Reflecting on the rise of populist parties around the world, it’s interesting how little influence the intellectual effort of various philosophers throughout the centuries has had on the world. Socrates saw the enemy in sophists, who (at least in his characterization) took gaining influence to be the only worthy goal, John Stuart Mill wrote a whole book about logical fallacies, calling for people to think in a more nuanced way, and of course Orwell and Eco wrote plenty about the fairly-modern tactics of language twisting and behaviour manipulation by people seeking political power – but it all seems to have passed people by. The same style of argumentation – simplistic and pandering – always seems to win people over.
Although a lot of the parties gaining support due to populism are classified as right wing, the truth is that populism has no political leanings. It doesn’t matter what a particular politician actually believes, since votes aren’t won by common appeal – and promises aren’t enforced, so abandoning them can be expected.
What’s clear is that power that has historically been triumphant over intellect is fear, and those who can create and soothe it most efficiently have the greatest chance of gaining popular support. If the main feature of populism is that it appeals the most to thinking lacking in reflection out of fear, then the fault for its rise should lie with those decision makers and officials who have made modern education what it is – or so the argument would go.
But if we blame public officials for the ills of society, then we should also ask who got them in power in the first place. It seems that democracy is working to defeat itself by promoting those who, in the end, care only about their own power. But this way of thinking brings us straight to the conclusion that democracy is to be blamed for the problems of society. The uneducated choose manipulators to lead them, and manipulators dumb them down even further. It’s easy to go from this to the conclusion that the masses should not be allowed to vote, that democracy itself should be revoked.
But the question remains of why would poorly-educated, people who don’t think critically support populists, even when they call for genocide and increase of economic inequality? Here we might think to go back to the idea of “human nature”. Hobbes’s idea was that people are naturally mean-spirited and vicious, and would rob and kill one another if allowed to. But the less presuming explanation is that people act based on the situation their in, and in desperate situations will accept anyone who offers them a way out. And with the disappearance of the middle class as an economic power in the US, and an unemployment rate steady in the double digits in many European countries, it’s only logical that appealing to everyone’s economic fear is a good strategy.
Neither people’s natural instincts, nor their education, nor their economic state are on their own enough as an explanation for their love of populism – it’s a problem of multiple causes and multiple effects. The only thing philosophy can offer the world is the ideas and the invitation to critical thinking – a defence of mind against populism.