How Covid is exposing populism - RSA

How Covid is exposing populism


  • Institutional reform
  • Leadership

One of the conclusions of 2020 has to be that you can’t emote your way out of a pandemic.

This may seem obvious. But this hasn’t stopped some governments trying.

The countries that have responded successfully to Covid-19 – such as Taiwan, New Zealand, South Korea and Germany - have combined preparedness, consistency, coordination, and community.

These qualities are the opposite of today’s dominant form of politics: populism. Populism has been tested to its limits and beyond by Covid. It’s failed this test.

Why? It’s not just about bad decisions. Because the way that populists govern – focused on the leader, impulsive, undermining other parts of the government and state, spreading blame – cannot adapt to deal with a problem like Covid.  

Populist politics

What is populism? It’s not just being popular. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern won a landslide re-election for her deft handling of the crisis, standing in contrast to populism.

Populism is driven by seeing a ‘pure’ people against corrupt elites. It suggest a ‘general will’ against a political system that serves elite interests. It is also ideologically ‘thin’. (One reason I think Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was incorrectly labelled populist, it had very deep ideological roots.)

In right-wing versions of populism, these ‘elites’ are normally in cahoots with some ‘other’ group or interest. The ‘others’ can be migrants, ‘foreign’ institutions, criminals, free-riders or welfare cheats, or some supposedly insidious ideology. It’s easy to see how right-wing populism can quickly become conspiracy theory, leading to things like QAnon.

The left-wing version tends to focus on the interests of the wealthy or international capitalism.

Of course, the irony is that the populist leaders tend to be self-interested elites themselves. They bend political institutions to benefit their own interests and pockets (and those of their friends). This is why populism has tended to contain deep paradoxes and contradictions.

We’ve seen many successful examples of forms of populism in the past decade: India, Poland, Hungary, the UK, the US and Brazil (to name a few). Right-wing populism has tended to be more successful than left-wing populism.

The politics of populism are clear. But is there an identifiable form of governance that goes with populism? I believe there is.

How populists govern

Much has been written, with a great deal of force, about how democracy dies, is in twilight or ends. This usually refers to the gradual weakening of liberal democratic institutions, particularly in the West.

There is a great deal to be concerned about here. Legal and media independence, human rights, and institutional checks and balances have often been weakened alongside loosening international cooperation. (See Donald Trump’s defunding of the World Health Organisation as a case in point.) Norms of mutual respect for those with whom we disagree have weakened as has co-operation between political parties, ideologies and perspectives.

But beyond these more existential questions of democracy, there’s also a style of day-to-day populist governance that has emerged. It has some distinct features:

      • Leader-centricity with governmental authority channelled through direct communication links between the strongman leader and ‘the people’.

        Part of this method is a tendency to rally public support by identifying opponents as ‘enemies of the people’.

      • Decision-making driven by impulse, moment and mood. meaning continuity is often hard to identify beyond a small number of defining themes (think ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘Make America Great Again’).

        This means policymaking becomes very short-term and prone to sudden change and u-turns because it’s designed to respond to the mood of the moment rather than longer-term strategic change.

        This also means that evidence and expertise can both be embraced and dismissed as is convenient to the moment.

      • A tendency to seek the neutralisation or elimination of checks and balances from other institutions.

        This is one reason why 50% of populist Governments have re-written or amended their country’s constitutions.

      • Spreading responsibility to spread blame. This often involves giving responsibility without the authority or resources needed to succeed.

        Again, think about Trump attempting to focus public and media attention on the state level rather than Federal response to Covid.

        Co-ordination between governance institutions is weak as this takes long-term persistence; power can be spread out but pulled back suddenly making trust between institutions difficult.

This is how populists govern. They tried to deal with Covid-19 using these techniques. They failed. A pandemic can’t be played with the rules of the ‘normal’ political game.

How populists govern has let them down during Covid

How has the way populists govern failed them in this crisis?

Facing a problem this big, leaders don’t have the range and capacity to determine the best response alone.

Real strength comes from relying on others and through humility. Actually strong leaders know their role is to make decisions deeply invested in the right expertise and then be consistent communicators, clear about the role we all have to play in managing through the pandemic as best we can.

We have seen this humble leadership in Germany, Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand. The other things we see in those countries is that countervailing institutions are critical in supporting the right responses.

For example, at the moment we are seeing Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham pushing back on the government on accepting Tier 3 restrictions without greater support. This is the sort of push and pull that makes better policy.

In Taiwan, there has been a sharing of public health messaging through a variety of voices (including comedians), open tech innovation, and democratic dialogue.

Pandemic governance relies on these mechanisms for responsivity and effectiveness. The countries cited above have relied on strong co-ordination across layers of governance (government and state).

Responsibility has been shared but agency and resources have been shared also. Trust through collaboration and consistency has been critical.

Dealing successfully with Covid-19 is a team effort, with every part of the government and the state working together. Populists just can’t stop making it all about them.

It’s not just been about a few bad decisions. The way populists govern makes it impossible for them to deal with a problem like Covid. It’s a problem that political distractions and press leaks just can’t camouflage. A problem that you can’t just wish away with charisma.

This inevitable failure has ultimately been a key factor is loss of life.

A turning point?

Covid has shown populism’s weaknesses as an approach to governance. That is likely to lead to a wider questioning among citizens of this style of politics.

Donald Trump is in deep trouble in the US with the election less than three weeks away. Election predictions are for people far braver than I but the sense at the beginning of the year was that the Democrats had an uphill battle. Covid has revealed Trump’s weaknesses as a President.

In recent years populist politics has proven to be an energiser and motivator. Political energy can conceal governing weakness in normal times whatever they may be. We are no longer in normal times. And nor will we be for quite some time.

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