Populism in everyday life and politics 

Populism in everyday life and politics
Photo: uchoose.info

What is the difference between a politician and a blogger? To some, this question may seem outrageous, but in the era of social networks this is a relevant issue. Politician-bloggers existed before, but before there were social networks, we called them populists. Who is a populist? This is a person who says what people want to hear because it is important for them to maintain audience approval. For example, if the audience demands drastic action, the populist in this case will start creating content that says it is time to take drastic action, getting thousands of likes and reactions like «Finally someone said it!» With this, the populist covers the audience’s need for immediate, tough rhetoric, but the essence of populism is that nothing else builds from that rhetoric. Decisive actions never come, and only appeals and parasitism towards «less decisive» opponents remain.

In principle, this is the strategy: to look more advantageous against the backdrop of one’s opponent.

But what to do when the public asks you for what you promised? Well, basically, blame everything on your opponents and say that if it were not for them or not for circumstances – not for something else external – you would have succeeded a long time ago. Populism fuels the most infantile qualities in people: unwillingness to take responsibility, blaming others for their failures, and hoping that someone else will solve all their problems. Populism is a common way for a new political player to gain popularity quickly. The main thing here is to not make a mistake and never try to keep promises.

Strategically, assertive politicians should not get drawn into populism. There is one very good example. People were asking one young politician with little experience for decisive action. Populists close to this person fueled this demand. The inexperience of the politician and their team ended up playing a cruel joke on them when they announced these most decisive actions without fully realizing how much long and careful preparation any decisive action requires. That drastic action was to announce a deadline for the losing dictator – a deadline to meet the demands. If they were not met, a strike was to begin.

This attempt had its advantages, as it resulted in straining the system, forcing it to make one mistake after another. It also gave rise to an enormous protest turn out. Employees began to leave their positions in organizations of authority and notify protester organizers about this. But a real mass strike never emerged. And after all this, those who demonstrated and went on strike that day were purged. The price of this decisive action was enormous, with businesses closed, people fired and arrested, and with the strike committees defeated. Everything had to be started from scratch.

What was this and what does populism have to do with it? The danger of populism lies in trying to please the crowd. The difference between a politician and a populist is that the politician knows when not to succumb to the demands of society, because if you do not give in and turn out to be right, society will quickly change its mind and support you. If you do not give in and turn out to be wrong, society will simply be unhappy. If you give in and turn out to be wrong, society will tear you to pieces. You alone will be responsible for the mistake. This, by the way, is the most important thing to know about a politician who takes the lead. When everything is good, it will be an accomplishment of society, the team, partners, and a little bit your own. When everything is bad it will always be only your fault. If one does not accept this, one should never go into politics.

The difference between political strategy and communication and tactics must be clearly understood. Strategy is not changed midstream, and the strategic task is to repeat the same messages over and over again while doggedly moving in the same direction. Strategy is neither about day-to-day routine, nor about daily tasks, nor about how to gain an audience’s interest today, right now. Strategy is based on research, hypotheses, and it offers a set of answers to what needs to be done to achieve a certain result. The tactical and communication challenge is to figure out how to do it. How to involve people and how to convey to them what is needed from them.

Maintaining that «we already said that” has nothing to do with politics. There is no point in reporting news. Politics is neither a show nor entertainment and what matters is tirelessly repeating your main messages. Representatives or proxies, on the other hand, must find ways to do this so that these messages do not bore people and are delivered to very different target audiences.

Communication should be inventive within the strategy, but not invent a new strategy. 

A qualified politician, among other things, must also represent their electorate without trying to please everyone at once. They must stand up for their values, needs, and dreams to retain and grow their audience. When looking at them we should think “they are one of us.” This requires not only lovely words, but a clear strategy on how they will implement these desires, specifically what reforms and changes are needed and how to achieve them. The populist, on the other hand, does not need a strategy at all, as their task is to emotionally serve the crowd and tell people exactly what they want to hear. Targeting the right emotion often helps to hide the fact that there is no plan. These people live by the principle that «if you are not in the news every day, then you do not exist.» But the news should not be a headache for a politician. It should be the responsibility of the team. Otherwise, the politician becomes a slave to soundbites, saying only what makes it into the headlines.

What is the danger of populism?

The danger is that in the information age populists have begun to gain more power. At the same time, the main goal of a populist is not to help people and not to change the system, but to gain approval and, as a result, power. Such a person, once in power, will not suddenly acquire a strategy and will continue to work for the number of mentions in the media. As mentioned above, this brings out the worst in people – infantilism and having them get used to being observers rather than participants. And we are already seeing now how autocrats are becoming more popular.

Communication is largely a matter of technology, which is very easy to do with people who lack critical thinking skills. Such campaigns are poorly controlled, and something can go viral simply because it is funny or unusual, diverting people’s attention from something important. A good example is Donald Trump and his powerful Twitter. Trump is a great populist – a textbook case with all the necessary characteristics.

Technology can also be used for good, such as helping politicians in exile stay connected to audiences. The expulsion of political opponents from the country is an old and proven practice. Earlier, political opponents were expelled from the country to render them irrelevant and harmless and to diminish their authority and influence. And more often than not it worked. Politicians became distant from the people, trapped in the time they left the country and inevitably slipping into a cyclical nostalgia while failing to grasp the changed context. In addition, a politician’s absence in the country is also felt through the media as exiled politicians gradually lose control over the agenda, turning into media personalities who occasionally give interviews. One does not have to turn to global practice for examples, as this has happened regularly in Belarus.

And then the internet came along. No, not just the internet, but social media, and with it open local communities, chats, channels, streams, online calls, and everything that technology has managed to offer over the past 10 years, with which they have done a lot. And suddenly people began to see exiled politicians and, most importantly, interact with them almost more often than those who remained in country. It is undeniable that real power, that is, the management of organizational structures and the ability to force them to carry out orders, remains with the dictator. But we have found ourselves in an interesting era where the power over meaning has become stronger than before.

It turns out that a close relationship with the country can be maintained for months. Although admittedly it is not the same as if a politician were in country, on the other hand how often does a regular person see a president inside the country? How often can ordinary people ask questions and receive answers? If you are a dictator, then most likely you have never answered your people’s questions and you are only visible on television.

But why communicate with the country if you are in exile, the army and those in power are not subordinate to you, and you cannot sign any decree or ban something? What is the point of listening to people’s problems if you cannot do anything about them? Why not just admit defeat and step aside? This is what the repressive machines of modern regimes argue – put all the troublemakers out the door and they will immediately be forgotten.

But once outside the country and deprived of state levers of influence, you are left with only one: the media. And here it is crucial to refrain from becoming a populist. Only with a real strategy and strategic perseverance can the trust of the people be maintained. The inability to be in country, of course, will push one towards populism, because populism attracts the attention of people, from whom leaders will gradually begin to break away. But if it is important for leaders to rebuild ties with people instead of cutting them off and marginalizing them, they will need good old dull political strategy and good communication solutions, along with the courage that will allow them to be resilient to the demands of the crowd.

The article was prepared by a participant of the SlovakAid scholarship program.

Материал доступен на русском языке: Популизм в обычной жизни и политике