Amid the current Covid-19 pandemic, organisation and clarity are king. Populist leaders' desire to tell their followers what they want to hear can be disastrous - and the consequences are immediately apparent.
Populism is when one parent tells a child to eat her vegetables and do her homework, and the other parent says, ‘stuff that, just each chocolate and watch TV.’ The first parent argues that you should eat plenty of fruit and veg, and schoolwork is important for your future. The other parent says, ‘oh come on, you can’t believe everything so called experts say, school clearly doesn’t work because not everyone who went to school is successful in life, and look at those three famous millionaires who left school at 14.’
For a child, it’s tempting to go with the parent who says it’s ok to eat chocolate and stay up late watching TV. That parent will be popular right now, and will keep saying what the child wants to hear to retain that popularity. However, many years later, unemployed and riddled with diabetes, the former child will look back and realise it was the other parent who was right, and had her interests at heart all along.
Populism is quite easy. Populist leaders tell people what they want to hear, and consequently win their votes. Most of the time they can get away with it because it will take a long time for their voters to find out they were wrong. The populist leader will probably have died, retired, or become a dictator by the time enough people find out they were lying. But when an overnight catastrophe comes along, the shortcomings of populism become apparent immediately.
When an overnight catastrophe comes along, the shortcomings of populism become apparent immediately.
And that is the case with the pandemic. The connection between words, actions, and outcomes unfolds over days and weeks, rather than years or decades. Trump could talk about making America great again confident the economy would probably keep growing off the back of Obama’s previous work, and that some short-term policies would add to that to make it look strong enough to win the next election. Johnson would be long gone before the real, long-term impacts of Brexit became apparent. Bolsonaro is old enough to know that he can cut down the rainforests without climate change becoming a problem for him.
But this pandemic has reduced the action-outcome timeframe down to days and weeks. And success or failure is measured in very stark numbers that are almost impossible to spin or manipulate. Each country now has data on how many people have been infected, died, and become unemployed. These will become clearer over time, and soon will become historical facts. How the numbers are measured can be fiddled a bit, but in the end, deaths are deaths, and eventually they will all be counted. Even if testing cannot prove people died from Covid-19, if a lot more people die than usually die, that is hard to dodge. Dictatorships, like China and Russia, can bury the numbers along with the bodies, but even they are undermined by local activists using social media to document the reality. When a lot of people die, their relatives know. It is hard to make that go away.
In the West, although each country records deaths, measures infections, and counts the unemployed in different ways, it is becoming obvious that both the UK and the US governments have failed to protect their people as well as they could, and as well as other similar countries, like Germany. In both countries, the populist leaders have been torn between saying and doing popular things to keep in with their voters, and the need to say and do very unpopular things to restrain the virus. Both leaders were late to act, because the action was unpalatable. They both preside over underfunded and disorganised healthcare and government systems that have been unable to respond quickly and effectively. They have both favoured populist tax policies that reduce taxes and favour the rich, and this has led to chronic underfunding of the very structures that were needed in this crisis. Germany, by contrast with the UK and US, had a surplus of hospital beds before the crisis.
Both governments have focused on single issues at the expense of competent overall government. In the US it’s hard to tie down what that issue is beyond simply calling it Trumpism, in so far as American government policy is basically about one person and his family. In the UK, it has been clearer. The single issue of this government has been Brexit.
By definition, populism ignores experts and data in favour of the popularity of the message. Saying what people want to hear is different to saying what people need to hear.
Consequently, neither political leader has been able to surround themselves with high quality people. Anyone really talented struggles to serve under people like Trump or Johnson for two reasons, firstly because they can see how their credibility will quickly be tarnished, and secondly because both men are incompetent but need to appear to clever, so cannot have under them people who outshine them. We have seen that conflict play out repeatedly with Trump, as ostensibly talented or opinionated people inevitably are fired or resign, and now with the tension between Trump and Fauci. Johnson’s cabinet was formed to see through Brexit, not to steer the country through a generational crisis.
By definition, populism ignores experts and data in favour of the popularity of the message. Saying what people want to hear is different to saying what people need to hear. Politicians who defer to experts, have sensible policies, and aren’t full of bluster are quite boring. But in this crisis, it is the boring, thoughtful, and honest politicians like Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern who have shone.
Because the pandemic is so immediate, it has shown the effects of populism with a clarity most populists usually manage to avoid. There is a tension between scientific advisors and the populist leaders that results in public statements from the podium that then do not correspond with what happens on the ground. With Trump this is so extreme that Johnson looks less bad, but if Johnson were only compared to other European leaders his lack of clarity, and the gulf between some of his personal statements and the ensuing policy would look a lot worse.
Without adequate and coherent political opposition, and professional media, this crisis may just be turned into another opportunity by populists and autocrats to weaken democracy.
It is unusual for almost all the countries in the world to go through an identical situation at the same time, and this offers an equally unusual opportunity to measure the effectiveness of different politicians and political systems using relatively matching data. Granted, the way the data is gathered and shared differs, but even with imperfect data we will be able to measure the relative success or failure of each leader. Sometime into the future, when this crisis is deemed to have ended, and long afterwards, we will be able to measure the number of deaths and infections per 100,000 of the population, the time the country took to bring the virus under control, and the immediate and long term economic impact.
Already, a comparison between New Zealand, Portugal, Greece, and Germany, and the US and UK should make Trump, Johnson, and their teams very uncomfortable indeed. The former countries acted fast, were informed by experts, and took deeply unpopular actions that were clearly explained to the people. They lacked bluster in favour of frankness. It may well be that this crisis will be the undoing of the populists, as their failures will be swift and undeniable. However, without adequate and coherent political opposition, and professional media, this crisis may just be turned into another opportunity by populists and autocrats to weaken democracy and to use misinformation to create a false narrative that wins them more votes. Opposition politicians need to up their game, and even the less ethical journalists need to realise they have an important role in how this all plays out.
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