The January 6 committee hearings in America have given a shocking illustration of the threat populism poses to democracy – and ultimately human life. The storming of the Capitol, the de facto headquarters of global democracy, by armed rioters acting on the ‘will of the people’ demonstrated the power of populism in the 21st century. Closer to home, Boris Johnson’s desperate attempts to cling to power before he was eventually ousted bore a strong resemblance to Trump’s refusal to admit democratic reality.
Populism has no uniform definition, but broadly speaking it seeks to divide society into two homogenous groups, typically – ‘the elites’ and ‘the people’. In theory, it can arise from either side of the political spectrum, but most contemporary forms are associated with right-wing, nationalist parties.
Populist politicians portray themselves as the true leaders of the ‘people’ and the only option for defeating a common enemy. This enemy can take several forms including the ‘political establishment,’ ‘liberal elites’ or ‘foreigners’. As a result, populism is inherently divisive – it seeks to pit people against each other – and simplistic, in that it proposes seemingly simple solutions to complex problems.
But the populist threat is growing. Leaders like Donald Trump, Marine le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro, Nigel Farage and Viktor Orbán – once fringe figures – have all become dominant political forces. Across Europe, the populist vote share has doubled over the last 20 years, with more than one in four now voting for authoritarian populist parties. Fundamental to the recent success of populism has been an ability to undermine democratic institutions and mobilise voters’ fears and resentments.
Hopes that the pandemic would lead to a rejection of expert-bashing populism now seem optimistic, particularly given the success of the far right in the recent French legislative elections. Moreover, inflation, the war in Ukraine and the continued fallout from Covid-19 point to a bleak economic picture over the coming years, which historically provides fertile ground for populists.
Given the threats and inevitability of populism, what can be done to safeguard and future-proof democracies from further damage? Commonly discussed solutions include introducing greater regulation of social media, forming coalitions of anti-populist parties and addressing, rather than ignoring, grievances around globalism and immigration.
But the relationship between the standard of universal education and populism deserves more consideration as a potential solution. In the 2016 Brexit vote, an individual’s level of education was the most accurate indicator of voting preference – stronger than social class, region, gender or ethnicity. Similarly in the US, the 2016 and 2020 elections saw education become a much greater dividing line than it had previously – with white voters without a degree twice as likely to vote for Trump than his Democratic opponents.
Education in the UK is still gripped by huge regional and class-based inequalities – particularly regarding access to quality secondary and tertiary education. On average, schools with higher concentrations of working-class pupils have lower funding, less qualified teachers and lower attainment. Furthermore, you are 40 per cent less likely to participate in higher education if you go to school in the North East or East Midlands compared with London.
Bridging these educational inequalities has always been key to the Labour party’s aims and identity – from the establishment of the Open University to New Labour’s expansion of university places. Labour’s historic focus upon addressing educational inequalities should be incentivised further by the role it can play in defeating populism.
Key to populist movements has been the ease at which unsubstantiated claims, distortions of the truth and outright lies have been successfully distributed and consumed by large swathes of voters. A notorious example was Vote Leave’s claim that leaving the EU would create an extra £350m a week for the NHS – revoked by Farage the day after the Brexit vote. A robust education should convey an ability to query different claims and sources, factoring in motive and evidence – improving resilience against misinformation and fake news.
Other products of a quality education should be an understanding of the importance of evidence-based decision-making, as well as an emphasis on complexity and the problems of over-simplification. These are essential skills in negating the often emotional and simplistic messaging of populists, whose campaigns are often light on practical policy but heavy on nominal slogans, such as ‘take back control’ or ‘make America great again’.
Another important focus of education is the promotion of diversity, in which a range of opinions, backgrounds and beliefs are tolerated. This counters populists, who are inherently anti-pluralistic, as they depend upon the notion that the ‘people’ are a single identity with a single set of problems.
Along with nuclear war and climate change, populism and authoritarianism pose a huge threat to global democracy. The most sustainable form of protection for democracies is to increase the number of people with access to a higher standard of education and the skills necessary to discern the dangers of populism.
As JF Kennedy put it: “Liberty without learning is always in peril and learning without liberty is always in vain.”
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