Populism: Ethical Vacuum in the Public Sphere


Today we are witnessing the successful rise of populist political movements, which promise radical changes to the status quo on behalf of the people and their rights, and which use nationalist rhetoric to gain supporters.

In Spain, France, Greece, Italy and England — countries to which the United States was recently added — we have seen the growth of various movements with similar characteristics: They claim to be defenders of the people’s rights against an elite that ignores their genuine interests, and in their campaigns, they appeal to ethical values such as social justice, a golden age that has been lost, and the idea of an honest and just people; while, at the same time, denouncing moral decay, corruption and injustice. They channel the resentment, bitterness and frustration people often experience during an economic crisis, and they confront the growing wave of political and economic corruption scandals. Moreover, they promise to redeem politics and social life in a way that approaches a form of “messiah-nism” or political utopianism.

Given the confusion and bewilderment of so many analysts, there is a hypothesis that could be put forward to explain this situation: Leaders and populist organizations have taken advantage of an ethical void in the political arena in order to offer the electorate a utopian vision of a better future for their children, of a society that will offer more meaning and hope to their personal and collective lives.

With the decline of the old official consensus on the values of a Christian nation, and the legitimization of pluralism, the institutions that bring order to society have had to face an increasingly divided one in relation to moral questions and social organization. In this context, political and media discourse has tended to avoid, or reduce to simplistic and politically correct formulas, some of the crucial questions about the future of the West. Among them, the value of human life, the loss of hope and meaning in a large part of the population, collective and national identities in the face of cosmopolitanism, the rise of fundamentalist and anti-liberal ideologies, the transfer of moral values to future generations of citizens, and the prudent management of the refugee crisis in Europe.

It is not that these issues are never addressed. However, when they do get discussed, it is usually in a mercenary and superficial, or purely technical, way. If it is not to defend the status quo or the dogmatic positions of a party, social problems are generally not treated as existential challenges, but rather as technical problems which can be solved by scientific interventions. The real problems of tolerance and coexistence are hidden beneath vague assertions of pluralism, diversity and inclusion, which seem to say everything and nothing at the same time.

Often, our representatives do not dare to offer a properly moral defense of their public policies, but reduce everything to the almost religious imperative of increasing the gross domestic product at all costs. The poverty of our ethical discourse is reinforced by a doctrine of political correctness, which absolutely protects certain political practices and moral beliefs from any criticism, with the excuse that those who oppose progress are consumed by hatred, or that their judgments are invalidated by irrational prejudices.

And it is here where populism claims to be able to finally break down the dogmas of the politically correct, and to speak candidly of the values, concerns and anxieties of the people. We have seen this expressed forcefully in the case of Donald Trump who has won the admiration of a large part of the American people by defying the rules of political correctness “in a big way.” Populists like Trump channel the accumulated frustrations of people who have long been deprived of a public forum in which to express their concerns and have them explored.

Populism has triumphed again and again — and continues to triumph — because our culture is not prepared to respond intelligently and sensibly to the emergence of this phenomenon in its own right. We are not in the habit of discussing ethical values with our fellow citizens in an open and nuanced way. Therefore, we do not know how to respond thoughtfully and sincerely to the politically incorrect, and sometimes extremist, discourse of the populist.

When the populist starts to gain ground, representatives of the dominant culture despise him for his lack of political realism, or they accuse him of threatening our civilization with his intolerant slogans and opposition of the generally accepted consensus. They dismiss him as a fanatic who does not deserve their attention. Then, one fine day, they realize that this fanatic has the backing of a considerable amount of their fellow citizens; and by the time they disagree with his moral and political principles, it is already too late to enter into a debate with him, because he has taken his country out of Europe (Brexit), or he has put Trump in the Oval Office.

If we want to moderate the excesses of populism, it is essential to fill the ethical void of our public life with voices that can more fully represent the interests of all sectors of society and not just those who are currently feeling alienated. We need to foster a more balanced and intelligent public debate on the crisis of government, and the crisis of values that is spreading across the Western world. This response probably does not come from traditional political parties, whose culture is often rather pragmatic and anti-intellectual. On the contrary, initiatives of this kind can be expected in the media, educational institutions and other relevant forums of civil society.

Creating a space for discussion on the ethical foundations of our culture is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. If we do not, we open ourselves up to populist and demagogic discourses that could, with their seductive and simplistic solutions, jeopardize the basic principles of a free and open society.

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About Stephen Routledge 130 Articles
Stephen is the Head of a Portfolio Management Office (PMO) in a public sector organisation. He has over twenty years experience in project, programme and portfolio management, leading various major organisational change initiatives. He has been invited to share his knowledge, skills and experience at various national events. Stephen has a BA Honours Degree in History & English and a Masters in Human Resource Management (HRM). He has studied a BSc Language Studies Degree (French & Spanish) and is currently completing a Masters in Translation (Spanish to English). He has been translating for more than ten years for various organisations and individuals, with a particular interest in science and technology, poetry and literature, and current affairs.

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