an improved hearing, the most important of which is the use of direct democracy—Swiss-style citizen-initiated-plebiscites; US-style legislative propositions; and Australian-style referendums. Populists want more democracy, not less.

The desire to use procedural and ballot mechanisms in this way is premised on the belief that elites—sometimes sneeringly referred to as “the Davos set”—in parliaments, commerce, and the civil service are unrepresentative of the wider electorate. This claim can seem strange when one considers the extent to which such bodies in the developed world now include many women and members of ethnic minorities. However, as Eatwell and Goodwin note, sexual and racial diversity among elites can be both misleading and superficial. Half of Clement Attlee’s Cabinet in 1945 had previously held blue-collar jobs, while by 2017, the percentage of MPs who had held blue-collar jobs had fallen to just 3 percent—half the number of those who had once been lawyers—and none were in the Cabinet. And before you say, “but we have a Tory government,” it’s wise to remember only a single Blair Cabinet minister in the late 1990s had ever worked in a factory. Representation is a mirage if parliament is this wonderfully diverse place where everyone went to Oxford or Cambridge or a Russell Group university.

Across the West, liberal democracies are increasingly dominated by highly educated and liberal elites whose backgrounds and outlook differ fundamentally from those of the average citizen, a development that has been exacerbated by the rise of a new ‘governance elite’, connected through formal and informal networks that cut across elected national governments. Linked to this has been the growth of ‘politically correct’ agendas, driven by degree-holding liberals and the young, which are especially focussed on identity issues [p 85].

Members of this meritocratic managerial class not only share an increasingly homogenous social background and life experience, they have similar views. They are pro-free-market, but they also want people to behave in a certain way (they would rather not shout, though, hence the popularity of “nudges”). Their core belief is in the power of expertise and the notion that all will be well if Really Smart People (RSP) are in charge.

Right now, RSPs are panicking thanks to an upsurge in populism, so the obvious move is to try to mobilize the centre (all Macron, all the time, basically). Unfortunately, RSP support for particular candidates makes those candidates toxic in the eyes of many voters, plus they often misdiagnose the causes of social and economic problems. On this point, Macron’s current unpopularity is instructive because his situation is precisely thanks to RSPs getting things badly wrong.

EU countries (including France and Britain) taxed diesel fuel at lower rates for decades on the grounds that it was less damaging to the environment. This shifted market preferences such that many people bought diesel cars on the basis their fuel was “cleaner”—after all, RSP scientists and environmentalists told us so. Renault and Peugeot spent a small fortune shifting manufacturing across to diesel rather than petrol engines. In France, all tractors and most cars run on diesel.

The irony, of course, is that we always knew nitrogen oxides (NOx) in diesel fumes were nasty, even if we were not fully aware of the extent to which they are dangerous to human health and ruin the built environment. However, hysteria about climate change drove political targets for CO2 reduction, which meant the better mpg from diesel was foregrounded. This forgets, of course, that a significant reason for diesel’s greater fuel efficiency is that it is denser than petrol (one gallon of diesel has more mass than one gallon of petrol).

In the UK, it was the Volkswagen emissions scandal (which involved engines producing NOpollutants at up to 40 times above permitted rates) that forced the issue into public consciousness. And, because it has turned out not to be environmentally friendly, Macron has put the price of diesel up. Little wonder French people who expected good governance from Macron’s team of RSPs are tearing up cobbles in the Champs-Élysées and lobbing them at police.

Eatwell and Goodwin argue strenuously how important it is not to assume all populism is either recent or a function of the refugee crisis. People will tolerate RSP rule as long as peace, order, and good governance continues. And there has indeed been quite a lot of that in Western countries since 1989. Voters have limited tolerance for incompetence, however, particularly when it comes with the discovery that RSPs don’t actually know what they’re doing (e.g., the Iraq War, the Global Financial Crisis, austerity, etc.). And RSPs on all sides have made an absolute hash of negotiating Brexit. The point of handing the levers of power to RSPs is that expertise is meant to lead to skilled manipulation of those levers. When it turns out Jack down the pub with his three very average GCSEs could have done a better job, voters get angry.

Many populists, but notably Movimento 5 Stelle’s Beppe Grillo, have also noted how technocrats who purport to have superior knowledge are susceptible to exactly the same sort of cognitive biases and systemic errors as the rest of us. For this reason, Grillo supports using sortition—the method by which juries are selected—to elect Italy’s Senate. He argues that it will break the ability of cognitive and governance elites to control Italian politics.

Coupled with populism’s sincere support for democracy is thus a belief that Jack is as good as — if not better than — his master. Populists take aim at “rule by experts,” whether in central banks or supranational bodies that want nation states to admit large numbers of refugees and immigrants. One particular populist bugbear is the creation of “arm’s length” bodies and QANGOS that aren’t accountable to electorates. Immigration policy, for instance, is not something British electorates have had any control over since Britain’s membership of the EU means Her Majesty’s government has to accept freedom of movement. Leave argued for an Australian-style “points-based” system during the EU referendum campaign, despite the fact Australia takes many more immigrants than either the UK or any EU member state (both proportionally and, most of the time, in absolute terms).

This meant that many Leave voters were not voting against immigration (the huge numbers of immigrants Australia accepts is widely known, in part because so many British people have relatives there). They were voting against unaccountable power. This is what happens when a state outsources a policy that should be in the hands of the electorate and then spends 25 years failing to ask the electorate what they think. (Australians get asked every three years, by contrast.)

Historically, the political entities willing to accept high immigration and ethnic diversity have been empires (e.g., Rome, China, Ottoman) and city-state republics (e.g., Florence, Singapore, but also the Roman Republic), not nation-states (which combine sovereignty, territory, ethnicity and democracy). So if you want high immigration and ethnic diversity in a nation-state you either go down the imperial route (unaccountable power) or the “Roman republican” route (rigid distinctions between citizens and non-citizens and the citizenry gets to decide who joins the club). Australia did the latter and has enjoyed success; the UK did the former and botched it.

Elite Theory

Populists are not fighting an imaginary enemy, either, before those of us who went to Oxford and Cambridge and les Grandes Écoles start wondering if we’re being unfairly maligned.

The idea that the state ought to be governed by experts or the “best people” has been around for a very long time. In Greek, Roman, Enlightenment, and contemporary political thinking, this belief often does represent a mixture of distrust and contempt for “the masses.” Eatwell and Goodwin outline how Plato’s “Guardian” class was meant—through a program of education, training, and selective breeding—to rule as “Philosopher Kings and Queens.” (To his credit, Plato was not sexist; most historical arguments about those “fit to rule” or “government by expert” peremptorily exclude women.)

Aristotle—making a point that would please many Corbyn supporters—argued that democracy could only work if there were a high degree of economic equality. Otherwise, there was a real risk the rich and talented might finish up with their heads on pikes. Roman jurists, meanwhile, suggested direct democracy and the rule of law were contraindicated, looking down their aquiline noses at the Greeks they’d just conquered and observing snippily that the “popular mob” killed Socrates, “and he was smarter than you.” Romans also invented the Electoral College “of notables” during the course of their own constitutional development, something that in modified form is the source of considerable contention in current US politics. One can already see in antiquity the process by which representative democracy supplanted direct democracy.

Even very great proponents of liberal democracy and the free exchange of ideas—John Stuart Mill for example—were worried what would happen if people they considered stupid or ill-informed misused their ballot. Mill supported the existence of university constituencies, whereby graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, and the ancient Scottish universities got two votes: One in their university seat, and one where they lived. Those constituencies were not abolished until 1950. It was meant to be a force multiplier for the clever, to allow them to guide the ship of state out of proportion to their actual numbers in the population. Really Smart People find democratic politics a bit of a nuisance because all those ordinary people are too cognitively impaired or biased to get things right (unlike RSPs of course).

A belief in democracy, in the capacity for governance among “ordinary people,” and a distrust of cognitive elites is what definitively sets populists apart from fascists. And, as Eatwell and Goodwin argue, it is absolutely vital that critics and opponents of populism understand this. Fascism—like Leninist communism, with its “intellectual vanguard”—is profoundly elitist. It does not want populism’s “plain, ordinary people” anywhere near the levers of power. It wants its great leader (and his hand-picked lackeys) grasping those levers instead.

This elitism is one reason why a significant number of really quite impressive intellectuals—Martin Heidegger, Giovanni Gentile, Paul de Man, Carl Schmitt, Ezra Pound, Robert Michels—were attracted to fascism, much as on the other side of the aisle communism generated its own trahison des clercs. Liberalism, of course, has a truly stellar cast of great minds on the books, stacked like lumber going back to antiquity and even more so since the Scottish Enlightenment. Populism, despite being a serious political tradition in its own right, lacks support among those it derides as “eggheads.”

The Divided Kingdom

One of the reasons the 2016 EU Referendum was so disruptive is because Westminster is a system of representative democracy. We elect our MPs to do a job: They make law on our behalf, and it is their role to deliberate in Parliament and make decisions on behalf of those they represent, but not at their behest. This insight forms the core of Edmund Burke’s famed “Speech to the Electors of Bristol.” Voters, as Burke says, choose their MP. “But,” he adds, “when they have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament.”

If MPs constantly come back to the people, asking “but what do you think about x?” we are meant to find ourselves ever so tempted to respond, “you have one job; please go and do it now.” This is why UK political parties have election manifestos where they set out a legislative program should they be victorious. Politicians are not supposed to keep picking at some electoral scab or another using direct democracy.

Consistent with Burke’s insight, Eatwell and Goodwin document how the Westminster system over a period of many centuries drained anything even vaguely populist out of the UK’s constitutional architecture. Populism then came roaring back in the form of four referendums, each more disruptive than the last (in 1975, 2011, 2014, and 2016).   

In jurisdictions where referendums are a long-standing part of the constitutional order—Australia, say, or (even more so) Switzerland—it is not unusual to have multiple polls on similar questions. New South Wales voted not to join the Australian federation the first time, so they had another vote where they voted yes. (Mind you, if they had voted yes the first time, Canberra would not exist. Sometimes things are not improved by having a second vote.) Referendums aren’t inviolable statements of the will of the people that must be followed always and forever—they are simply “part of the process.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with a second one, if it will form a productive part of the process.

However, it won’t in the UK. 2016 was a horrible disruption of the constitutional order. The original vote undermined representative democracy and the institution of Parliament, and coming on the back of Scotland’s acrimonious “Indyref” (2014) and the “AV” vote (2011), a second referendum would damage the reputation of Parliament again and cement the divisions the first created. 2016 was the first time in a long time RSPs didn’t get what they wanted: Now they simply have to deal. There is something to the argument (typically made by constitutional lawyers like Glasgow University’s Professor Adam Tomkins) that if Parliament can abolish the Corn Laws, abolish slavery and enact women’s suffrage, then it should be able to resolve the UK’s relationship with the EU.

However, lots of RSPs have caught the populist bug—or at least its fondness for direct democracy. Demands for a so-called “People’s Vote” in the UK (a second EU Referendum) are gaining ground, but a bill to bring it forward will likely fail in the Commons because MPs will be unable to agree the wording of the question on the ballot. If one does somehow sneak through there is a real chance of French-style civil disorder.

That said, many Leave supporters are quite sanguine about a second vote, especially if its language echoes the in/out 2016 Referendum. They’re offended by the idea, of course, because they think it too close in time to the previous poll and that it represents a classic case of the EU’s attitude towards votes that don’t go its way: “We’ll make you vote again until you give us the right answer.” Michael Gove, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign and now a member of Theresa May’s Government, is on record with this view, stating, “Leave would probably win a fresh referendum by an even larger margin but holding one would damage faith in democracy and rip apart the country’s social fabric.”

Whatever happens—currently anyone’s guess—Eatwell and Goodwin’s National Populism provides a reliable guide to the way we are now.

Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and was Senior Adviser to Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm. Follow her on Twitter @_HelenDale.

Filed under: Review


Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award in 1995, read law at Oxford (where she was at Brasenose) and was previously Senior Adviser to Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, will be published by Ligature in October this year.


  1. A C Harper says

    I’d argue that populism has always existed, in roughly the current amount, but it has been spoken over and ignored by the RSPs with their media stranglehold and networking. So what we are seeing at the moment is not a surge in populism but a reduction in the authority and respect for RSPs.

    Now the reasons for that are many. Perhaps the collapse of serious journalism into partisan celebrity gossip is a small part. Perhaps the increase in digital media (more news! more news!) has shown up the superficiality of previous held ‘RSP gospel’. Perhaps it is the degeneration of ‘The RSP Left’ into an increasingly cultish and desperate search for the next set of victims to patronise.

    If it is of any comfort(!) the RSPs will eventually regain their premier position, but only after the ‘populist’ changes have knocked back the worst excesses of the RSPs. Perhaps in a couple of generations… the pendulum swings but much more slowly than some would have you believe.

    • Debbie says

      Non-RSPs are followers and always will be. RSPs are leading, influencing, shaping, exploiting the masses. They know they will become the RSPs if they can co-opt the masses to overthrow the RSPs currently in power. It’s history’s never-ending cycle.

    • Heike says

      The concept is elegantly explained by the “Intellectual Yet Idiot” – IYI.

      “The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.”

  2. Peter from Oz says

    The RSPs are fighting each other. They always have and always will. Every so often one or the other faction uses non RSPs to help it beat the other gang.
    Brexit was a classic example. One old Etonian led a majority on the Non RSPs against another old Etonian.
    That is why the Telegraph and the Spectator, the reading of the upper echelons were firmly in the Leave camp.

  3. I have not read the book but the problem with the analysis is to place populism in opposition to powerful elites. I would suggest that populism is most commonly, perhaps almost always, a tool of powerful elites in order to attain and mantain power.

    The most recent example of this is UKIP and brexit geenrally which is certainly a populist movement but the leading figures of whom are all certainly part of the elite establishment. The leadership of the brexit campaign is even less representative and even more priviliged a sub-section of society than politics as a whole in Britain. The extent to which this example of populism is a cynical exercise in manipulation and the extent to which it is genuine is obviously open for debate but what is clear is that it will at most change which of the establish powerful elites is in power rather than giving any power to those outside the elite.

    The most salient thing about populism is that it appeals to the mass of people. This is its strengh and its weakness. The strengh is that it acts as a curb and limit on the excesses of the elite. The danger is that things are done simply because they are popular rather than that they are based on facts or are sensible.

    • Stoic Realist says

      Unfortunately in the current day and age leaving the decisions to the ‘elite’ is merely a choice of a different set of insensible and factually deficient decisions. Rather than reason or superstition we are left with warring delusional assertions.

  4. Burlats de Montaigne says

    “The danger is that things are done simply because they are popular rather than that they are based on facts or are sensible.”

    Since when has any government been constrained by the factual or sensible? What is galling to the political establishment is that they did not even see this wellspring of easily mobilised support for a fairly primitive type of political activism, devoted as they were to wonkish analysis of focus groups, swing votes and a misplaced trust in graphs and tables. They were completely blindsided. The ‘populist’ masses were not even on their political radar. They are simply reaping the rewards of their own hubris.

    • D.B. Cooper says

      @Burlats de Montaigne

      “Since when has any government been constrained by the factual or sensible?”

      An erudite display of ‘rhetoricism’ (yes, I made that word up), if ever there was one. Capital good work, Sir. Lastly, I should say that your question reminds me of a favored quote by George Orwell.

      We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.

  5. peterschaeffer says

    A few notes (hopefully relevant).

    1. The leader of the pro-Euro faction in the 2003 Swedish referendum (Anna Lindh) was murdered. Her killing appears to have had no effect on the outcome. It should be said that her murder was (apparently) unrelated to the referendum.

    2. At least one other (?) Blair cabinet minister came from a blue-collar background. That would be David Blunkett. Of course, he (David Blunkett) never worked in a factory (being blind from birth).

  6. Populism can’t lead to a good outcome, since it demands a villain, one that is within society, and comprised of fellow citizens.

    While they are called “elite”, the term is meaningless since it can be economic elite, intellectual elite, or just anyone who happens to be hated at the moment.

    • X. Citoyen says

      Unlike left-wing political parties, which never blame the rich, the one percenters, the multinationals, Wall Street, the Koch brothers, the basket of deplorables, the bitter clingers, the NRA, the Religious Right, the Kulaks, etc., etc. I know, I know, these non-persons are all guilty of crimes against The People, the proletariat, women, minorities, etc., etc., so they all deserve our collective hatred.

    • Heike says

      Elites do exist. They gather at Davos every year.

      If they had just taken care of us, the people, we wouldn’t have this problem. Elites used to operate with a sense of noblesse oblige where they could rule, but their responsibility was to ensure we had good lives, too. That has been replaced today by a sense of noblesse malice in which they actively despise us and wish us harm. The sentiment is perhaps best represented by the poem Die Lösung:

      After the uprising of the 17th of June
      The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
      Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
      Stating that the people
      Had forfeited the confidence of the government
      And could win it back only
      By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
      In that case for the government
      To dissolve the people
      And elect another?

    • Kent M. Gold says

      “Populism can’t lead to a good outcome…”

      Chip, you never fail to astonish me. Not only can you read Donald Trump’s, et al’s mind and see the hate and not-niceness therein; but you seem to be intimating you can foretell the future.

      Keep it weird. ?

  7. I agree with AJ. Populism is a tool of the elites. It never seems to flesh out as a positive for the early adherents. The populist ruler (who came right out of the elite brotherhood) becomes a tyrant dictator and is overthrown by saner RSPs whose arrogance and corruption leads to the next populist movement. Or as in the case of Cuba the dictator hangs on and passes dictatorial power on.

    I don’t trust populist movements… But even I get caught up in it occasionally when the RSPs become too much to stomach.

  8. Borat says

    My own non-complex theory which I have been holding for a few years is global macroeconomic forces. I.e. the relative decline on the West, and in particular Europe. I believe this is a function, at least for Southern and Western Europe. For Eastern Europe, I wouldn’t argue they’re populist per say, rather than simply very nationalist. And they’re just more socially conservative than Western Europe (more religious, more fundamental etc). They have very good economic growth.

    We can make this a little more complex and add in International Relations. I.e. the rise of strong man politics. We saw this in China. Xi Jinping is an Economic Nationalist. Russia, with Putin being a Orthodox Christian nationalist. India, with Modi being a Hindu Nationalist. Duete. Netanyahu. Tony Abbott even? I watched an interview with a former Obama IR advisor, he put it down to the invasion of Iraq / Afghanistan eroding away one of the pillars of Pax Americana, i.e. trust in America as a global guarantor. That is one argument, perhaps from the Liberalism IR frame. I put it more down again to relative decline (see, I’m more of the Realism school). Bannon, if you study him closely, which I have been doing for a number of years, is driven in large part by his views on China. A rising power. I highly recommend you watch his interview with Kyle Bass on Realvision (it’s paywalled, but it’s a worthwhile subscription). Easily his best interview to date. He has done some very interesting speeches. Most of his interviews are rather basic though, but this one he goes into high detail on his views on China. Bannon obviously was a key advisor to Trump, and has shaped Trumps views on China. So again, relative decline, a rising power, global macroeconomics (trade) and global International Relations, gives way to the populist Trump.

    The difference is some populists have more motive, or more potential remedy than others. Trump for example, sitting in the US gov (which is a well oiled machine, with strong institutions, and immense geopolitical power / hard power), and with an actual motive (i.e. counter China) will fair better than some other populist who have less strong institutions, and who have less of a motive, and who have no real remedy to anything (except populism for the sake of populism almost). I.e. Greece with Alexis Tsipras. Tsipras didn’t achieve anything by his populism. Trump on the other hand is geopolitically challenging China, something many in IR have been arguing for 10+ years.

    Anyways, that is just my rambling on the subject.

  9. I think perhaps we are simply misunderstanding the purpose of Democracy. The issue with RSPs is that they think that they are better qualified to make the right decisions and that a system of government is all about making the right decisions. The truth of the matter is that good government is all about doing our best to avoid the worst of the wrong decisions and it turns out that universal democracy is a good solution for avoiding really bad ideas. The rise of populism is perhaps a natural feature of democracy doing its job and simply reflects the fact that the people who have been getting away with running things have been doing a very poor job of it and failing to properly observe the experiences of the wider electorate. This is because the people who get the job of running the country persistently believe their main role is to decide what to do and then do it when, in fact, their primary job is to avoid doing things that they shouldn’t,

    • @steve taylor
      well put “The truth of the matter is that good government is all about doing our best to avoid the worst of the wrong decisions”

      It’s exceedingly hard to incrementally make things even a little better for the masses at scale, however, it’s incredibly easy to make things much, much worse. Venezuela is a case in point. So the assertion that a voting democracy is a good hedge seems correct to me. It’s probably one of the better things about a functioning democracy, because there sure are some deficiencies.

  10. ga gamba says

    Thanks to Ms Dale for her review. I enjoyed the read.

    This insight forms the core of Edmund Burke’s famed “Speech to the Electors of Bristol.” Voters, as Burke says, choose their MP. “But,” he adds, “when they have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament.”

    I presume due to the article’s length and the need to avoid digressing too far, we’re not provided the context of Burke’s famed speech. It was a response to the Wilkites, a faction formed around the ideas of John Wilkes, a journalist, bon mot, accused pornographer, and Radical politician. We read the word ‘radical’ and understand it from our contemporary context, yet this was Wilkes’s radicalism. It may be that expediency rather than principle made him embrace the radical program adopted in 1771 by the Bill of Rights men, which called for shorter Parliaments, a wider franchise, and the abolition of aristocratic “pocket boroughs.” In 1771 he successfully exploited the judicial privileges of the city to prevent the arrest for breach of privilege of printers who reported parliamentary debates.

    And as a consequence London burned and thousands died? Well… no. It was radical insofar he challenged the privileges of the powerful and openly defied polite norms. The King loathed him and even threatened to abdicate in response to public fury when Wilkes was imprisoned.

    His life was a fascinating one, for example in 1776 he introduced a bill to Parliament for “a just and equal representation of the people”, anticipating the Great Reform Act by almost six decades, and included a few cock ups.

    In the American colonies he was widely admired and attained idol status. Boston’s Sons of Liberty, which counted amongst its members Samuel Adams and John Hancock, identified Wilkes with their cause; towns and babies, including, unfortunately, Lincoln’s assassin, were named for him; and his fights against government oppression helped inspire the American Bill of Rights.

    There’s a lot more to say about him, but I don’t have the time presently to offer anything than hyperlinks and a few excerpts to whet your curiosity.




    The publication of issue 45 of his weekly paper The North Briton in 1763 and the subsequent prosecutions would both define and redefine the liberty of the press and of the citizen in the English-speaking world. In Arthur Cash’s summary, “Many legal precedents would be set as a result of these events. Following the public outcry…general warrants would be outlawed. Indignation over the seizure of papers would lead to suits that established the rights of privacy that have been treasured in American and English law – and in the past decade whittled away. The right to sue the government for false arrest would be made far stronger and clearer than it had been”. General warrants were “the last vestige of absolute monarchical power, the last loophole in the constitution wherein the will of the monarch constituted the law.”

    …his campaigns launched a new popular Radical movement which, more than any of its predecessors, drew its strength from ordinary people rather than a narrow elite. Long before the universal franchise, the Wilkites’ influence on government came not from the corrupt pseudo-elections of the times but from the rowdy streets, taverns and coffee houses of Georgian Britain and America. The battle between Wilkes and the Establishment was a fight for the hearts and minds of the people, between submission to and contempt for the established order and its third-rate, self-seeking leadership. […]

    In New York as well as London, ‘45’ became a short-hand and a symbol for liberty itself.

    I can’t help but note the coincidence.

    History remembers men such as Burke, and rightly so, but we ought not neglect to recognise that populists such Wilkes, men much less well-known today, had a profound effect to the betterment of our lives too.

    Just because someone’s a populist doesn’t make one wrong or contemptible.

    • Thanks for a really great comment! And yes, I couldn’t include all of that history, but I did try to capture (as do the authors) the extent to which populism is a legitimate tradition in its own right.

    • D.B. Cooper says

      The ever erudite Ga Gamba… I would guess, you’re probably as close to an unpaid intern as Quillette has. But then, again, you never know – Lehman could be running a sweat-shop in the back. In any event, solid work as always Mr. Gamba!

      • ga gamba says

        @Helen and DB,

        Thanks for the feedback.

        It would a joy to be an intern here. Having the ability to edit my comments post submission to correct my formatting cock ups would be reward enough. I used to comment regularly at the Guardian, but the moderation there has become ever more heavy handed with fewer and fewer juicy subjects open to the BTL commentators. Those that are opened are often closed t after a short period when the writer is taking a bollocking. The Atlantic was another very good forum, but Goldberg that coward shut it down entirely. There are not many places remaining where a person may comment freely. Here, Areo, and… where else? Two other sites, Spiked and the Spectator, are committed to liberty, but Spiked uses Facebook posts, which fall under the platform’s barmy TOS, and too often my comments languish awaiting review at the Spectator.

        Though there are some who abuse the respect Ms Lehmann has for our community by posting vulgar comments and worse, to my knowledge she hasn’t come down on the offenders. Those comments are so jarringly different from the majority that they shame their writers.

        • D.B. Cooper says


          Goldberg that coward

          If I may be so presumptuous as to make one suggestion. Going forward, you might consider implementing, regardless of subject matter, the customary phrase, “Goldberg that coward” into all your future comments, writ large. Ideally, this would be included at the end of every comment, if not every paragraph, henceforth. Note that not only will your comments gain the benefit of speaking ‘truth-to-power’, which progressives love; it also has the advantage of being incontrovertibly true, which reasonable people love. The value-added (to your comments) would increase by an order of magnitude hitherto not yet seen. Frankly, I’m considering incorporating the practice myself.

          Also, my apologies if you’re less than enamored with the aforementioned nickname. For what’s it worth, the motivation behind it was born out of a small idiosyncrasy that sometimes accompanies a southern accent such as mine; by which I mean a phonetic handicap. For reasons that are likely tied to the ecology of my formative years (ecology of consequence, to turn a phrase), I have acquired – despite my unwillingness, nay my sincerest objections to do so – what seems to be an indefatigable inhibition for enunciating, intelligibly, even the most dreary of alliterative processions, e.g., GA GAmba.

          You would think my allergy to King’s English wouldn’t be a problem when typing; but, I happen to speak when I type, and since I already have a strong prior, I thought G-Squared would be of some use. If nothing else, it makes you sound like a rapper; which is nice if you’re in the market for a Kardashian or the like…

  11. Really interesting article; however, I object to the term RSP. I’d suggest so-called smart people. Or self-described smart people. Or people assumed to be smart based on possession of a piece of parchment. Yeah, that last one: PASBOPOP.

  12. Circuses and Bread ?? says

    People can be successful relative to the elites. But not within politics. Politics is all about gaining, preserving, and abusing power. Almost always those who are successful in politics are elites or the so called RSPs. This is why they gravitate to politics in the first place: it’s a rigged game that they control. The average person is simply not going to win at political three card Monte over time. The rational choice is not to play.

  13. W2class says

    Populism could be said to be an acknowledgement of the “the wisdom of the crowd”.

  14. All this fawning about the virtues of populism… replace “the elites/RSP” with “the bourgeoisie” and “the masses” with “the proletariat” and populism becomes Marxism…

    It’s just another form of identity politics… and the supposed appreciation populists have for democracy… yeah they use it to get into power and then burn the ladders behind them.

    Mention populist autocrats like Orbán, Salvini, Duterte and soon Bolsonaro and you might even hear the old trope “that’s not real populism!”

    The fact that you continually need to distinguish mainstream populism from its extreme version, fascism, proves the underlying problem…

    Just as socialism can be a precursor to its most extreme form, communism, so can populism plant to seeds for fascism… that’s what happened in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century!

    • Heike says

      Instead of pouring out butthurt at arguments that have been used against you, how about doing the one thing that has been proven to destroy populists for thousands of years?

      Address their concerns.

      Once robbed of their arguments, they collapse. Calling them fascists is, as the article indicates, a complete fabrication. Fascism is elitist to the core. You think Mussolini or Franco gave a crap what the people thought?

      It is telling that nobody has thought, “gosh, you know maybe the people are getting screwed and we need to take care of this.” There has been an incredible resistance to doing anything that the people want. The only ones who are so staunchly opposed to us are the very elites who created our problems in the first place.

      • Populism always has an argument, because populism is an argument against people, not ideas.

        So long as there is an unpopular group of people, populism will lay all the ills of society at their feet.

        We see it right here with Brexit and Trump, where they rail against the “elites”, yet the group who suffers the most from Brexit and Trump are…the ordinary people.

        • A C Harper says

          Arguably the group that suffered the most pre-Brexit and pre-Trump were… the ordinary people. Now perhaps Brexit and Trump aren’t the best solutions – but they seem to have put the wind up the elites.

          • In what way have the elites suffered under Trump?

            The elites got a massive tax cut, continued outsourcing of labor making their consumer baubles cheaper, and fewer regulatory fetters on their actions.

            Meanwhile, the poor saps who voted Trump are getting laid off.

  15. Farris says

    Hats off to Ms. Dale.

    An excellent analysis of the book and through explanation of populism. Populism is always present but often relegated to the back room as the electorate goes about their busy lives. The primary cause when populism arises to the forefront is when one or more issues the populace wants addressed are ignored. In the U.S. Trump rode the illegal immigration issue into the White House. The elites rather than responding with suggestions or moderate solutions chose to denigrate the middle class with terms like racist and deplorable. Granted that is somewhat of an over simplification but the thesis still holds. Once the middle class perceives the ruling elites are ineffectual, populism becomes their only resort.

    • Scotto says

      I would argue that itsi not so much an “an issue the populace wants addressed” but rather a popular fear that is unassuaged. Fear of untethered uncontrolled immigration has been a recurring theme in US history. Social change and reformation has often been the catalyst for its resurrection. The LGBTQ, #MeToo movements, coupled with significant flight from and doctinal conflict within mainline Protestant churches, the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church have created a crisis of belief within non-urban America. The usual response to this is to blame it on society’s abandonment of “traditional values”, with the conclusion that this has occurred because there are not enough “real Americans” anymore. The controversy over some NFL players refusal to stand for the national anthem was another log on the fire. This will only work itself out over time and we will be caught in the maelstrom until the new consensus is reached.

  16. Mechan says

    I am for one happy to hear that it is not just me that thinks David Cameron deserves a large part of the criticism that is tearing the fabric of UK’s grand liberal rep democracy. I can’t fathom how he was able to get away from leading the country he was elected to do as his job once the ballot was in regardless of the outcome. His swift departure set a terrible precedent and unfortunately those who are seeking another referendum are doing the same disservice to rep dem.
    Thanks for giving some proper perspective towards populism that is highly needed in this age of boogeymen terminology in the media.

    • A C Harper says

      My guess is that Cameron realised that there was no way to ‘spin’ the result of the referendum to suit the expectations of his dinner party guests, so he gave up. Theresa May stepped up to the task but her attempts to ‘square the circle’ are unravelling. Brexit is like Schrödinger’s Cat; the outcome could be flavours of both Leave and Remain, but only until until the box is finally opened.

  17. Alex said:

    “The fact that you continually need to distinguish mainstream populism from its extreme version, fascism, proves the underlying problem”

    Populism can exist in socialism, liberalism, fascism etc. So you’re wrong

  18. Great article. There is a dimension to analysis of elites, and RSPs in particular, that needs drawing out. It’s the empath-autist continuum. I see the main problem with RSPs is that they are increasingly specialists. Universities had a tradition in the humanities or liberal arts, of producing people with a wide understanding our culture and its past. Those areas are increasingly turning out blinkered ideologues.

    In our Western parliaments they are replacing people who have a prior life of active, day-to-day involvement over a wide range of the public sphere. These can be contrasted with the demagogues of fascism who draw on popular unrest to further their personal agendas.
    In the Anglosphere we’ve had three outstanding populist leaders in recent years: Abbott, Farage, and Trump. Each of these has a background distinct from the elite graduate to political assistant or party hack to politician path that has increasingly fed our parliaments.

    Academia has always been dominated by what was called Asperger’s syndrome, now folded into the autism spectrum – people who excelled in that environment, and formed it – excellent specialists, but with a terrible record for interpersonal conflict and an intense desire for conformity to a consensus. Understandably, they want to able to teach truths without someone in the next lecture theatre teaching the opposite with equal conviction. In politics we need people with experience in dealing with diverse opinion without needing to enforce conformity – the art of the deal.

  19. Great review and an interesting take on the situation.
    I’d like to add an addendum about the dynamics of representative democracy that often gets overlooked. About why it works (where it still does).

    In simple terms: it’s holistic. When we vote for a political party, we don’t (like it or not) vote on a single issue but on a complete package.
    Once elected, the government may be able to get away with one or two populist measures (meaning those that are popular on the face of it, but have negative side effects, usually economic – someone, typically the taxpayer, has to pay for it). In many cases these populist measures will be especially popular among the small group who benefit, whereas the costs are dispersed across the wider populace. With Brexit it’s more a case of the benefits being intangible (a sense of taking back control) whereas the costs are real (economic disruption).
    Adopt more than a couple of such measures and the cumulative economic downsides will see you voted out at the next election. Representative democracy, then, is a recipe for “sensible” government. It works well as long as the “sensible” (risk averse) course it the right one.
    The dynamics of government by referendum are obviously very different.

    Brexit is a classic case: it would never have been adopted by a governing party because they would be too terrified of taking the blame when the costs came in. That is one way of looking at what is happening right now – May, scared of the consequences of a hard Brexit, is trying to take the path-of-least-blame by reverting to Brexit-in-name-only. This is representative democracy in action.
    A braver politician might have fronted up after the referendum, told the electorate that Brexit was going to cost (raising a finger to Ireland over the hard border), and pledged to go ahead with it anyway because that was the people’s will. That would have been the Churchillian response. Perhaps they would have got away with it.
    Then again, Churchill was voted out as soon as the war ended.

    The problem for the populists, meanwhile, is that taking the reins of power doesn’t change any of this dynamic.

  20. Stephanie says

    Interesting article, thank you. Although I think it might be a little optimistic to say British people aren’t really concerned about immigration. Australia does it better than any other Western country so their admiration is unsurprising, but those of us here who interact with working class Brits fleeing the UK hear their complaints about their neighbourhoods being transformed. They love Australia because immigrants are better assimilated here. However, Australia is making mistakes as well: the influx of Muslim migrants is posing a growing problem in Melbourne and in their enclaves in Sydney. In a couple of decades, Australia may not be the immigration success story it is now.

    I meet a lot of Europeans fleeing migrant-overrun cities and towns. Where will people flee to if Australia becomes the same? Not to Canada and the US, which has the problem to an even greater degree. We should think hard about the future we’re condemning our children to.

  21. Robinson says

    “They were voting against unaccountable power”

    Wonderful. Thank you. Somebody finally gets it.

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