Opinion | 2023 could be the year that exposes populism for the sham that it is


It’s hard not to be fixated on the drama unfolding in the House of Representatives, where the Republican Party is having a nervous breakdown in full public view. This crisis is entirely of the party’s own making. For decades it has whipped its base into a righteous fury by promising radical policies that offer emotional satisfaction to their hardline constituents — from rolling back Medicare and Social Security to defaulting on the national debt to eliminating whole government agencies. But because these policies are totally unworkable, they never happen.

The lesson that the base has internalized is that cowardly moderates were constantly betraying it. The solution now is to maintain a permanent vise grip on the House speaker, ensuring that he or she will always do what the hardliners want. This is, as many have noted, a recipe for permanent blackmail and constant chaos.

The Republican Party’s troubles are severe. Newt Gingrich told Axios that the party is in its worse shape in almost six decades. But it is not alone. In many countries around the world, populists are flailing.

Look at Britain, where Brexit — perhaps the ultimate 21st-century populist cause — has caused havoc within the Conservative Party, which used to be described as the world’s oldest and most successful political party. Britain has had five prime ministers in the six years since 2016; the prior five prime ministers spanned more than 30 years. The self-defeating decision to exit its largest market, the European Union, continues to depress the country’s economic prospects, and it remains the weakest of the Group of Seven economies. In the Group of 20, only Russia is projected to do worse than Britain in the near future.

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The story is similar in South America. Even though that continent has been swept up in populism from both the right and left, neither version is doing very well. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro lost his bid for reelection, but the winner, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will also find it hard to implement some of his most radical promises. In Chile, left-wing populists coalesced around a plan to completely redo the country’s constitution, putting forward a new one that even many left-of-center politicians regarded as extreme and unworkable. In the ensuing referendum, 86 percent of Chileans turned out, rejecting the new constitution by a whopping 62 percent.

On the other side of the globe, in Australia, right-wing politicians had embraced Trump-style policies and rhetoric. Under Prime Minister Scott Morrison, they spoke a language that mirrored the grievance politics of older, White voters and scared the country about the dangers of immigration, crime and “African gangs” who were supposedly marauding through Victoria. But Morrison bungled the covid-19 pandemic and had little success with the economy. In the recent elections, Australia’s conservatives suffered their worst loss ever, and the even more extreme United Australia and One Nation Parties did poorly as well. The new Labor prime minister enjoys an extraordinarily high approval rating.

Why is this happening? Populism thrives as an opposition movement. It denounces the establishment, encourages fears and conspiracy theories about nefarious ruling elites, and promises emotional responses rather than actual programs (build a wall, ban immigration, stop trade). But once in government, the shallowness of its policy proposals is exposed, and its leaders can’t blame others as easily. Meanwhile, if non-populist forces are sensible and actually get things done, they defang some of the populist right.

Look at the United States, where President Biden’s moderate style, serious demeanor and practical policymaking have given him large legislative accomplishments without triggering a massive electoral backlash. Now, he does benefit by being an old, White man. Had Barack Obama enacted the same policies, I have a feeling we would be hearing much more talk of Obama’s dangerous socialism and un-American policies, complete with racial innuendos.

The poster child for populism has always been Argentina. Juan Perón and his even more charismatic wife, Eva, built a powerful mass movement that attacked the elites and promised to become the voice of the people. In fact, they destroyed Argentina’s economy. What had once been one of the world’s wealthiest countries in the 1910s was, only a few decades later, an economic basket case. Ever since, Argentine populists have promised voters the moon, run up staggering debts, and then routinely defaulted. But now things have soured for them — prompting the Economist to observe that Argentina’s populist movement “is at its lowest ebb.” “Peronism is obviously the main culprit for the situation of Argentina,” former president Eduardo Duhalde told the magazine. “Today we’re in our worst moment.”

These trends are not permanent. The world’s complicated problems will always allow for someone who proposes answers that are simple, seductive and wrong. But let us hope that 2023 will see populism exposed for the sham that it is.

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