The Place of Populism

By Dr John Boswell, Politics & International Relations

I think one of the frustrating things for me is that everyone’s got their own opinion on [obesity]. Everyone thinks they’re an expert because they’ve got a mouth. (Interview with Australian clinician, June 2011).

I um-ed and ah-ed for a long time over what to do with this particular quote, garnered during research on the policy debate around the ‘obesity epidemics’ in Australia and the UK. Out of context, it sounds terribly elitist. In context, however, it was much more understandable—it reflected his frustration at what he saw as the uneducated and reactionary nature of the debate. He, along with many of my other expert interview participants, expressed deep concern that his richly informed understanding of the complexities surrounding this public health issue was swamped by a ‘toxic’, populist account of obesity as a personal (or parental) failing which Nanny State should have nothing to do with. This populist view is one that typically invokes an acerbic, aggressive tone, ridiculing obese individuals and attacking the expert and activist ‘do-gooders’ who promote public policies on their behalf. For this clinician, and for most of my other interview participants, such ‘fat hatred’ was as egregious as racism or religious persecution, constituting the ‘one of the last bastions of discrimination’ in society.

Yet, though the populist view he described is one that is prominent (though not dominant) in the media in both countries, and one that is voiced occasionally by prominent actors in elite or empowered sites of policy debate in the UK, in Australia, the debate to which the clinician was referring, it has actually become taboo among elite actors. According to my research of Hansard, newspaper articles and other publicly available documents, not one politician, expert or stakeholder has invoked this perspective in the period since 2007. When confronted with my counter assertion—that the populist, anti-Nanny State narrative was far from dominant and was actually excluded by an unspoken cordon sanitaire from elite sites of deliberation—the clinician responded with an element of surprise, before concluding that (if correct) this development should be treated a sign of significant progress in the debate.

But is it? Just because he and his fellow experts (and me for that matter) don’t like the populist view, does that mean it should be excluded from elite sites of deliberation? Do we need to ‘defend democracy’ from such dangers, placing a cordon sanitaire around elite debate? This is an important question, relevant not just to obesity of course, but to a whole raft of political debates which feature reactionary, populist accounts: immigration and race, religion, indigenous rights, climate change and so on. It is also a question not just of philosophical interest, but one which speaks to who contemporary institutions of governance include and how they operate.

Drawing on new ideas in deliberative democratic theory—now the dominant normative account of what democratic politics should entail—I argue in my paper for the  Southampton-Stockholm workshop that the slightly broader representation of this view in the UK is preferable to the unspoken cordon sanitaire in place in Australia. I argue that populist views like those on obesity generally require broader incorporation in elite and empowered sites of debate. There are three primary reasons for coming to this conclusion.

First, incorporating populist views like those on obesity, grounded as they are in ‘common sense’ and ‘old fashioned values’, forces the experts like the clinician quoted at the start of this post to engage with this sort of folk logic rather than dismiss it. After all, decisions on political problems like obesity are not just technical. In the UK case, instances of dialogue between the technical and the populist can be seen to moderate and adapt the claims of both.

Second, active inclusion of populist adherents can encourage them to couch their claims in much more respectful terms. In the UK, where elite representation of the populist view took place, it tended to involve far milder language and to steer clear of vilifying the obese. Whether motivated by the relative absence of publicity, or by the more formal and dignified norms associated with elite sites of debate, the very act of inclusion had a de-radicalising effect.

Third and perhaps most important, exclusion of populist views from elite debate can harm the perceived legitimacy of the process, and thus limit the democratic imagination.  I found that elite actors in the Australian context, like the clinician heading the post, displayed a paranoia about the influence of populist anti-Nanny State sentiment—paranoia that led them to exclude it from elite sites of debate but which also conditioned and limited their advocacy for fear of a populist backlash.

I want to be clear that I am not claiming on this basis that all views—no matter how toxic—ought to be aired in all the institutions of public discussion. What I am saying, though, is that by and large more legitimate democratic processes will generally result from the recognition, rather than resentment, of the fact that ‘everyone has a mouth’.

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