Smart Populism Is More Dangerous Than We Think

Populism is becoming more and more diverse. Long gone are the days when it was a domain of foul-mouthed plebeian old codgers giving voice to popular opinion. A new variety of this political perennial is trying to win our attention.

In our post-truth era, sated consumers are growing more and more fond of entertainers. We have no more capacity to think, evaluate and scrutinize. Simpleness, a solution in two clauses, attracting attention and moving on quickly – that is what we want. Thus, traditional doctors become replaced by psychosomatic doctors, psychologists by motivation speakers, writers by producers of superficially appealing clichés – and regular populists are replaced by populists 2.0, i.e. by smart populists.

Smart populists do not rival the traditional ones. They focus their attention on a different, more educated group of voters. Voters who will not settle for “it’s all EU’s fault” but who want to know “why it’s all EU’s fault”. Smart populists’ fans are people craving interpretations – but only in the context of the quick, emotional and superficial post-truth era. They are not interested in contradicting facts, in visions that sometimes get fulfilled and sometimes do not, i.e. they are not interested in a complex reality. Stuffing their faces with pre-election goulash (pork barrel) is not enough. Smart populists’ fans also need interpretations that that will on one hand justify their latent xenophobia and/or lack of success in their lives, and that will on the other hand help them not sound really dumb or openly racist, as they do not want to make fools of themselves in front of people they know.

Smart populists respond to this demand with producing theories that are complex enough to be taken seriously by the fans and at the same time simple enough for the fans to understand and accept them as an explanation. Thus they ridicule the way ordinary, complex, erring, “harmful” politicians work. The skilful ones will make use of any suitable banality – for example the Pareto’s Principle.

In the Czech Republic, smart-populism career seems to appeal mainly to aging non-political experts, who have become famous through popularizing their field in the media and have the right psychological breeding ground inside them. We would not believe a successful greengrocer. But a political scientist? An economist? A geologist? A doctor?

The psychological breeding ground consists of a mixture of personal frustration, professional failures, lack of fame and fading energy, symptoms of late midlife, typical age of the new smart populists. They project the symptoms to the world they live in. When interviewed in the media, they cast collages of associations of changeable intellectual value and pass them off as polymathic knowledge. And so we learn that Barbarians are at the gate of Rome, what it has to do with human brain, how Bata would sort it all out, what Aquinas would say and why Muslims are sexual deviants. As a result, you get not the usual racism but a parlour, justified racism.

The world is not troubled more than it was 30, 50 or 100 ago. It is just the people spreading the new apocalypse growing old, experiencing failures in life and unable to find sense of their living, blaming it all on this world. In this, they are just like their fans who are not primarily interested in jihadists’ mentality but why their own lives are not as easy as they would wish and who is to blame.

Smart populism appeals to formally educated voters, who crave to understand the world and are psychologically hungry to find out why their uncultivated souls make them feel uncomfortable and insecure. For this reason, smart-populism is not for Sladek fans who settled for shouting at demonstrations but for the middle-class people. Not only nobody in current politics appeals to this group, but the most important decision makers come from this group. Thus smart populism is not dangerous in what it say but in who it appeals to.

 

Dalibor Špok

Dalibor Špok

Psychologist