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The paradoxical rise of one per cent populism

Despite occasional setbacks at the hands of figures like Macron and Merkel, populism in all its forms is continuing to thrive, with the big votes for M5S and the Lega Nord in Italy once again signalling how angry electorates are with mainstream parties.

It’s never easy to define exactly what populism means. But it usually involves a stance that’s against elites, hostile to a metropolitan consensus and existing power structures. In some forms it’s nativist, nationalist and racist, in others it’s more socialist. It feeds off targets – from Brussels bureaucrats to Wall Street bankers (and more recently, Silicon Valley). It grows when groups experience a fall in status or a threat, whether that’s symbolic or economic. It’s usually atavistic and backward looking - promising a better yesterday, a return rather than an advance, and this generally distinguishes it from other radical movements (though they overlap).

Much has been written about it recently. Here I emphasise one point that has been less remarked on. This is the surprising strength of what could be called '1% populism’ – forms of populism led by, and expressed by, people at the core of the very elites they rail against.  

You might expect the typical populist leader to be relatively low down the social pecking order, rooted in the communities that are most insecure. Instead, the odd phenomenon of contemporary populism is that it’s thrown up cheerleaders who are personally part of the 1% and could by no stretch of the imagination be seen as rooted in the kinds of life lived by most people. Even more striking is the fact that when asked to make decisions, rather than making speeches, these 1% populists invariably side with the interests of the elite.  

Silvio Berlusconi has been a prime example. Although he became something of a joke, he achieved huge electoral success in the 1990s and 2000s, with a rhetoric that was strongly opposed to the governing elite, that promised a new style of politics, and claimed to stand for the little man or woman against the system.

As Italy’s richest man, and master of much of its media and business, it took some chutzpah to claim to be anti-elitist, but much of the time he managed to pull it off

Other examples of the paradox include the leaders of the Brexit campaign in Britain – Old Etonian Boris Johnson and city trader Nigel Farage. And, of course, the ultimate example is Donald Trump, fiercely populist in rhetoric but the son of a billionaire who was unembarrassed about appointing more members of the top 0.1% to jobs than any other President and then pushing through tax reforms designed to benefit the very rich.

In some respects, 1% populism has been very successful. It’s won elections and also diverted public anger away from any serious challenge to the underlying structures of power and wealth. But the recent track record of 1% populism in government has been dismal. Berlusconi presided over Italy’s worst period of economic performance, despite promising miracles. Brexiteers’ confidence has unravelled with embarrassing speed. Trump may be many things, but competence and achievement don’t look like being his hallmarks. 

One reason for this pattern of failure is that many of the cheerleaders have narcissistic personalities. They’re uncomfortable when not in the spotlight, and so are attracted to positions that will gain them attention. They see politics as performance and are less interested in programmes or actions (and get bored with details), which is why in government they need a continuous flow of drama to fill the void. 

One per cent populism, like the other varieties, is better at opposing than proposing, at mobilising anger rather than channelling creativity

That still makes it a potent force, and one near certainty of the next decade is that other manifestations of 1% populism will appear, combining the resources of wealthy donors with new vehicles for resentment and anger. UKIP's demise, for example, could create space for a new model that looks and feels more contemporary, helped perhaps by a celebrity or two and probably focused more on Islam and migration than on Europe. 

A different possible future for 1% populism is suggested by Steve Hilton who, through a TV show in the US, is trying to define a populism that’s more rooted in the Silicon Valley elite but with most of the attitudes of other populist movements. Steve is an interesting figure with a background in communications – Saatchis and the Conservative Party -  who authored a book that boldly tried to recapture the long tradition of human-centred innovation and policy for the right, and recently created a platform for citizens to fund political causes. His positions are fuzzy – but are pro-Brexit, anti-elite, frustrated and angry in tone, but still essentially conservative. 

It’s appropriate that he’s been given a show at Fox TV, because Rupert Murdoch has arguably been the most skilled pioneer of 1% populism over several decades – mobilising public anger against elites through his newspapers and channels, but always in ways that were guaranteed to leave the big concentrations of power and wealth untouched. Again, maximum attitude and minimum reform.

Two key questions remain. One is whether more rooted, organic populisms will defeat the 1% versions, and generate genuine programmes for change that might reduce the power of big finance or the big platform monopolies; shift the division of income between capital and labour or, for that matter, meet basic needs for healthcare and housing? On the left, this is what Corbynite Labour aspires to do. On the right, Marine Le Pen may be able to move into this space, while in Italy, M5S might do so from the middle. 

The second question is how long people will remain gullible and ignore the gap between attitude and action? 

The answer may be that when 1% populism retains a grip on powerful media, and can retain attention, it has a remarkable staying power, even when its promises fail (as, in a different way, Putin has shown in Russia, with a predator populism that has some similarities to the Western versions). In the future, as in the recent past, it will continue to benefit from a deep crisis of political economy. The world has successfully developed new models of growth but found it much harder to make them inclusive or fair. The promises made by politicians over many decades – of prosperity for all – simply didn’t materialise. That’s why the opposite positions are appealing, promising a return to an age when there were mass manufacturing jobs and more self-reliant domestic economies. What’s missing is a credible political articulation of a route to growth and mass prosperity that is simultaneously inclusive and credible (and fitted to now rather than the mid-20th century).

In other words, some of the populist questions are right; it’s the answers that are threadbare. The 1% populists are highly unlikely to come up with better ones, not least because their interests would be threatened by many of the answers. Yet they will take up much of the airtime and squeeze out the alternatives, and do their best to generate froth and distraction. Paradoxically, the very inequalities that have made the 1% or 0.1% so much richer than everyone else will guarantee that they can continue to fund vehicles to huff and puff, scream and shout, long into the future, filling the spaces with maximum attitude and minimum reform.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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