Back in 2016, when the world woke up to the realities of Brexit and President Trump, I was quite surprised at the depth, the intensity, the hostility and the limbic irrationality of the reaction of the policy and media establishment to both of those events. From memory, their interpretation of these events was of terror at an impending apocalypse. Brexit was the equivalent of a military disaster. Trump was the worst thing that could have possibly happened to the United States and, by extension, to the world.
The greatest surprise I experienced was as a result of reading the Financial Times. Many years before, the FT‘s pink pages had been my oracle, telling truths and helping me to interpret the world. When in early 2017 I started a job which required me once again to read the FT every morning, I was surprised at how far my new experience of it was from my memories of it. Rather than informing me of what was happening in the world, with regard to Britain, Europe and the United States, the FT simply repeated, in all of its articles, the trope that Brexit was a disaster, Trump was an incompetent and dangerous fool who was possibly also a criminal and a traitor, and populism would be the end of western civilisation. This wasn’t the facts and interpretation that I wanted and expected from a newspaper, this was like having to listen to a monomaniac working through her shock at realising that the world doesn’t work as she had expected.
For the past couple of years I had been working this through in my mind, trying to find an explanation for it. I think recently I’ve discovered why, and it came through as a result of reflecting on what populism is and why these institutions might consider it such a threat to civilisation.
My hypothesis is:
- In western democracies, while the power of selecting leaders according to their policies belongs to the electorate, the voters mostly leave the business of government to what we can describe as a policy elite. After so many years of peace, the policy elite has become established in social and government institutions, and have accepted the permanence of their position. ‘Leave it to us, we know what we’re doing. Trust us.’
- The current governance system in western democracies can thus broadly be described as democratic elitism: in elections, the electorate usually selects between different groups of elite members to design and implement policies for the governance of the polity, and the winners of elections do so with the assistance of an unelected bureaucratic elite.
- Brexit and the Trump Presidency represent a rejection of democratic elitism, in that they represent, respectively 1. a rejection of elite policy, and 2. a rejection of elite candidates for office.
- This is what the FT and other members of the elite call populism: a rejection of the policy consensus and candidates of the elite.
Seen in this light, the FT‘s limbic overreaction to Brexit and the Trump Presidency becomes understandable. The FT, sadly, doesn’t exist to present to readers the facts of the world, and to provide intelligent interpretations of those facts: it is an elite institution, which has the role of promoting and safeguarding the interests of the elite. As a result, it couldn’t present a clear and straight picture of Brexit and the Trump Presidency – both had to be dumped on and laughed at scornfully at every opportunity.
It also explains the FT’s reticence in covering the gilets jaunes protests in France, which represent yet another rejection of failed elite policies, and which I think are much larger and more consequential than the elite wish to acknowledge.
Probably none of this is new for political scientists, but it has solved a conundrum for me, and it may do so for others as well.