Is Populism Good?


In answering the question ‘is populism good?’ it  is necessary to ask ‘what is the alternative?’ As discussed yesterday, populism centres on (i.e. it is the most common form of populism that) privileging a poor rural majority over a powerful urban minority of elites. Within a democratic framework, that implies distributing some proportion of the tax revenues (and other state resources) to the benefit of the many rather than the few. This is a proposition for which an enfranchised poor will vote in the absence of a more attractive manifesto. Such an alternative manifesto would divide the rural poor and place some in support of policies benefiting the elite minority. This might be effected through some aspect of ‘culture wars’ or through electoral bribery (i.e. offering sub-sections of the majority extra privileges on the basis of some ethnic or religious characteristic or some other defining aspect). This is a strategy employed in the past by the Republican Party in the USA, in which emphasis was placed upon issues such as anti-abortion or opposition to gay marriage or some other such thing which attracts voters from the majority because of certain underlying factors in national ideology. In Thailand, this might be achieved by persuading voters that the populist party is, for example, irreligious or immoral or anti-monarchist in nature.

Is there somehow something inherently wrong about providing policies for which a majority of people, specifically the poor people, will vote? In the past, such policies included wider enfranchisement, freedom of speech and association, In the present, it relates to low cost healthcare, relief from systemic debt and better opportunities for their children through higher-quality education and employment. From the western, centre-left perspective I hold, these are perfectly reasonable and desirable outcomes.

However, it is possible to have different perspectives. I have written elsewhere of the argument related to ‘mind precedes everything,’ in which Buddhist thought can persuade people that it is the purity of the mind of the person leading an action that is of pre-eminent importance. The act of a person with a pure mind is a good act, therefore, while that same act committed by a person with an impure mind will lead to evil consequences.

It is also possible to differ ideologically and believe that, as the leadership of the PAD believes, that poor people must not be allowed to escape their poverty (perhaps self-inflicted by karmic reasons) nor should they wish to do so.