The difference? It’s simply a matter of skill – having the attention span to get to the end of a briefing note; an ability to negotiate corridors of power; enough understanding of reality to appreciate the labyrinthine difficulties of passing laws in modern, bipolar and democratic contexts.
Italy is, as always, ahead of the curve (in the worst possible direction). If the Romans created the first effective state apparatus – the Renaissance emerged from Florence, Mussolini invented fascism and, more recently, 1990s Silvio Berlusconi wrote the first populist playbook – once again the italy is a most depressing avant-garde.
The favorite of the next Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, is a populist. She is the archetype for the next iteration – those with populist characteristics (a constant ability to blame someone or something else for their own problems, effective use of social media, complete inability to find solutions or to govern) while combining them with a calmer attitude, more poisonous, more controlled, more electorally acceptable competence.
What we have here is populism 2.0. Where will it take us?
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First, we should consider the political effects of Meloni, DeSantis, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and the Thatcher-lite Truss. Large-scale changes in enshrined Western constitutions? Nobody ruled it out. Respect for rights and freedom of expression? Under the banner of threats posed by “awakening” and “cancellation culture,” this needs to be reconsidered. They say the “LGBTQ+ lobby” poses a threat to the traditional family unit. Truss attacks the independence of the Bank of England; Meloni the parliamentary democracy of Italy. None have the inability to fail.
Second, economically, there are ramifications. Until now, there has been no economy of populism. Populism was a counter-movement. In power, out of breath from the toxic gases of the nihilistic opposition, populism is traditionally asphyxiated.
This second wave, however, seems to have advanced the cause. Reciting a playbook from the late 1980s, Truss epitomizes this shift towards low taxes and a weakened state, alongside a blatant disregard for budget cuts and the necessary sacrifices that come with it. It seems naive and strangely deja vu.
Higher debt-to-GDP ratios and increasingly reluctant attitudes to key economic structural reforms, the kind where there are guaranteed to be short-term losers, are near certainties. But isn’t that politics? Evaluate priorities and allow those affected by policy change to address them with a mix of nationalistic sleight of hand and blind optimism. As Bismarck said, effective politics is “the art of the possible”. Such realism does not suit a populist.
A friend said today’s UK has all the symptoms of Bettino Craxi’s 1980s Italy. Today’s populists embody optimism, promising everything to everyone, without that critical element of which Bismarck was so clear – the crusty reality of compromise.
In South Africa, a candidate for Populist 2.0 is Paul Mashatile. No one has a clear idea of what they think of economic policy; on what to do or not to do. He bides his time slyly between various ANC gut camps, keeping his cards hidden. Surely the post-Ramaphosa smart money is on him? A populist, but potentially far more effective than his older predecessor, who spent his time on ever-expanding families and firepools.
Where to go from here? The ludicrous spectacle of vapid political and economic debates of the 2010s, ending catastrophically in a global pandemic and war in Europe, may be about to shift gears. Rather, a more deliberate and competent attack on the workings of the state, the levers of democracy, the essential gravity of the market economy.
We can hardly wait to see the result. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly newspaper Daily Maverick 168, which is available nationwide for R25.