How populism begins

With the current political turmoil in the UK, I have been trying to understand the concept of populism. While the definition of populism leads you to believe that it can’t really be a bad idea, it’s how it begins gaining roots is why it has become a bad thing in the modern world.

Separatist politics aside, consider this example – you rent an apartment in a building managed by a homeowners’ association.

First some ground facts. The building has an even distribution of residents that rent and those that own their apartments. The owners (and only the owners) meet fairly regularly to discuss the maintenance priorities and the current concerns of the residents. Every month, every resident contributes to the pot of money that is used by the association to provide maintenance and repairs to the building as well as things like the water heating systems.  This contribution generally passes on to the renters as well in the form of a higher rent.

Now, as you could imagine, the immediate concerns of the renters are going to be quite a lot different from the owners. For example, the latter might want to spend the money in the pot on things that increase the value of their investment or that materially help them over the longer term, especially because they don’t live in the house that they own.

For renters (and residents), value lies in things like a working heating system, working intercoms, a clean common area, etc. If the resident also happens to own the dwelling, then they are interested in all these things – investment value as well as living comfortably.

Now imagine that the heating system starts showing its age – with increasing frequency, residents wake up to find that they will have to take a cold shower on that day. They start complaining. The voted members of the association promise action. Action is taken, but ultimately, the true fix is to replace the system, which would be expensive and might funnel away funds from bigger spends forecasted in the longer term.

At the next meeting, the resident members of the association vote to replace the heater as the inconvenience and unpredictability is getting out of hand. Unfortunately, the number of non-resident members has gone up since the last meeting. The votes are tallied and the final decision is to continue band-aiding the heater to stretch the system as much as possible before it gives away. The non-voting renters seek an update and are told that eventually the heater will be replaced, but for now they should be looking at things not improving by much.

Now the residents (renters and owners alike) find themselves in a situation where they voted for someone to represent their interests in good faith, but those representatives are now driven by other interests. They are now the elites and the residents taking cold showers are now the nobles who just want their world to improve.

From an outsider’s view – if a referendum was sought on spending money on what was immediately crucial – the heater – it would be called a populist movement. After all, the elected representatives have democratically decided that it is better to save the treasury’s money for improving the facade of the building in the next 5 years.

Even the non-resident association members (voters) would see it as a bad movement and would potentially try everything possible to silent those darn rebels that only aspire to upend the system and to put their interests before those of the elected officials.

Waiting patiently for the next election is not a solution for the residents – most of them rent and so cannot vote; and the problem needs a fix now. Not in 5 years, not in the next decade. Unfortunately, a lot of people are implicitly disenfranchised.

So, this is how populist movements start. As with everything, the trick lies in looking at the picture from all vantage points to really understand what is going on and what motivates someone to go against the grain.

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