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.

What Is Populism?

It is common for the redistributional policies introduced into Thai politics by the Thai Rak Thai party to be described as ‘populist,’ very commonly with the implication that this is a bad thing. What is populism? What does it mean to be populist?

There have been a number of definitions of populism but none of them entirely satisfactory. Most definitions are eclectic in nature: that is, they draw together a shopping list of different qualities and then investigate the extent to which different movements of people coincide with those characteristics. These movements tend to be based on a disempowered majority of the people, often when facing the challenge of modernisation. This often implies that it focuses on the rural poor, although that is not necessarily the case (populist movements could emerge from the mega-slum areas of some developing country cities). The movements tend to be characterised by pragmatism rather than a fixed ideology, although there may be a rhetoric of ideology (separate from reality). The people involved are not self-organised, that is someone from outside the group instigates and is instrumental in organizing the movement.

Other characteristics of populist movements, occasionally noted, include a strong sense of nationalism and a charismatic leadership which rules by authoritarian means while the movement as a whole rejects autocracy in the country. There are more factors that may be included but these occur less commonly. Owing to the propensity of majorities railing against minority elites within populist movements, it is common to ascribe leftist ideology to populist movements and some may indeed be leftist in nature. However, the nature of the ideology in populism varies.

According to these criteria, then, the policies themselves are not populist (they might be described as pro-populist). However, if they are considered to be part of a coherent program of awakening of the people, then the resultant movement probably could be considered as populist: a disempowered (and in 2006 disenfranchised) majority in conflict with a state controlled by the minority elite, partly stimulated into a movement by outside influences and pragmatic in nature, while remaining true to the state ideology.

Perhaps the best discussion of populism is provided by Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason (although I have grossly simplified his arguments here).

What Is Populism?

What is populism? The People’s Power Party (PPP) and its predecessor Thai Rak Thai (TRT) are regularly accused (since the term is used pejoratively) of ‘populism.’ This is usually contrasted with the politics of the (mostly right-wing) opposition, which is talked of as being in the real interests of the country and for the benefit of society as a whole.

In fact, there seem to be numerous definitions of populism, so many as to suggest that no precise, exclusive definition is possible. A brief survey of the subject seems to indicate that it is more commonly used as a term of abuse rather than of praise, although that is not always the case. Much of the contemporary understanding of populism appears to derive from its application in Latin America and its description is partly a result of how American institutions talked about it, especially during the Cold War period.

It is easy to imagine the situation: Latin American government institutes some policies to give relief to the suffering masses. American interests (through the CIA etc), suspicious that this means leaning towards Communism, argues that the policy is ‘populist’ in the sense that it is actually against the best interests of the people and that maintenance of the status quo (which favours the elites) would be better.

An example of populism as a negative policy: the USA Republican Party persuades poor and working class people to vote based on ‘moral’ grounds – i.e. the three Gs of God, gays and guns – and many people do vote this way even though it is clearly against their best interest economically (tax cuts go to the rich not the poor, whose welfare is cut) and politically (policies are decided by lobbyists and those who fund the campaign).

However, this form of ‘populism’ is not the one employed by TRT/PPP – the proposition they provide is this: a vote for the party means a vote for pro-poor policies at village and regional level. Other policies are also proposed (e.g. pro-globalisation, pro-business etc). The people have made it clear that this is what the majority want. That is the populism on offer.    

Your Tax Baht at Work

More than six million Thais – two million of them children – still live beneath the poverty line, which is calculated at 1,386 baht per month (approximately US$43) and another five million within 20% of the line. The government, elected under a pro-poor and redistributive manifesto, brought into force a six-point plan to help the poor at a time of rising oil and food prices. The measures included free bus rides, a price cap on cooking gas, excise tax reductions on fuel and water.

The plan seems to be working well. Poor people are benefiting from the subsidies and those not in need are not able to sequester the benefits for themselves – i.e. riding on one of the 800 free buses does not attract the middle classes because they are among the non air-conditioned not terribly comfortable set of vehicles.

Some have argued that the use of food coupons would be better than subsidies. Subsidies, after all, tend to become counter-productive if not managed effectively and attract the wrath of the IMF/World Bank and other such institutions. However, food coupons would not work so well in a society in which so many people exist in at best a semi-official state. People too poor to pay tax and living in an illegal or at least unregistered house (i.e. a slum) do not appear on many official records and would, therefore, not be able to obtain the coupons – people also do not know how to access such services and would be disenfranchised accordingly.

These are the policies that are labelled ‘populist’ by the anti-democracy movement and the once-proud Democrat Party, which has become a home for scoundrels under the disastrous leadership of super-privileged quisling Abhisit Vejjajiva. What, in fact, is wrong with populism like this? People in their millions appreciate what the government is doing for them, although no doubt they would like there to be more and many are affected by the relentless anti-government propaganda in most of the media. Consequently, once the courts ban and break up the People’s Power Party on some pretext, a new party will be formed and the work will begin again (of course it has already started) on putting together a new coalition of interests that will permit these pro-poor policies to continue, populist or not.