People-power vs. Populism

This OECD Forum 2019 background note was used to prepare speakers on the panel People-power vs. Populism, taking place at the OECD headquarters from 09:30-10:45 on Tuesday, 21 May. 
People-power vs. Populism

Stirred by the pace and magnitude of digitalisation and globalisation, political upheavals and disruption have become defining features of our political landscape. Polarisation and discontent towards the status quo make for turbulent and uncertain times. 

A set of economic and technological factors have created a fertile ground for such upheavals. The OECD finds that the middle class looks increasingly like a “boat in rocky waters”, with many struggling to maintain their lifestyles as their stagnating incomes fail to keep up with the rising costs of living. Witnessing rising inequality, and no longer able to assume that they will be better off than their parents, many have come to feel “left out and behind” and to resent the “out of touch” establishment and its “self-serving” elites. Technological developments, too, stand accused. The rise of social media has dramatically reshaped our information landscape, spelling the end of a shared sense of reality that served as the anchor of rational political debate

Globalisation and digitalisation have knit our economies and societies closer together than ever before but, along the way, they have paradoxically undermined the complex webs of trust relations that bind us together. In doing so, they have laid bare the distance between citizens’ aspirations and the capacity of their representatives to deliver on their promises. Distrustful of so-called “elites”, some increasingly vote for populist leaders who claim to represent the “general will”. By joining forces, others increasingly seek to take matters into their own hands. And while it may prove appealing to loathe the rising tide of populism, but simultaneously finding solace in leaderless revolutions and increasing manifestations of “people power”, these movements may well have more in common than we are willing to admit.  

Cambridge Dictionary’s decision to make populism “word of the year” in 2017 was accompanied by protests because the very definition of the term remains hotly contested. Some describe populism as a “thin ideology”, depicting politics as the expression of a fundamental antagonism between the people, understood as virtuous, and the corrupt elite, regarded as an impediment to the expression of the “general will”. Others, however, object to such characterisation.  They argue that populism only reveals a simple truth: that politics is intrinsically antagonistic. Nevertheless, most agree that populism exposes inconvenient truths; it might best be described as a drunken guest at democracy’s dinner party. It disrupts table manners and the tacit rules of sociability by shouting what everyone knew, but had politely preferred to keep quiet. By uncovering the hypocrisy and failures of the assembly, populism shatters the status quo and, in so doing, acts as a conduit for change. 

Springing from frustration with conventional top-down politics, leaderless revolutions and people powered movements, such as Occupy, the #MeToo movement or Climate Marches, share this willingness to expose shameful shortcomings, and thereby prompt what they regard as much-needed change. And while their membership may prove more inclusive they, too, often define themselves in opposition to perceived unfair treatment and/or a specific group (e.g. “We are the 99%”).  

Another significant commonality between these phenomena reside in their reliance on digital technologies. In the hands of populists, social media constitutes a powerful tool to circumvent traditional gatekeepers and reach their audiences. By encouraging virality, they may even constitute a natural fit for the simplified, emotional and often divisive rhetoric employed by populists. Far from being outdone, leaderless revolutions also find in social media a perfect channel to make their voice heard, and coalesce around a rallying cry. 

Inasmuch as a charismatic leader – posing as a “man on the street” – often comes to embody a populist movement, it is tempting to see leaderless movements’ lack of verticality as a defining feature. Yet, the alleged horizontality of such movements may well prove to be a fallacy. Indeed, some argue that far from connecting people with each other in a new egalitarian and horizontal way, the internet rather amplifies the dominance of elite, hierarchical and conservative groups, with digital evidence pointing to strong structural inequalities laying behind the hashtag. 

Leaderless revolutions and populism may ultimately differ most in their respective shortcomings. If populism can foster democracy by skimming excessive technocratic inclinations, its pretention to embody the sovereign people places it on a collision course with the liberal features of modern democracies. Checks and balances – designed to prevent excessive concentration of power and protect the fundamental rights of minorities from the tyranny of the masses – are bound to contradict the belief that the unified will of the people must always prevail. As for leaderless revolutions, they can play a key role in reshaping societal norms and ingraining new ideas into the political landscape. Yet, their lack of leadership and inability to structure a cohesive set of demands render them inadequate for complicated decision-making, and may condemn them to be absorbed by traditional parties, if they do not simply wither away.  

  • With the status quo looking increasingly unsustainable, how then are we to secure political change? The OECD, which promotes Better Policies for Better Lives, cannot but seek to answer this burning question. 
  • Is it appropriate – or even possible – to frown upon populism while lauding the transformative capacity of people-powered movements?
  • The highly simplistic rhetoric of populism appears ill-suited for an increasingly complex world, but so do expert and nuanced analyses in a digital age where emotional impulses trump facts and complex analysis. Is it possible to reconcile minds and hearts in confrontational information ecosystems?
  • Is there anything we can learn from the energy and quest for dignity of populist movements and leaderless revolutions, whilst recognising complexity and preserving hard-won democratic achievements?
  • Agency may be elusive, but complacency does not appear to be an option. Ultimately, can we still chart a path for lasting political change in a World in EMotion?

Related Topics

OECD Forum 2019 Reimagining Democracy People Power Squeezed Middle

Find out more about OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

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