There are logical steps taken when solving any problem, from the smallest household infraction to the largest government misstep. Firstly, to identify the problem itself. Secondly, to pinpoint the causes. Thirdly, to tackle the problem head on. And finally, to eradicate the causes, with the goal that the problem does not arise again.
The longer spent on the first two identifying stages means you risk inaction, and therefore when it comes to tackling the problem and eradicating the causes, the challenge is greater than when you first started. Yet to rush the first two stages is to risk misidentification, and the possibility that the action will itself prove ineffective.
This is the conundrum we find ourselves in, in a populist era. Since 2016, when it can really be said that populism re-entered the mainstream, political scientists, theorists and commentators have been tossing and turning over the proper definition of populism and its malleability and misuse as a political term. Similarly, the argument over its root cause has led to ideological splits on both left and right.
Despite the ferocity of these arguments, there seems to be little political will to actually tackle either the causes or the populist problem itself. In the UK, we seem to have simply acknowledged Brexit as a populist victory, yet we proceed to push for an exit of the European Union to a firm deadline, with no regard for the complexity of the procedure nor the impact on the UK in the aftermath. In the US, the left tears itself apart over ‘identity politics’, and only rallies around calls for impeachment. In this climate, an active initiative such as the Citizen’s Economic Council is not only necessary, but a breath of fresh air.
Within the deluge of diagnoses of populism, there has emerged a narrative about emotion – that people are angry, scared, frustrated. As Jan-Werner Muller has rightly pointed out, an excess focus on emotion shifts the debate to social psychology, and away from reasoning. It is no use to attempt to simply pacify this discontent. So often, to pacify is to placate, and by extension, to lend legitimacy to the emotion and not the cause. For example, we know from research conducted by Ipsos Mori that immigration was the number one issue in the Brexit debate. We also know that the areas that voted most overwhelmingly to Leave correlate with areas of the lowest immigration – and the reverse also holds true. We know that populists such as Nigel Farage took the aftermath of a financial crash, a decade of austerity measures and the loss of community caused partly by globalization, deindustrialization and a whole host of social and cultural changes, and blamed it on the European Union, and on immigrants. When David Cameron attempted to pacify these concerns by calling a referendum, he gave power to the populist narrative without addressing the reasons why this narrative was so compelling.
Whilst these narratives and emotions will not always be logical, there will be reasoning behind them. Rather than dismissing these genuine fears and concerns, we must remember it is a basic democratic duty to engage in this reasoning. This talk of public engagement echoes Claudia Chwalisz’s argument in her 2015 pamphlet ‘The Populist Signal’. She found that citizens were not only concerned with the performance of politics, but the processes of it. Time and time again, this theme of political involvement crops up when talking about populism – the idea that current citizens feel disengaged and disempowered by our existing political structures.
It is this that the Citizens Economic Council seeks to change. The inability to engage with economic issues due to ‘confusing jargon’ is rightly recognized by the RSA. By engaging citizens in a form of ‘jury service’, the RSA have stripped back the idea that you need to be an economic expert to talk about economic impact. Framing it as public service reinforces the idea that, much like the law, the economy is complex but crucially, is also there to serve the people. The rejection of ‘experts’ and ‘facts’, as seen in populist movements, can be seen as a logical extension of a frustration with a top heavy, technocratic democracy. We can see this frustration not only in contemporary populism, but in warnings signs over the last two decades: of declining voter turnout, a continued loss of trust in politicians, and the apathy felt by many when it comes to political engagement.
Whilst those of us who cherish liberal democracy rightly fear populism, the correct solution is not to desperately defend the status quo. It is important to defend facts and evidence and the role of experts, yes. The rise of digital politics and social media means the preservation of truth is both more difficult and yet more vital than ever before. Yet going forwards, we must also defend the legitimacy of lived experience. The Citizens Economic Council rightly states that a failing of neoclassical economics is its inability to account for and respond to unique and lived experiences. National-level aggregate data showing growth is one thing, but when the recovery from the 2008 crash has been concentrated almost exclusively in London and the South East, it is important that we dig below the surface to understand what is going on in people’s lives up ad down the country. Practical inclusion of citizens in discussion and decision making would not only empower citizens to be heard, but also strengthen the legitimacy of economic decision making. Most importantly this participatory style of policymaking builds trust back up in our systems, institutions and government.
The Citizens Economic Council has demonstrated the practice of both maintaining facts and evidence based research, and a commitment to practical inclusion. However, this is but one small step in a long journey to breaking down the hierarchical and alienating technocracy of yesteryear, and attempting to form a new, citizen focused system.
Megan Corton Scott works for a Labour Member of the European Parliament, and focuses on policy issues relating to Brexit and women’s rights.