Modern ‘populism’: how did we get here?

Populism versus popular: which is what? (L to R): Philip, Bri Lee, Lisa Walker and Jim Hearn. Pic: Natalie Foord.
Populism versus popular: which is what? (L to R): Philip Frazer, Bri Lee, Lisa Walker and Jim Hearn. Pic: Natalie Foord.

If I were going to sum up 2017, I’d probably just ask: ‘how did we get here?’ There are plenty of people much more qualified to answer that than me.

Modern populists like Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump push ‘our country first’ policies, emphasizing that foreigners are trying to steal jobs, and claiming to be for the working man while simultaneously protecting corporate or religious interests.

But are they populists?

Julianne Schultz, chair and founding editor of The Griffith Review, also made the distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘populist’. She outlined modern ‘populism’ as being characterized mainly by having in-group complaining about other groups, by anger and crassness, and most of all by leaving no room at all for doubt.

Phillip Frazer agrees with this assessment, and argues that populism in its original form was about helping the people. He’d be right, obviously. Frazer, a writer, editor, and self-described populist, believes that populism must be followed by an adjective. His adjective is ‘progressive,’ and Frazer makes the distinction between the current brand of populism peddled by Donald Trump and the actual definition of the word.

“Trump’s not a populist, Trump’s a Trumpist. He’s only there in favor of himself,” Frazer said.

I agree, this distinction is important. To call what someone like Donald Trump peddles ‘populism’ is a disservice to the word (and the English language on the whole).

Bri Lee is a former law student and current editor of Hot Chicks With Big Brains, and has seen firsthand what this brand of populism leaves behind. Working alongside a judge in circuit around regional Queensland, Lee saw endless cases in Queensland where women were coming forward with sexual assault and rape charges, and as she put it, ‘no matter what happened, a man would not be found guilty’.

The only exception to this rule was a young man who also happened to be Aboriginal. He was found guilty. Obviously, the proverbial populist ‘every man’ is not a definition that extends to people who aren’t white. 

It’s important to note that while it might be tempting to equate populism in regional Queensland to poverty/a lack of education, Schultz points out that while ‘economics shape decisions’ there is ‘no clear line between poverty and populism’.

For Lisa Walker, whose first work was in zoological assistantship and who has written three books including Liar Bird, her main concern is climate change. Walker says that as the middle class widens in Australia, people are often ‘better off than they think’, and that climate change is often a populist ‘Trojan horse’, used to push the rhetoric of job creation or preserving industry.

Lecturer Jim Hearn came by his study of populism rather accidentally. The author of High Season and 2017 Griffith Review fellow started his book because he was intrigued with the idea of writing popular fiction after teaching a unit on genre. Hearn emphasizes trying to survive populist times without becoming analytical/righteous, as well as avoiding cynicism or being over critical.

Hearn also stresses that people often must work through issues of their own heart before dealing with something as monumental as populism, but that at the end of the day, ‘there’s no escape from politics’.

When Schultz opened the talk, she warned against trying to reduce simple answers. I think that conversations like the panel, The Perils of Populism, are important to have, but that at the end of the day we will never reach a simple one-step solution.

Megan Morgan is a Southern Cross University Bachelor of Visual Arts and Creative Writing student. She also holds a degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

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