I once wrote that populism would be the next major challenge that democracies would face. I was wrong. Almost by definition, populism is short term.
I believed that as populist leaders such as Donald Trump were elected by the people, it would become increasingly harder to stand by the principle that what the majority want is always what’s best. I believed that people would almost give up on democracy as these populist leaders were elected in and then caused nothing but havoc and destruction. Somebody would have to stand up and say that the majority could no longer be trusted to decide what was best for the country. I think that I was wrong.
Populism can’t be a problem for democracy as it is possibly one of the most democratic waves modern politics has gone through. The US election had people who were previously never engaged in politics, showing up at the ballot box and telling the government exactly what they wanted: somebody like them. With the fact that Donald Trump is a billionaire aside, he is not a politician, which in the eyes of the public, makes him just an ordinary guy. Populism got people who had never voted before, to turn up at the ballot and elect in your average Joe with no political experience — how can that not be democratic?
Ultimately, this is a problem for the centrist politics we’ve become so accustomed to, but not a problem for democracy.
Still, populism can’t last forever. The world has seen waves of anti-establishment politics before. The establishment will do what everything does when under threat: adapt. Voices of the current establishment will begin to sound more like Donald Trump and less like Hillary Clinton if it gives them a better chance of success. But as the new populist anti-establishment leaders fail to offer workable alternatives, support will return. This will create a new centrist politics, and no doubt in half a century’s time, people will become sick of this norm and revolt once more.
The cycle of populism will always continue, as people have a tendency to think that ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ and that a new type of politics is invariably better than the old politics.
I think that this thinking is wrong. I don’t believe that Donald Trump will cause complete destruction of the United States, no. But I do think that he will finally fall short of people’s expectations for change. Donald Trump will not bring back all of the manufacturing jobs, despite people in Wisconsin and Michigan believing this.
People will ultimately realise that it is not all about who is sitting in the oval office that determines if there is change in the country or not, but that maybe politics in general is resistant to change. In time, people will realise that the grass is not that much greener on the other side, and they will turn back. Until then, we just need to ride this wave of populism out.