Patrick Dele Cole

February 17, 2020

Populism versus institutions – to what extent are our defences being eroded?

British PM, Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson: OVER the last few years disenfranchisement with the political class has spread on the back of stagnating economies and falling standards of living since the financial crisis of 2008. Whether the result is Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines, Narendra Modi of India, Scott Morrison of Australia, Orban Hungary or our own President Buhari the trend towards maverick populist non-traditional leaders is absolutely clear.

One thing that each of these leaders share is a willingness, in fact almost a clear desire, to challenge the limits of the institutional bulwarks that have been established and in place for over a century. Whether it is President Trump’s clear agenda on judicial appointments, or questioning the legitimacy of Congress, Boris Johnson seeking to appeal beyond parliament to the British people, and going as far as prorogation of our current Nigerian administration simply ignoring judicial rulings, each of the leaders in question believes that their actions can be justified by appealing to the electorate and attacking the validity of those institutions.

I find the American and Nigerian examples of judicial interference to be particularly unwholesome. They challenge the fundamental belief that when your case goes to court you are going to get someone impartial. In the absence of that, what true defence is there for tyranny? When it extends to repeated and regular attacks on the media, then another pillar of accountability is slowy being eroded. But why is there space for this to happen today? I believe that we are suffering the consequences of a fundamental failure of ideas, extenuated by an unprecedented ability to talk directly and unfiltered to the people, enabled by social media.

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I believe that populism and radicalism arise when there is a failure of institutional leadership, and we are in the midst of a catastrophic one. Show me a political leader with any credibility who can show the world a credible route to the future. Because they can’t, they must revert to the politics of fear and disruption. It is a sad state of affairs. There has rarely been a time when I have had less faith in the credibility of leaders across the world and I have been around for a while.

I often wonder whether those pursuing these anti-system agenda fully appreciate the damage that they are doing and what scares me is that I think some of them actually do. They know that the feeling that you are your brother’s keeper is disappearing. That community based; collective decency is dying. Each for their own is back at the forefront of ideological debate. We are participating in a dialogue for the deaf. Neither side is listening to the other. The centre is getting squashed and I am concerned that it will take a long time to re-emerge.

When you add to the existing toxicity, the influence of social media, where everybody has the ability to say whatever they like, the basic things that keep society together, like tolerance, are threatened. When more and more fear exist the messages of populism and personality politics become all the more attractive.

In response to these messages, we see an equal (but importantly, not opposite) level of energy in the left wing of political discourse. While I do not believe someone like Jeremy Corbyn has any more respect for the institutions in question than Boris Johnson does, he seeks to rally and convene around the concept of decency, striving to overcome the threat to community cohesion. But he does so use the tactics of the past. I find it absolutely astounding that the ‘socialist’ wing of the Labour party in the UK has still failed to grasp how the capitalist economy and markets work, and how they inter-relate with the human emotions and beliefs that populists exploit. I don’t think your traditional left-wing student in Oxford, or anywhere else, has a deep understanding of the commercial world. Why are they not studying how to infiltrate the city and take over from the inside? If they did and were successful, wouldn’t we have something that had the potential to give us the best of both worlds?

Whether on the left, at the centre or the right, we need new, dynamic, brave and innovative leaders who understand the modern world and can translate the basic tenements of humanity into its complexities. I have been, and still am looking for them. My prayer is that they emerge and reclaim the mantle of leadership before we move too close to the abyss. Our futures, but more importantly, those of our children, depend on it.