How to spot a populist 

A populist is a political leader or movement that seeks or obtains power by claiming to represent the interests of ordinary people and combat what they designate as the “elite” or the powerful. This is the ideational definition of populism I refer to in the prologue to the Populists handbook, which sees populism as a tactic that always overlays some other policies but doesn’t stand as a philosophy on its own. Here are a few key characteristics to look for, to identify Populists so you can make an informed decision when voting.

Key things to look for

Use Common Language

Populists often use simple and straightforward language to connect with ordinary people. They may use slogans and catchphrases that are easy to remember and repeat, and they often present themselves as being “of the people” and fighting for the common good. I explore this in more detail in the article ‘folksy man of the people posturing’ with examples as diverse as Clodius of the late Roman Empire, up to Ian Blackford and Nicola Sturgeon today. Examples of this are most obvious in their failure of tone: for example, listen here to Emma Harper’s painful attempt to use Scots vernacular.

Dubious claims to be Anti-Establishment

Another characteristic of populists is that they often portray themselves as being outside of the political establishment. They may present themselves as being the only ones who can truly represent the interests of the people, and they may attack other political parties or leaders as being corrupt or out of touch. They may also use anti-elitism as a central part of their message, portraying themselves as the only ones who can take on the powerful and the “elite.” – who they define.

However, the claims of being Anti-Establishment can feel faintly ridiculous when made by populists are in power. A classic example of this is Donald Trump: a literal white, cis, hetero billionaire from generational wealth and as President arguably the most powerful person in the world claiming to be ‘anti-establishment’ and so gaining the trust of some of the poorest voters.

Similarly, Nicola Sturgeon, who has been either at the top or second in command of the Scottish government for 15 years still protesting that the SNP are primarily a party of opposition rather than one in power. It’s hard to think of a more establishment figure in Scotland today. At least part of this is to avoid accountability. By framing themselves as the opposition they are both maintaining adversarial politics and absolving themselves of responsibility.

Fear and false urgency 

Populists use fear-mongering and scare tactics to create a sense of crisis and urgency, and they may exaggerate or fabricate threats to manipulate people’s emotions. A classic example if this is SNP MP Phillipa Whitford: in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum Dr Whitford claimed that England would not have an NHS as we know it in five years’ time due to privatisation. She said if Scots voted No, there would be no NHS north of the Border in ten years. 9 years on and the only people to have privatised NHS services are the SNP Scottish government as health was, and remains, fully devolved to Holyrood. They do this because people’s critical thinking skills lesson when they make emotional decisions quickly and under stress. They are looking to make people act on what Stoics call first impressions, or protopathia : first emotions, that are often wrong.

Pulling on Heartstrings 

Populists use emotion and appeal to nationalism or national identity to gain support. They use words like “us” and “them” to create a sense of division and exclusion, and they may use appeals to patriotism or national pride to manipulate people’s emotions, and they rely on emotional language. Indeed when the SNP were challenged on the Hyperbole of Phillipa Whitford’s NHS rhetoric: which had been delivered alongside a categorical lie about cancer operations in England – they defended it by framing it in emotional language about the NHS being ‘at the heart’ of their campaign to break up the UK. This is far from an isolated use: the SNP have introduced into their iconography a heart with Scotland written on it. The implication being that they are the party that ‘loves’ Scotland so if you vote for other parties you don’t.

How to counter populism when you find it 

Fact check, fact check, fact check! 

Populists’ appeals to voters are rarely based on facts: so use evidence and reason to challenge their rhetoric and arguments. This means fact-checking their claims and exposing any lies or distortions. A good methodology is the SIFT technique for dealing with misinformation.

Don’t get emotional

It also means refusing to be swayed by emotional appeals and fear-mongering, and instead focusing on the issues and the facts. When you hear a claim that elicits an emotional response, pause and question before acting. Just the action of pausing and questioning can help put their claims in perspective.

Defend Democratic institutions 

Another way to counter a populist is to support and defend democratic institutions and the rule of law. This means speaking out against any attempts to undermine these institutions and supporting organizations and groups that defend democratic values and the rights of all citizens. This also means protecting the values of liberal democracies from the tyranny of the majority, or plurality. I outline in separation anxiety why it’s important that democratically elected representatives can still be held in check by other branches of government. This is just as important whether the Supreme court is acting as a check on the SNP’s attempt to act beyond their powers with a referendum, or when the Supreme court is acting as a check on Boris Johnson’s attempt to act beyond his powers and prorogue parliament. Even if, no: *especially if* you find the result inconvenient it’s important to uphold the principle.

Support the Populist’s targets

Finally, it’s important to support and amplify the voices of those who are targeted by populists. This means standing up for marginalized and vulnerable groups, and using your own platforms and networks to give them a louder and more powerful voice.

In Summary

Populists are political leaders or movements that seek to serve themselves while claiming they represent the interests of ordinary people and combat the “elite.”

look out for

  • Forced common language.
  • Anti-establishment rhetoric
  • Fear and False Urgency
  • Emotional rhetoric 

And to counter them:

  • Use facts and reason.
  • Analysis, not emotion
  • Defend Democratic values 
  • Amplify their targets 
  • Don’t vote for them! 

Populists are often seeking to gain power by dividing populations and making democracy illiberal and subject to their manipulations: but if we recognise them and act against them we can minimise the threat they pose to liberal democracies, and create more politics of consensus.

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Published by Bingo Demagogue

Twitter - @BingoDemagogue

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