Positive Populism

A Little Populism Never Killed Nobody

Thinking of populism …

… associations pop up: the simple claims of the recent Brexit movement. Right-wing parties such as the French Front National or the German Alternative für Deutschland. The Hungarian President Victor Orban and not to forget US president Donald Trump – perhaps the incarnation of today’s populism.
Usually, populism – appealing to populus (lat.) – the people – is the instrument of the opposition. Why? Because populist rhetoric should be simple and it is considerably easier to be against than to be in favor of something.
What can be our response to these populist Anti-movements?

While simplicity might be the main strength of populism, it could at the same time be its greatest weakness.

Why is it difficult to fight populists?

Populism is appealing because of its emotional, concrete and simple messages. Usually, populist claims are not based on realistic political solutions, economic evaluations or ethical deliberations. Hence, it is hard – perhaps impossible – to challenge these with realistic political solutions, economic evaluations or ethical deliberations.
It seems to me that right now the main weapon against populism is to accuse the opponent of being populist. Subsequently, the opponent can claim that this accusation is proof of one’s position in the establishment. Again, this can be answered by accusing the opponent of populism. Fight against populism often takes place on a meta-level by debating whether a party’s or a person’s claims are populist. These debates can go on forever without ever speaking about actual concepts. Thus, they cannot be regarded as an effective solution. If neither a rational discourse nor meta-accusations are possible, does that imply that populism is unbeatable?
I don’t think it is. While simplicity might be the main strength of populism, it could at the same time be be its greatest weakness. Populist messages are appealing, emotional and sexy. But there is little behind them.

Why afraid of being a little populist?

Why don’t we respond to populism with its own strengths? Why are we afraid of fighting populism with the most evident weapon: Populism?

Let’s break down complex arguments into their emotional essence
Let’s not talk about values, but highlight the advantages for the individual
Let’s stop being reflected and become controversial and attention-seeking

It seems to me that reflected, deliberate people are those who are most afraid of using simple rhetoric. Perhaps, these people see something immoral about being populist and don’t want their complex thoughts broken down – or simply believe that it is not possible.
  1. Why ethical concerns? If you are convinced of your own opinion, you have all reasons to promote it in the most efficient way.
  2. Why not simple? Perhaps, this is just the price one must pay in order to be heard.
  3. Why not possible? It should always be possible to simplify opinions. If you don’t see a positive, emotional effect, you might want to question your complex thoughts in general.
Using populist rhetorics should not mean, however, to become populist. Do not end the political discourse, do not stop thinking and discussing political plans, do not end economic evaluations, do not cease ethical deliberations. We fight populism by breaking down our thoughts into simple, emotional statements. Nevertheless, we keep our reflections, we carry on discussing and question our convictions.
Let’s have two souls in your mind. One is deliberate, the other one is populist.

Let’s call it Positive Populism.
1. Positive Populism is For, not Against
2. Positive Populism is rhetoric: be publicly populist, internally deliberate
3. Positive Populism opposes populism, not politics or people

Let’s have the courage to be simple

… to break down our thoughts into simple arguments. This is how we can beat current populism: constructive thoughts broken down into populist claims. Confront populism with its own simplicity. Afterwards, you present your arguments, your plans, convictions. This is the point where proper populism will fail, because usually there is little behind it.
Just imagine, this could really be fun. Perhaps, it even helps ourselves to get away from our deliberate evaluations for one moment – and to just like our position. Not only being rationally convinced, but to love our position, to enjoy its benefits, wanting to shout it.
We live in a world where communication and sharing of messages has become incredibly easy. Let’s make use of it. Let’s stand up for our opinion in a way that our message is as heard as loudly as these of people shouting against it. Let’s be simple. Let’s be populist. Let’s be proud of it. Don’t let our future be dictated by populists without arguments. Let’s determine our future by becoming populist while having arguments.

written by Benedikt Kau.
Thanks to Hans-Christoph Schlüter and Mirko Moser-Abt for input and feedback.