Borrowing from the Populists’ Playbook

“Don’t get mad, get even.” Established political parties looking to take back control from populists should turn that maxim into a strategy. Stop complaining about the success of populists, and start stealing a few pages from their playbook. There are three I’d steal. The first is about winning elections. That depends on your connection with the voters, listening to them properly. That’s something elites seem to have forgotten how to do. Voters are skeptical of politicians who continue to promise prosperity. But to quote the head of the OECD, people are In the United States, 56% of households report declining incomes. At the same time, those workers are worried about technology stealing their jobs, or outsourcing taking their jobs abroad. And yet, it’s not technology that’s pushing incomes down. Actually, what workers are suffering from is a loss of bargaining power, and a set of government policies: welfare-state retrenchment, offshoring possibilities, income-tax hikes, and the growth of the financial sector, which is all serving to reduce their incomes. And it’s against that backdrop, that populism should come as no surprise. When people are becoming poorer, recycling neoliberal happy talk is just not going to work. Consider Brazil, where campaigning is in full swing for the general election in October. As always, elites are talking about economic growth. And yet, it seems a tone-deaf message in a country where 50 million Brazilians are still living below the poverty line. Growth hasn’t helped them yet. The populist candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, is proposing giving every Brazilian a gun to defend themselves. That might sound preposterous, but think about Brazilians who go to bed at night worrying about their safety and the safety of their children. For them, they can hear a politician who actually understands their greatest fear. A second lesson of populists’ success is to be intuitive and have simple messages, even if policy is complex. Because it’s slogans like which sound simplistic, but ring to the whole electorate. What are the sophisticated alternatives the established political parties are offering? Promises of economic growth are only going to be convincing when people are enjoying the benefits of that growth. We need simple, clear new messages. And finally – established political parties need to be bold. These are tough times, and people are yearning for transformation, not slight improvements. Don’t forget in1945, Winston Churchill, who’d won the Second World War for Britain, lost the election. He had no vision for the future. The winner, Clement Attlee, promised effectively a new social contract for Britons who were sick of the war and still living under rations. Attlee’s government went on to provide free universal health care, unemployment insurance, pensions, housing, and jobs. And they did all that when Britain’s debt was at 250% of GDP. The audacity of Attlee’s vision seems to have no modern-day parallel. And that, the populists are showing us, is the establishment’s biggest problem.

Maurice Vega

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