The case for progressive populism

With Donald Trump’s successful campaign to win the US presidency and Britain’s decision to ‘Brexit’ from Europe, we’ve suddenly begun to hear a lot of the word ‘populism’ in the political discourse. It’s used as a swear word, yet progressive figures such as Bernie Sanders and Bill Shorten have also been described as populists.

So what is populism? A lot of people think populism is about seeking popularity but this is not the case. It actually it comes from the Latin word Populus which means The People. It’s a slippery term but most research has concluded that it‘s a political philosophy based on the common good of ordinary people. And populism counter-poses the interests of ordinary people to the power of an elite. Just who constitutes the people and the elite differs between right and left.

Historically, the original populists were members of the US Peoples Party which was formed in the late 19th century by Kansas farmers and an early workers' organization. They developed policies against monopolistic railroads and greedy banks and in favour of progressive income tax and expansion of public controls. (It’s worth noting, as an aside, the US Peoples Party was something of a model to the Australian Labor Party, in the 1890s, and there were early proposals to call the new party the Peoples' Party, rather than the Labor Party).

People like Trump can be populists, because they claim to represent the interests of the American people against an elite of small-L liberals. In fact like most right wing populists they define The People to exclude one part of the people: usually a marginalised racial or ethnic minority.

But there is another version of populism which genuinely puts interest of the ordinary people first., And that means all of the people, including minorities and migrants. This was represented by Bernie Sanders who fought for (and nearly won) the Democrats’ nomination for US president. For the first time in living memory a serious contender for the US presidency attacked the power of the US business elite. Bernie Sanders damned ‘the One Per Cent’ of super-rich people who had benefitted enormously from the globalised economy while others struggled to survive. Bernie Sanders emphasised that the common good of the vast majority of Americans outweighed the interest of the tiny wealthy elite.

Similarly, in the last British election, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn framed his campaign in progressive populist terms. He described the campaign as a battle of ‘the establishment versus the people’ and promised to overturn ‘a rigged system’ that favoured the rich and powerful. Under him, he said, Labour would not be part of the ‘cosy club’ whose members think it is natural for Britain to be ‘governed by a ruling elite, the City and the tax dodgers’.

This is the kind of progressive populism which I support in my book Populism Now!

A significant part of the book analyses the failures of neoliberalism which I believe are the force which drives the emergence of both right- and left-wing populism. These failures are making many people angry. And angry people look for someone to blame -- and some blame migrants and minorities. But migrants and minorities are not to blame. Rather, the responsibility lies in economic policies which are designed to benefit a corporate elite.

So, In Populism Now! my intention is to reclaim populism by fostering a progressive version of it. A progressive version of it puts the common and shared interests of all Australians first, regardless of gender, race, age and so on. It’s a way of unifying an often-fragmented progressive spectrum.

All of this is relevant to defeating conservatism in Australia. In Labor’s 2016 federal election campaign we suddenly found out that Australians have a taste for progressive populism. Labor hammered themes of inequality, tax avoidance by the rich, and attacked the banks. Bill Shorten broke with Labor’s previous blind support for privatisation, in particular he opposed privatisation of services like disability services. The result was a stunning surge in support which nearly toppled Turnbull government.

On this basis, I believe progressive version of populism has a big future in Australia.