Terry Prone: Charge of populism often cover for those who have lost sight of people

Terry Prone: Charge of populism often cover for those who have lost sight of people

You were probably way too busy making gravy, wrapping and unwrapping presents, and coping with leftovers to even register the three-flush toilet issue, writes Terry Prone.

Terry Prone: Charge of populism often cover for those who have lost sight of people

The only reason I’m up to speed with it is because, when the woman next to me on the plane spoke, her voice was suddenly loud because taxiing was complete and the engine noise died at that moment.

“I don’t like him, but he does have a point,” she opined. “I mean, aren’t you sick of plunging?” “I’m good and sick of plunging,” the woman on the other side of her affirmed.

Apparently the two of them had got into the plunging business because the environmentally-friendly toilets in their apartment weren’t doing what toilets are supposed to do. Or if they were doing it, they weren’t doing it with sufficient enthusiasm.

The toilets used less water and power than was traditional in plumbing but were failing in their mission to expel and expunge human waste at the press of a lever. Hence the investment in rubber plungers to unstick the process.

The two women, who seemed to be sisters, went on to lament the washing machine in their shared apartment. This wasn’t a complaint such as some Irish owners of particular machines learned they had, just before Christmas: a door that, because of defects, could make the entire machine go on fire.

Less dramatically, the two women were unsatisfied with the whiteness of their bed linens after they’d been through the new machine, which boasted that it, like the toilet, used markedly less water and power.

The problem was having to put stuff through two or more washes before the clothes were really clean, which rather defeated the proudly claimed environmental purpose. Which in turn brought them briefly into agreement with Donald Trump, who, in the run up to Christmas, became exercised about these newfangled machines made overseas to meet global standards and how “many, many people” were telling him that they weren’t a patch on the old fangled machines America used to make.

Before anybody dismisses this as just the latest populist bilge emanating from the White House, let’s pause for just a moment and examine the accusation. Populism. When someone accuses a politician of “populism,” it’s usually a boomerang accusation. Does no damage to the accused, because most people don’t register populism as a sin, but, when it returns to the accuser, makes them feel great.

Populism starts as an effort to reach out to ordinary people who feel disregarded by the establishment. This is not, in and of itself, evil. It’s only when or if it veers into racism that it becomes evil. General condemnation of populism is like being outraged when jaundice manifests itself. Jaundice is just a symptom of something more serious. Ditto populism.

So when we hear the self-righteous statement that “Populism is on the rise everywhere” the relevant question is what the rise is in reaction to. In Europe, it’s growing because of an inchoate fear that the good times are over. The French are not protesting against Macron because of him adding two years to the age at which you can get your pension. They’re protesting because they see this move as the harbinger of much worse, of a creeping immiseration that will see young people much less well off than their parents. The European Project may have kept its shine for older people, but younger people can see the European Union as a bureaucratic establishment obsessed with straight-banana bureaucracy and high-minded notions like diversity, rather than with their current realities and fears for the future.

The American version of that is expressed as fear of “big government,” meaning the growth of bodies set up and paid for using taxpayers’ money to hamper the lives of taxpayers by forcing them to be compliant with new rules like buying only environmentally-accredited washing machines and toilets.

Terry Prone: Charge of populism often cover for those who have lost sight of people

Populism tends to be effective when it addresses an issue people are actually thinking about, as opposed to an issue they should be thinking about. In any country, neither the effectiveness of the washing machine or the loo figure on the Favourite Topics list of policy-makers like politicians, lawyers, and economists. The lawyers and economists who hang around party headquarters have more important things to be thinking about, and because of that, they leave the low-hanging fruit of inadequate toilets to the populists like Trump.

If you talk to people who know Trump well — even those who come out in a rash with dislike of him — they’ll tell you that although he doesn’t bother himself listening to the highly educated and expert people provided by the state to give him wise input, he does pay attention to ground-level folk. He remembers the names of porters, security guards, and maids and picks snippets up from them he subsequently repeats in public.

His toilets/washing machine snippet fed beautifully into his over-riding narrative of good workers making good products being bullied out of their jobs by global forces and international standards predicated on climate change. He told it as he tells every variant on that story: in simple, concrete, visualisable terms. He didn’t shout it or talk about infrastructure or policy amendments. He talked, as he always does, in conversational tones.

Terry Prone: Charge of populism often cover for those who have lost sight of people

End result: his fans, those disenfranchised by the closure of the furniture and manufacturing businesses right across the “rust belt” over the last 25 years, were confirmed, yet again, in their belief that he’s the only one who understands the misery of their lives and how it was delivered by free trade and global markets. Each of “his” people was handed a simple story to tell simultaneously vindicating the skills of their parents and grandparents, who made the toilets that got rid of the nasties at first flush and rubbishing the climate-change do-gooders.

This is the point where the “populism” accusation kicks in, where we purse our lips and say that this is not the way the leader of the free world should communicate.

Look, instead, at the proper approach taken by a recent British Prime Minister, who stated that any one of his speeches “was usually the culmination of a hundred drafts, constantly rewritten, updated, and refined.”

That was Gordon Brown’s approach to influencing people via the spoken word, and I defy you to quote him or remember any “sticky” concept emerging from his rhetoric.

Populism is what happened in response to the CervicalCheck issue. The medical profession “gets” the concept of Public Health. The general public doesn’t. The general public “gets” the stories of individuals they perceive damaged or ill-served by the system. Last week, for instance, it was announced that life expectancy in this country has increased by two years over the past decade. The general public ignored the finding, concentrating instead on individuals suffering on trolleys with flu.

Too often, when politicians attack populism, the attack is an unconscious cover for defense of policies and systems that have lost sight of people.

Populism tends to be effective when it addresses an issue people are actually thinking about

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