The inclination of establishment politicians to overpromise is the core cause of the rise of populism.
Why is the current political landscape in many Western countries so unsettled? One reason is that the basic charge of the populists — that the elites just don’t know the answers anymore — is essentially correct.
An all-knowing establishment?
While that, in turn, does not mean or imply that the populists have the answers, the establishment certainly doesn’t help its case by continuing to pretend that it is (almost) all knowing.
As long as establishment politicians continue to present themselves in that manner (for fear of losing their dominant role), they resemble — in a most curious way — the wholly unreformed Catholic Church of old.
Mainstream politicians promise the moon, too
Mainstream politicians also don’t help their cause when they blame populists for luring voters with promises of quick and easy solutions that will give the people direct benefits, but cost nothing.
That only leaves one to wonder: Who are mainstream politicians to blame populists for that behavior?
After all, making cheap campaign promises has been the essence of (mainstream) politics since at least the 1970s, ever since ideological partisan warfare began to take a backseat to electoral campaigns in many affluent societies.
That empty feeling
Four decades later, voters have woken up to the near-complete emptiness and hollowness of many of the promises made by representatives of the mainstream parties.
Of course, the voters themselves are to blame as well. They have been all too ready to have wool pulled over their collective eyes.
This mutual self-deception charade was driven by a strong interest among professional politicians in self-preservation. After all, political careers are a great way for talking heads to spend a financially lucrative career, generally topped off by cushy retirement benefits.
Beware whom you label a populist
Now that mainstream politics’ game of deception is recognized, voters are taking the next, quasi logical (but really illogical) step. With mainstream politicians effectively clinging to their default position to deliver empty promises, more and more voters put their faith in the populists.
The political establishment, unsurprisingly, professes its utter indignation about this development. It simply declares everyone not buying into their own charade a “populist.”
The biggest problem with that approach is that it irresponsibly commingles opposition to the political establishment — a very legitimate endeavor — with neo-fascists who are seeking cover under the populism label.
It is no surprise that the extreme right wing exploits that effort by the establishment to commingle legitimate and illegitimate forms of populism. That commingling actually allows extremists to cover up their real intentions.
What is truly astounding is that the establishment, as if in madness, facilitates that strategy by lumping everybody opposed to its unquestioned rule into the same bundle.
Why yet more overpromising?
This isn’t the only way in which the political establishment has set a trap for itself. The rational thing for established politicians to do would be to end the constant cycle of overpromising.
Fat chance. Nervous about the inroads of the populists, the establishment feels it has no other choice than to keep overpromising. At a minimum, it should talk honestly about what is politically — and especially fiscally — possible and what is not.
Laying out choices and trade-offs
The key challenge for modern politics is the proper management of expectations, while taking proper pride in the immense achievements that have been achieved in welfare states such as Germany’s.
The illusion, however, is to let those expectations grow on and on. Taxation levels are high, as is the public sector share of the economy. Under those circumstances, it is pivotal not only to make critical choices, but also to limit voters’ expectations that all of them could get more and more in terms of benefits.
Governing, as politicking, means choosing. For too many in the political establishment, unfortunately, it means denying the necessity of making any choices (and thereby frustrating voters).
Honesty = maturity
Fiscal honesty certainly would be the mature and responsible way to proceed. Promising the moon — and denying the need for change and, yes, painful adjustment — only makes things worse.
However, most of the political establishment shies away from that very act of maturity. It believes that preaching realism and honesty is tantamount to unilateral disarmament.
And so the loop of ever more overpromising merrily continues, in a direct competition between the start-up populists and the establishmentarians. Which, despite the drawbacks, is not the responsible thing to do on the latter’s part.
A final thought
All of which leaves one to wonder: Rather than blaming the (true) populists for irresponsibly doing something that mainstream politicians are not doing, wouldn’t it be much more appropriate for the establishment pols to accept that populists, if anything, are deceptively akin to mainstream politicians, albeit on steroids?