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Blaming Populists for Making Empty Promises?

The inclination of establishment politicians to overpromise is the core cause of the rise of populism.

January 12, 2017

The inclination of establishment politicians to overpromise is the core cause of the rise of populism.

Why is the current political landscape in many Western countries so unsettled? One reason is that the basic charge of the populists — that the elites just don’t know the answers anymore — is essentially correct.

While that, in turn, does not mean or imply that the populists have the answers, the establishment certainly doesn’t help its case by continuing to pretend that it is (almost) all knowing.

As long as establishment politicians continue to present themselves in that manner (for fear of losing their dominant role), they resemble — in a most curious way — the wholly unreformed Catholic Church of old.

Mainstream politicians promise the moon, too

Mainstream politicians also don’t help their cause when they blame populists for luring voters to their cause with promises of quick and easy solutions that will supposedly give the people benefits they want, while presumably costing nothing.

The problem with this (correct) charge against populist parties is this: Since at least the 1970s making cheap campaign promises has been the essence of (mainstream) politics. Four decades later, voters are fully attuned to the hollowness of many of the promises made by representatives of mainstream political parties.

Of course, the voters themselves are to blame as well. They have been all too ready to have wool pulled over their collective eyes.

This mutual self-deception charade was driven by a strong interest among professional politicians in self-preservation. After all, political careers are a great way for talking heads to spend a financially lucrative career, generally topped off by cushy retirement benefits.

Beware whom you label a populist

Under those circumstances, it really is no surprise that voters, disappointed as they are with the establishment parties increasingly put their faith in the populists.

The political establishment, unsurprisingly, professes its utter indignation about this development. It simply declares everyone not buying into their own charade a “populist.”

The biggest problem with that approach is that it irresponsibly commingles opposition to the political establishment — a very legitimate endeavor — with neo-fascists who are seeking cover under the populism label.

Any democracy worth its salt is well advised to differentiate very carefully between legitimate and illegitimate forms of populism. If this is not done then the establishment plays into the hand of extremists by making it easy for them to cover up their real intentions.

What is truly astounding is that the establishment, as if in madness, facilitates that strategy by labeling everybody opposed to its unquestioned rule as a populist.

Worse, it makes the populist appeal of right-wing political forces much bigger than it really is.

Why yet more overpromising?

This isn’t the only way in which the political establishment has set a trap for itself. The rational thing for established politicians to do would be to end the constant cycle of overpromising.

Fat chance. Nervous about the inroads of the populists, the establishment feels it has no other choice than to keep overpromising. At a minimum, it should talk honestly about what is politically — and especially fiscally — possible and what is not.

Laying out choices and trade-offs

The key challenge for modern politics is the proper management of expectations, while taking proper pride in the immense achievements that have been achieved in welfare states such as Germany’s.

The illusion, however, is to that those expectations can grow on and on. Taxation and social contribution level levels are high, as is the public sector share of the economy. Under those circumstances, it is pivotal not only to make critical choices, but also not to buy into voters’ expectations that all of them could get more and more in terms of benefits.

Governing, as politicking, means choosing. For too many in the political establishment, unfortunately, it means denying the necessity of making any choices (and thereby frustrating voters).

Honesty = maturity

Fiscal honesty certainly would be the mature and responsible way to proceed. Promising the moon — and denying the need for change and, yes, painful adjustment — only makes things worse.

However, faced with considerable if not steep declines in voter support in polls, most of the political establishment shies away from that very act of maturity. Afraid for its survival, it believes that preaching realism and honesty is tantamount to unilateral disarmament.

And so the loop of ever more overpromising merrily continues, in a direct competition between the start-up populists and the establishmentarians. Which, despite the drawbacks, is not the responsible thing to do on the latter’s part.

A final thought

All of which leaves one to wonder: Rather than blaming the (true) populists for irresponsibly doing something that mainstream politicians are not doing, wouldn’t it be much more appropriate for the establishment politicians to accept that populists, if anything, are deceptively akin to mainstream politicians, albeit on steroids?


Who are mainstream politicians to blame populists for luring voters with promises of quick and easy solutions?

The core charge of the populists -- that the elites just don't know the answers anymore -- is essentially correct.

Opposing the political establishment is a very legitimate endeavor in any democracy. Vilifying that as nasty populism is an ill-guided response.

Voters have understood the near-complete emptiness of the promises made for so long by mainstream politicians.

Governing means choosing. Unfortunately, too many in the political establishment deny that necessity.

The loop of overpromising continues merrily -- now in a competition between the political establishment and the populists.