Soft treatment of populism is what led to Varadkar mob


One reason for the recent gathering of a mob of agitators outside of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s home and the general rise of abuse towards politicians in Ireland is that, as a nation, we have lent far too much credence to populist politics in recent years. We refer to populist figures, elected representatives or otherwise, on the far-left and far-right as feeling some sort of righteous aggrievance and treat them almost pitifully while ignoring the baseless foundations that support their worldview and the malicious tactics they so often adopt, writes Adam Hallissey.

Harvard professor Michael Sandel, someone whose work I have referenced in previous columns, has been one of the United States’ pre-eminent political philosophers for a number of decades. Shortly after Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election success, Sandel went on the record condemning the comments of the brash billionaire’s Democratic party opponent, Hillary Clinton, who had, in the midst of a tense and contentious campaign, referred to half of those who supported Trump as a basket of deplorables; “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.” 

Trump received 63 million votes in that election. He received 72 million votes last year. Sandel, unlike Clinton, empathised with those who supported Trump, while accepting that a significant number of them did engage in a hateful brand of politics. Nonetheless, their indignation, according to him, was in fact righteous – a revolt against the tyranny of modern society and its elites – and Trump’s supporters should be listened to, not scorned. Sandel goes on, in his work, to construct a more specific, sophisticated explanation for why Trump supporters are fed up with society involving the meritocratic principle and globalisation, but I remain unconvinced as to whether the type of Trump supporter we are referencing here, the ones who do not even attempt to hide their racism, for example, would understand Sandel’s theories, never mind encapsulate them.

The same perspective has been adopted by a wide range of pundits, journalists, politicians and armchair observers worldwide. The rapid rise of populism manifesting itself in the form of an uptake of far-left and far-right politics in the last decade is, if little else, fundamentally justified and understandable, the claim goes. You can’t blame people, particularly those of certain socio-economic backgrounds, for looking to the far-left and the far-right of the political spectrum as the solution, proponents of the concept say, when the costs of housing are rising, public healthcare systems are faltering and not enough progress is being made on issues such as economic inequality and the environment. 

“They’re pissed off, what are you going to do? Sure, they act a little reckless, and abuse politicians, and call to elected representatives’ personal homes, and spread misinformation, and sink to the lowest of lows in the hope of converting others to the idea that modern Ireland is a failed state and that capitalism is evil and needs to be overhauled, but that’s just all part of their righteous indignation, I’m sure, or something like that.”

So, while the media largely condemns episodes such as when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s personal home is surrounded by an abusive, homophobic mob as was seen yesterday, once the event passes, there remains an undercurrent tone of sympathy for the populists who gathered. Can you really blame them for falling to such a depraved state when you see ‘insert topical issue, take your pick.’ There was a time when Joan Burton was trapped in a car by a violent mob upset over the horror of water charges. We tend to spend more time trying to understand why so many have turned to such a hateful brand of politics rather than calling out this brand of politics we know to be reprehensible as the first port of call, primarily to let people know that it is not acceptable in this day and age.

This implicit sympathy for extremist and populist politics in recent times has had disastrous and, unfortunately, predictable consequences. Most obviously, it makes engaging in the most vile forms of politics seem more acceptable if, after all, you are right to feel the deep-rooted anger towards Ireland’s political and economic systems and hatred towards its politicians that you feel, but maybe you should just calm down on the racism, homophobia, sexism, discrimination and general disillusionment with society.

It is time that populist politics are called out for what they are; a pipe dream sold by opportunistic politicians to an uninformed audience full of anger, lacking a stake in society and hungry for revenge upon a political class it believes has wronged them. There is nothing noble about it. It is, of course, populist elected politicians who really benefit from all of this and who are really at fault – constantly treading the fine line of feeding the populist mob with disinformation and false promises but never claiming the consequences when this mob, inevitably, wanders violently adrift. 

There are plenty of productive ways to engage with politics as someone who currently feels let down by the social, political and economic systems of modern-day Ireland. But, without coming across as simplifying the issue at hand, it is a slippery slope we are embarking on if we allow the shortcomings of our nation, most of which, without downplaying them, are minor in a systemic sense, to justify people moving towards a brand of politics which treats politicians like they are sub-human and puts vitriol and frustration above facts and pragmatism. That has not been the Irish way. Hopefully it will not become it.

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