Populism and the recourse to unreason

10th September 2018

Politicians of every stripe have held, and occasionally espoused, beliefs which many would consider irrational and unreasonable. These have included paranoid delusions, belief in conspiracy theories, adherence to new-age quackery and an interest in the paranormal and supernatural. This article considers why populism, by its very nature, may be a political tradition which is particularly prone to smuggling fringe and irrational beliefs into public discourse, thereby lending them legitimacy.
Populism draws upon the dichotomy between two opposing political identities: the “virtuous people” and the “corrupt elite” or “establishment”. Populist leaders and movements present themselves as channelling the desires and needs of the former, whilst breaking down or reclaiming the power or wealth monopolised by the latter. As a general observation, it is those politicians who demonstrate populist tendencies who most frequently espouse the beliefs which many of us would disregard as fringe, delusional or irrational.
Some examples are helpful to illustrate this point.
An obvious case is that of Donald Trump, included here as broadly populist due to his self-presentation as an “outsider”, his practice of creating a quasi-direct connection with his followers (through regular mass rallies and social media), and the anti-establishment tone of his electoral campaign, which featured such mantras as “drain the swamp”. Trump has publicly voiced a number of bizarre claims. To pick just a few, he endorsed the Obama “Birther” conspiracy theory, suggested that Ted Cruz’ father helped kill JFK, and has repeatedly referred to a hostile deep-state conspiring against him.
In Venezuela, the undeniably populist Hugo Chávez (President between 1999-2013) also exhibited behaviour which we might consider irrational. For example, he is reported to have left an empty seat in his cabinet meetings on the off-chance that he and his ministers might be visited by the ghost of Simón Bolívar, hero of South American independence. Chávez’ successor, Nicolás Maduro, has a similar attraction to the irrational, claiming that Chávez’ spirit visited him in the form of a bird while he prayed, blessing him and encouraging him to lead the country forward. Though these may seem like harmless quirks, they were woven into a wider tapestry of fantasy and paranoia. Both leaders have denounced the machinations of unsubstantiated “fascist” and “diabolical” forces who allegedly plot Venezuela’s downfall.
Why then do populism and the irrational enjoy such a close relationship?
Positioning him or herself as the outsider, the populist thrives on voicing opinions and concerns which other more mainstream politicians avoid or overlook. This may include proposing decisive shifts in policy, or expressing latent social grievances, but can extend to articulating extreme and irrational opinions. Conveying such beliefs may work in favour of the populist, reaffirming their position as the outsider. Alternatively, they may simply be disregarded as the inchoate spluttering of one who is unversed in the norms of political communication. Although publicly expressing unfounded and irrational beliefs may alienate some among the electorate, if the populist’s charisma and connection with “the people” is sufficiently strong, this is unlikely to cost them dearly.
Indeed, charisma and an ability to connect are useful tools in the repertoire of any politician. With this in mind, the populist tends to adopt a “man of the people” persona. Or, rather, the populist seeks to present his or herself as a “man for the people”; a conduit for the people and their demands. In establishing this connection, it is only to be expected that the populist should publicly pander to certain popular sentiments, including those considered taboo or fringe by the mainstream political class.
The convictions which a populist expresses may seem innocuous, such as some professed spiritual belief. However, they can be dangerous and destabilising, as in cases where populists give voice to fringe belief systems which blame or target particular subsets of society, or endorse violent action or human rights abuses. Moreover, besides simply pandering to public sentiments, it is often politically expedient for populists to stoke strong feelings among their followers. To that end, a foray into the irrational may prove to be useful in rallying public support and promoting a particular agenda.
It is worth recalling here that while populists purport to represent “the people”, the identity of this “people” is reliant on the exclusion of, and opposition to, the “elite”: although both “people” and “elite” are highly malleable concepts. Lending credence to unreasonable and fringe beliefs may therefore be useful for populists, as these beliefs can be adapted to fit within the confrontational dichotomy which pits “pure people” against the “corrupt elite”, thereby advancing the general populist narrative.
The smuggling of unreasonable beliefs – from the paranoid and delusional to the mystical and paranormal – into the realm of serious politics is not confined solely to those politicians branded “populist”. However, populist politicians may be more disposed to entertaining such beliefs, and stand more to gain from doing so, than non-populist politicians. Giving voice to beliefs that many consider irrational can reinforce the populist’s outsider status, their connection with the people, and make the narratives they spin ever more compelling.
In an era of division, disinformation, and disillusionment with establishment politics, it is important to be attuned to the populist recourse to unreason.