The failures of populist leaders in the United States, Brazil, and the United Kingdom to control the outbreak of the COVID 19 plague stand out against successes of some Western European countries in reducing infection, hospitalization and death rates. Populists waited for too long before they closed their economies and then impatiently opened them too early. Even now, populist politicians continue to resist and deplore simple methods for mitigating the spread of the pandemic such as wearing masks and social distancing. The correlation between populism and mishandling of the corona crisis begs for an explanation.
Since the ancient Greeks Populism has been associated with political passions that demagogues manipulate. Passions can trump people’s own best interests. As La Bruyere put it back in the 17th century: “Nothing is easier for passion than to overcome reason, but the greatest triumph is to conquer one’s own interest.”
Liberal constitutions were designed or evolved to constrain political passions. This has been the purpose of the separation of powers, checks and balances, and institutions like the judiciary, the professional civil service, and the central bank. Populist governments must conduct interminable wars of attrition against these liberal institution. Populist governments strive for absolute powers that can unleash unconstrained passions.
Passions do not allow delays in their gratification, or choices between conflicting passions. Demagogue may enflame and manipulate passions, but they cannot control them. They would not even try. Some people must go out and party, now, and damn the consequences. Populist leaders cannot tell them to stay at home and wear masks in public. They know better than to even try.
Uncontrolled passions may lead to self-destruction or to taking extreme risks. Political passionate recklessness may pay off when populists are very lucky. They, and even some of their opponents, may come to believe they are invincible, smart, or empowered by their passions. But the downside of luck is that eventually it runs out.
The populist passions do not allow sacrifice of less important passions for higher interests. The passions demand it all, now. Populist leaders must promise immediate gratification, simple satisfying policies that have no undesirable effects.
When populist leaders cannot gratify, they distract to divert attention. Populist politicians are incapable of choosing between mass infections and deaths and economic contraction. So, they have attempted to divert attention by manipulating other fears. But racist and xenophobic bogies may not work as a diversion anymore, facing the real pandemic or the declining economy.
Populist passions distort beliefs to become their narrative representations. If populists hate or fear somebody, they come to believe in stories that they run pedophile rings from pizza shops or are alien lizards in disguise. Since the passions precede the stories that represent them, evidence cannot convince the passions.
Populists “truth” corresponds with the most deeply felt passions. “Fake” or inauthentic news contradict the stories the passions tell. Populist stories, especially the more preposterous ones, build group cohesion and identity, by distinguishing the populist “believers.” Social media echo chambers” reinforce collective beliefs and identity. Yet, as French philosopher Paul Veyne put it, “beliefs born of passion serve it badly.” Viruses do not care for the passions of their victims.
Most people have understood that it is impossible to lead a debauched life and yet have a strong loving family. It is impossible to deride and offend most of humanity and still be respected and project soft power. Some may even realize that it is impossible to improve public services for retirees in aging societies without young working immigrants. However, if the trade-offs that reality forces on us were deniable, we could live in an unreality TV show, where it is possible to have the cake, still eat it, and lose weight.
Populism attempts to live in a political “reality television” or in WRF wrestling matches that blur the distinction between spontaneous reality and scripted fiction. Trump emerged from the demi-monde of televised blurred fiction masquerading as reality, as a secular televangelist, an economic faith healer, as a one man reality- show.
Populist leaders stake a claim to the divine power of creating or destroying worlds by the word. The imposition of blatantly false, incoherent, but emotionally passionately consistent and satisfying narratives manifests their Godlike powers.
The world, however, preceded the word. By the time populists realize the indifference of the world to their passions and their narrative representations, it may be too late for their health, wealth, and the destiny of their nations.
Aviezer Tucker is a political theorist and philosopher. He is an Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University, where he works on post-totalitarianism and the philosophy of history. His most recent book, Democracy Against Liberalism, is available in the UK from July 31st 2020 and in the US from 25th September 2020.