273 - Populism


If you were to look at the scatter graphs with their associated trend-lines in, say, source [5]. you would, I am sure, agree that the correlations are weak. That has not in any way deterred commentators from picking up on any trend as if it is a binary case, on or off, rather than some graded scale.  This is not good behaviour. One of the few where I thought the scatter allowed for a convincing comment was the one on press freedom, {5, P16, fig 8. r=-0.4]

A term that has risen to prominence, I have no hope of covering this well in the typical length of one of my pieces, However, I can set the scene and point you to places where you can explore facets of what it is that you find interesting about this.

What do we think populism is? Often it is characterised as Us against Them, where Us is the general, very ordinary population and Them is some elite group, The Us is by implication innocent, striving, virtuous and somehow downtrodden by Them, characterised as powerful, controlling and often by implication corrupt, self-serving, villainous. There is no need for populism to be left or right of the political spectrum, but it is often connected to an ideology that applies to the public en masse, what we might call a 'host ideology' 1. Necessarily, then, the elite section exhibits some sort of special interest. The populist has decided what constitutes the Us and the Them, but has no need to be specific. Do read [2] for clarity on this.

Top pic: Source 5, P16, Fig 8 Populism and the Change in Press Freedom. The left panel (scatter plot) shows the correlation between populism and change in press freedom (with r=-0.409, p<0.001). 

How do we identify populism?  Well, there's a tale. Not easily, since, like so much of social science, it is vague from the outset. Cue, at this point, the larger project that you might find by searching Team Populism [3] or the Global Populism Database [4]. That shows the result of examining in some detail the content of speeches from national leaders. The Guardian sank funds into this, which is unusual in several respects, not least that journalists and academics work on significantly different timescales. To see how populism is measured look here [7] for a description of how it is done. This last source goes some way to introducing a little rigour into the understanding. Effectively a speech is graded ('marked' in UK teacher-speak) in accord with criteria declared elsewhere. How you pick which speech to work through is a different issue, but what I read made sense to me; a famous speech (one therefore that had many reflections and reached a wide audience, even if it it was not representative of the speaker as a whole (Mrs May is such a candidate), plus some randomly chosen for a sort of base measure. length is an issue (both long enough and short enough, 1-3 thousand words).

Bush as populist [7]

 I suggest that it is probably not helpful to consider Bush’s speeches as populist, although they can certainly be considered examples of an antagonistic discourse. Bush’s discourse is not about rectifying past injustices suffered by the people at the hands of an oppressive elite. His cause is the defense against a common external enemy—in this case, the threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism—rather than revolution or systemic change. Nowhere in the speeches we examined does he call for radically reforming the political and economic system that governs liberal democracies and the United States. Bush has urged changing key constitutional rights and the provisions of international law in the fight against terrorism, but it is hard to imagine him ever claiming that these institutions are the product of a subversive Islamic cabal. Nor does he publicly demonize Muslims for supposedly undermining American values; instead, in the texts that we examined he reaffirms a pluralist notion of religious tolerance.  

Context: giving score (0-2) and std dev: 

Hugo Chavez   1.9,  0.25   

George Bush    1.2,  0.32

Vladimir Putin   0.4,  0.5

Tony Blair          0.3,  0.5

Populist parties and leaders are almost always present in every country, but they typically rise to prominence in moments of crisis and tend to be short-term, cyclical phenomena. If they achieve their goals, they often become routinized and lose their fervor; and if they fail to achieve their goals, they are removed from power by elitist or pluralist forces (and sometimes new populists). Even countries thought of as consistently populist, such as Argentina or Ecuador, often have non-populist interregnums. [7]

What are the consequences of populism?  These are several and not all are intuitively obvious. Source [5].

* Populism associates with a decrease in (income and tax) inequality. It is worth looking at the left side of this, since fiscal equality would generally be expected from the left; the evidence is that the non-populists are more successful, more progressive in fiscal policy. However, the same group succeeds relatively better at reducing market inequality (I've paraphrased, since I don't really know what that means, but it seems to included inequality of disposable income, which sounds like a good thing for Us)

* Populist leaders are weakly correlated with an increase in indirect taxation. While you would expect the right to do this whether populist or not, the surprise is that somehow this also occurs with the left-leaning populist. I repeat, the correlation is weak, r=0.184, though that is within the 'significant' range. To have an idea of the scale of this, A one standard deviation in the level of total average populism equates to an increase in direct taxation (as a percentage of GDP) of approximately 0.14 per cent.

* There is no observed correlation between the perceived control of corruption (nor any measure of political corruption) and the measure of populism. That may well be an indicator of the difficulty of measuring the indexes (indicies). For context, consider yet again the corruption implicit in the UK 2016 referendum. Whatever we now know, the activity still fails the current measures of corruption. So, while corruption may be one of the issues that brings populists to power, populists in power do not solve corruption.

* populism raises voter turnout. [Source 5, P12, Fig 5]:  r=0.208 counts as significant. Fig 5 shows group differences (bar graph with confidence bands) between non-populist and at least somewhat populist chief executives according to their ideological leaning (left- centre-right). 

All else equal, an increase in populist discourse by 1 unit leads to an increase in turnout by 4 percentage points. Note that this result remains robust even if we exclude highly populist cases like Chávez in Venezuela or Erdogan in Turkey. 

 • Populism tends to undermine electoral fairness. We see a negative association between populism and the quality of elections. [5] points out that this is widely supported by previous work, that populism in power skews subsequent elections, which I think means that wherever you are the next few elections are somehow not, in some sense, 'usual'. the size of the correlation: an increase in populist discourse by 1 leads to a significant decrease in electoral quality by 4 percentage points. So even if you can't put your finger on it, it is measurable as a trend. r=-0.381 in this case, so the scatter is markedly less.

 • Freedom of the press is reduced under a populist leader. Fig 8 [source [5], P16] applies and is shown at the top of this piece, r=-0.409, so significant enough to be a predictable result under a regime change. that does not say that non-populists cause no such decline, but virtually every populist does cause decline. This continues with length of regime, so th expression, if that is how you want to call  it, worsens as the rule continues. Ideology is irrelevant, here.



Populism is not new, but the latest incidence may last a long time. Source [8] applies and is readable.I am of the opinon that trhe changes that stem from social media and other knock-on effects of the internet will mean that populism will hit new highs and have no reason to be caused to retreat. We could so easily slip into Us and Them over many issues. Further, I think it will become easier to be labelled as Them in the climate we already see developing, in which fake news reverberates around the echo-chamber entirely undamped, which gives it greater life from the wiling repetition, while the sobering, dampening elements of truth are steadily harder to find and to hear, as they are drowned out. I can all to easily believe that the work required in testing any new meme for truth is going to become so much more difficult that, in trying to test a new something for worth (truth, viability, whatever positive) one actually becomes labelled as Them, simply for being sufficiently different. 

Populism can all too easily become one of those political labels we .learn to dread from history; hate the stranger, hate the independent thinker, down with the intellectuals, down with the bosses. yes, we certainly need systems for equalisation of society such as progressive taxation, but perhaps even more we need to trust that our society is itself just and fair —or fair enough, or close enough to your ideal of 'fair' that you find it acceptable—for when society is seen as unfair, revolution is not far away.

DJS 20190311

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2019/mar/09/dont-try-to-silence-populists-listen-to-them This is one of many pieces that the Guardian has prompted. On its own it may set you on on a browsing adventure.

[2] https://www.sas.upenn.edu/andrea-mitchell-center/cas-mudde-populism-twenty-first-century

[3] https://populism.byu.edu/    many publications, including [5]

[4] all I did here is link the search results. Hit the link to save yourself the typing!

[5] https://populism.byu.edu/App_Data/Publications/TP_Consequences_Memo.pdf

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/06/how-we-combed-leaders-speeches-to-gauge-populist-rise

[7] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=  You could read the whole thing, since it is well-written, but it is pp13-15 that explain how to quantify the measurement.

[8] https://theweek.com/articles/579018/brief-history-populism

1  Definition from Cas Mudde (which I continually read as Muddle) I define populism as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite,” and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people (Mudde 2004; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017). The core features of the populist ideology are monism and moralism: both “the people” and “the elite” are seen as sharing the same interests and values, while the main distinction between them is based on morals (i.e. “pure” versus “corrupt”). Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the whole people (Mueller 2016), while “the elite” represent “special interests.” Obviously, “the people” is a construct, which can be defined in many different ways (see Canovan 2005).

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