Jack Clayton discusses the populist approach to the Covid-19 crisis.
The populist right have enjoyed some success in recent years globally. Brexit is regarded a triumph for them, alongside Johnson’s historically big election victory, as is the Trump presidency, and in Europe Orban’s power grows in Hungary. Progressives often seem on the backfoot, having difficulty in countering powerful right-wing arguments centred around nostalgia and emotive politics, generally spearheaded by well-funded politicians and movements. Reasoning, and the use of facts or statistics against right-wing populists has appeared futile to persuade frustrated and disillusioned people who, reflexively, trust few in politics. Those who hold facts dearly, whether they are politicians or experts are derided as out of touch elitists.
Politicians like Johnson and Trump have presented themselves as voices of the people to vent their anger. Now we are in a crisis considered to be the worst in a generation, the populists are treating it like an extension of their political insurgency campaign, attacking the media and any critical voices. The difference is, doing it in a public health crisis, costs lives, and has more direct consequences.
An advantage of not being in power and portraying yourself as an outsider is being able to say things with little consequence. During the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election campaigns, vague slogans that appealed to more emotive arguments were more effective than details of policy. Trump’s presidential campaign used a similar strategy with broad slogans and ideas focused on immigration control. The fact that he has only achieved tax cuts and travel bans is unimportant because he still maintained much support driven by emotive politics. Covid-19 however, has derailed both Johnson and Trump. Although emotive support can be effective, it is also fragile. A crisis can expose the flaws in how a government is setup and focuses minds on policy decisions, past and present, on whether they improved or worsened preparedness for the crisis itself.
Unlike political campaigns, which even without populist politics can have empty promises, we are seeing that when governing in power, what Johnson and Trump say, and the decisions they make have real consequences. Johnson first favoured a herd immunity response to Covid-19 and later announced vague instructions to “stay alert” to adhere to his government’s laissez faire instincts, it had consequences. Trump first called Covid-19 a “Democrat hoax”, and has refused to send state governors sufficient funds, it had consequences. For all the talk of living in a so called “post-truth” political era, understandably, it begins to have some limits when people’s lives are at stake. Either the response improves, or people continue dying over a period of time, and considering the prime duty of government is to protect its people, this matters most in how well it is doing.
One would have hoped, regardless of political persuasion, that these populists would begin to more effectively tackle the pandemic, for the sake of people’s safety. Alarmingly however, they are incapable of doing so. Instead of treating Covid-19 as an emergency, to them, it is another populist campaign which involves vilifying the media when it does not lavishly praise them, spreading misinformation and decrying the existence of political opposition or scrutiny. Davison, the Bishop Auckland MP’s reaction to Starmer having a slot on a licence fee funded public service broadcaster, and Trump storming out a press conference reflect this. The crisis is unprecedented and undoubtedly difficult, but provoking a political atmosphere where criticising the party government is equivalent to the state is concerning. Even worse, the health minister Dorries retweeted a doctored video to negatively portray Starmer. At a time when misinformation can directly cost lives, spreading, and therefore encouraging it, is tactless to say the least. Johnson’s insistence that his “stay alert” instruction only requires “common sense” to understand, lacks credibility if his own minister cannot display some. But this is what happens when people in charge fail to appreciate that decisions in power have consequences. It is not the people in government who are paying the ultimate price, it is the vulnerable, and in the long-term, our democracies.
Jack Clayton is the secretary of the Young Fabian International Network.
He tweets at @claytonj944.