From Donald Trump to Julius Malema

Charles Simkins asks to what extent South African politics is populist


28 June 2016

Populism is a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people - Cas Mudde

From Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to Brexit, from Marine le Pen in France to Viktor Orban in Hungary, from Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, populism is a force in contemporary politics around the world. How are we to interpret this phenomenon?

1. Populism is hostile to liberal democracy. Shinawatra argued to his audience during the 2005 election:

The bundle of liberal democracy – rule of law, freedom of criticism, human rights, oversight by parliamentary opposition, checks and balances – had done little for them in the past .

Unlike Shinawatra, liberal democracy sees the aggregation of interests as being mediated by rules – the constitution and law – and institutions – political parties, the press, business and labour organization, civil society. Without rules and institutions, the will of the people cannot be expressed – indeed, it does not even exist. In the 1950s, Kenneth Arrow proved that individual preferences cannot simply be added into a social preference without violating at least one of four common sense assumptions:

- the social preference must not be the preference of an individual dictator 

- the social preference must rank choices completely 

- the social preference between x and y must depend only on individual preferences between x and y, and not irrelevant alternatives

- if every individual prefers a certain option to another, then so must the social preference .

A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly describes the United States as suffering from chaos syndrome – a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. Occasioned by a weakening of institutions and brokers – political parties, congressional leaders and committees – that have historically held politicians accountable to one another. Atomization and the disappearance of give and take politics are the result, creating the room for self-sufficient outsiders who do not need to care what other politicians think of them. Political wildcatting plays into public hostility to politicians and political processes, and anti-establishment nihilism creates a form of populism.

2. Symbolic construction of ‘the people’ and their enemies is at odds with the concept of citizens with equal political rights. Of course, in liberal democracies there are winners and losers as a result of political decisions. But the equal political rights of citizens are maintained and new forms of political action, from which no citizen is excluded, can and do articulate alternatives and change policies. In this sense, all political decisions are provisional, while the ‘people’ are a given. 

Populism, on the other hand, aims to construct ‘the people’. It aims to remove categories of people from the political scene altogether: the ‘corrupt’, the ‘elite’, the ‘reactionary’, the ‘foreign’. In justifying this aim, populists claim that they are absolutely and permanently right. Populists think that there is no limit to what can be justified in the name of the people.

3. Populism should be distinguished from socialism and from revolution. Population is mass based rather than class based. It is also best regarded as a variant of democracy, rather than its overthrow. Populism – through rallies, protests, strikes, blockades and other forms of organization - mobilizes by appealing to a concept of ‘the people’ related to political ends.

In power, it has some particular characteristics. The first (episodic and top down) is the use of the plebiscite, with the intended aim of popular acclamation. It is no accident that anti-immigrant sentiments in the United Kingdom found their most potent political recognition in a referendum. The second (continuous and bottom up) is use of grass roots organizations which have deliberative and decision-making roles in policy making.

Characteristically, these organizations are not independent of central political control. Rather they are an instrument of it. This mobilization intends to extend and perpetuate mobilization. Plebiscites and grass roots organization are not mutually exclusive and they can be used together.

Much has been made of the role of social media in political disintermediation and the rise of populism. Crowdsourcing political crowds on to the streets has been observed in recent years. In some cases, such as in Egypt, it has had political effects. In others, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, the impact has been as ethereal as the electronic haze within which tweets float. Insurgencies don’t have a plan – they are the plan, proclaims Benjamin Arditi , but because they don’t, bringing a government down with utopian (and inevitably disappointed) expectations about the future is as much as they can achieve.

4. Populism is associated with a crisis of representation. Political representation may be shallowly rooted and inchoate during transitions toward democracy. Some Latin American and Eastern European populism can be understood in these terms. Political groupings may become ossified or fragmented, unable to respond to crises and dysfunctional in terms of interest accommodation – a form of elite failure.

Or party cartelization may create a closed governing group insulated from popular needs or concerns. The problem that Donald Trump poses for the Republican Party is that he has mobilised a constituency – the white working and lower middle class – more thoroughly than in previous presidential campaigns, but on terms that make the party leadership distinctly uncomfortable.

5. Populism is anti-pluralist and therefore harbours authoritarian tendencies. Populism forces homogeneity where it does not exist. It claims to empower ‘the people’. What it actually does is to invoke the people to empower a leader. Charismatic rather than legal-rational authority is the order of the day, with claims for unlimited authority brushing aside the procedural and substantive constraints and independent bases of power and influence.

And where authoritarianism comes into existence, corruption (ironically) is never far behind. Populism starts with an appeal to the purity of the people. It ends by being anything but pure.

6. The net effect of populism is often ambiguous. Huey Long, the governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and a member of the US Senate from 1932 until his assassination in 1935 is a case in point. Long won the 1928 election by mobilizing the resentment of rural Louisianans. He quickly fired hundreds of opponents in state employment and filled the vacancies with appointments from his own network of political supporters.

Every state employee who depended on him had to pay a portion of his salary into Long’s personal political war chest. He began a large public works program, building roads, bridges, hospitals, and educational institutions. An attempt to impeach him followed in 1929, but after a brawl in the Louisiana senate and probable bribery, the matter was dropped, and he became more ruthless with his political opponents. He clashed with Standard Oil and had a new gasoline tax approved.

After election to the US Senate, he supported the New Deal, but then attacked it from the left after falling out with Roosevelt over patronage. Roosevelt regarded him as one of the most dangerous men in America. He was a flamboyant, but ineffectual, member of the Senate while remaining massively influential in his Louisiana. His funeral was spectacular and drew great crowds. His style lingered on in Louisiana for decades. 

7. Except in cases of irredentism, populism thinks of ‘the people’ in nationalist terms. Global institutions and foreign powers become part of the ‘them’ for populists. It is no accident that populism in Europe has frequently defined itself against the European Union, or that populists in Latin America have inveighed against the ‘Washington consensus’. Indeed, populism widely enough distributed, will work against both regional and international economic integration. From an International perspective, populism fragments.

To what extent is South African politics populist?

In her survey of populism as an electoral strategy in Africa , Danielle Resnick regards Jacob Zuma’s strategy for re-energizing support for the ANC in 2009 as populist. Her account is as follows: His homilies, parables, singing and dancing during campaign rallies amount to political theatre with popular appeal. He presented himself simultaneously as a liberation hero, a leftist, a traditionalist and an anti-elitist, successfully distancing himself from the failures of the ANC government, blaming them on Mbeki. For the urban youth, the ANC provided parties in the townships with the distribution of meat and beer accompanied by popular music. At the same time, he played up his Zulu identity, winning for the ANC a first-time majority of votes in KwaZulu-Natal.

What are the circumstances which underpin a populist mobilizing strategy? Resnick suggests six:

1. Democracy: populism requires both political contestation and public participation.

2. A mass of unorganised marginal constituents, whom a charismatic leader can connect with in an unmediated way.

3. Fragmented and co-opted civil society, undermining the capacity for independent organization of interests.

4. A lack of labour-intensive economic growth, accompanied by rapid population growth and urbanization. In this respect, South Africa is under less pressure than many other African countries. Population growth and urbanization are relatively slow. But unemployment is massive.

5. A lack of political parties with programmatic orientations and distinct policy agendas. Many parties represent a vehicle for one individual’s ambitions and revolve almost entirely around the personality of the leader.

6. An ability to combine mobilization of urban constituencies with appeals to the ascriptive identities of ethnicity, language, race and religion. The common appeal is to a shared history of real or imagined marginalization.

Some of these elements have been present for thirty years. A fragmented civil society was an implication of segregation and apartheid, and the popular mobilization of the 1980s and early 1990s reinforced divisions between ‘our’ civil society and theirs. The advent of democracy demobilized civil society to a considerable extent, a fact lamented by many ANC leaders. In particular, street and ward committees have largely withered on the vine.

There has also been a shift away from a relatively high level of programmatic orientation. Historically, the ANC has represented itself – sometimes accurately – as a modernising force. The shift has been towards the accumulation of rent and the development of patron-client relationships. Increasingly undermining the integrity of the state, again lamented by some ANC members as a falling away from the moral high ground. The coming local government elections are increasingly seen as a referendum on President Zuma’s leadership.

Unemployment has got worse over the last twenty years and a decline in the differences in average income between population groups has been more than offset by growing inequality within them. Tribal identities, long rejected by the ANC as divisive, lurk close to the political surface.

If conditions have shifted somewhat to favouring populist mobilization, and the opportunities for it have been taken, then the situation is rendered more complex by the emergence of a populist competitor in the form of the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The EFF regards ‘white monopoly capital’ as its ultimate target, but vows to oppose the ANC if they get in the way of an attack on it. In its manifesto for the local government election, the EFF promised to revitalise ward-level organization, to be managed by a purer, more exemplary, set of revolutionary activists than it regards the ANC as able to provide. It promises more democratic, responsive, accountable, and corrupt-free government.

It intends to expropriate and allocate land equitably to all residents of municipalities for residential, recreational, industrial, religious, and agricultural purposes and activities on the principle of ‘use it or lose it’.

It promises direct, rather than contracted, provision of goods and services by the municipality and support for businesses and traders and promotion of local production. By doing so, it mobilizes discontent at the appropriation of existing rents by a relatively narrow elite, and proposes, in effect, to create new rents for its supporters.

The populist themes of popular participation and plebiscitary democracy are present in the EFF’s Founding Manifesto. Thus Section 84: 

It is a crying shame that in the 21st century we are presided over by an elite system of power where only 400 members of the National Assembly govern over 50 million people. The EFF shall agitate for the transfer of power to the people and make democracy real for the majority.

And Section 87:

On contentious issues of national interest, such as going to war, the state should design a quicker, more efficient system to use recurrent referenda to gauge public opinion and sentiments on what the country needs to do. 

What the EFF has in mind can be compared with ‘popular power’ as it developed in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. ‘Popular power’ was initially distinct from state power, and the basis for an ‘authentic’ participatory democracy transcending representative democracy. But then a Commission – the Presidential Commission for Popular Power – was charged with ‘strengthening the impulse of popular power within the framework of the participative and protagonistic democracy’, with all of its members at different administrative-political levels appointed by Chavez.

A sort of parliament of the streets, controlled from above, was called into existence to deliberate with the National Assembly, crowding out debate with opposition parties, in a project conceived of as 21st century socialism and given legal form. The result is, as Margarita Lopez Maya points out:

There is no universal suffrage, neither direct nor secret, there is no separation between state and society, no decentralization, no pluralism. The organizations become state-government structures, basically directed from above .

Chavez’s project was financed from oil rents, particularly in the period between 2004 and 2008, and again from 2010 to 2013.

The disappearance of the oil rent as a result of the current commodity price bust has plunged Venezuela into a massive crisis. It is a warning to us. Competitive populism in South Africa risks turning very low growth into economic collapse. We may well come to stare at each other across bare grocery shelves and ask: “What on earth were we thinking?”

Charles Simkins is Head of Research at the Helen Suzman Foundation.

This article first appeared as two HSF Briefs.