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October 23, 2018   7 mins

You don’t hear it often but populists have a point. The likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France might not agree on everything but each has argued that our political systems do not represent the key groups in society on which they rely for votes; workers, people without degrees and those who feel anxious about how migration, cultural change and supranational integration are impacting on their nations.

Populists are portrayed as ruthless manipulators of public opinion but when it comes to the charge that some groups really are being left behind and left out they are on strong ground. To really make sense of their appeal we need to look less at the populists and a lot more at our own political systems. As we argue in a new book, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, co-authored with Roger Eatwell, we need to step back to consider how democracy has evolved and how two specific features have become increasingly visible to citizens, and central to explaining the appeal of populism: rule by an elite and technocratic few, and a growing representation gap.

Ever since the birth of democracy in Ancient Greece, many thinkers have been wary of people power and deeply suspicious of majoritarian rule. This tradition of a more ‘elitist’ conception of democracy has created room for populists who promise to speak for the people, who they argue have been neglected, even held in contempt, by self-serving and distant elites.

A desire to marginalise the masses can be traced from thinkers in Ancient Greece through to debates about the American Constitution and into new fears about people power that followed the rise of charismatic demagogues in Europe. And it continued well into the post-war period, with the anti-communist hysteria in the US, latent sympathy for Nazism in West Germany or support for the populist Poujadists in 1950s France confirming to many that the people ultimately could not be trusted to make sound decisions.

The tendency to want to side-line citizens was also partly fuelled by the rise of ‘elite theory’ in the US in the 1950s, which essentially argued that the essence of a stable democracy was not so much the mass participation of citizens, but rather rule by competing and enlightened elites. Apathy, in essence, might not be such a bad thing.

And this fed too into the post-war rise of international ‘governance’ structures and the gradual diffusion of power away from democratically-elected governments to transnational organisations, non-elected ‘expert’ policymakers and lobbyists. As democracies entered the twenty-first century, supporters of this approach contended that the transfer of power to more remote transnational bodies was necessary because complex issues like economic globalisation or the refugee crisis called for decisions to be made above the nation-state. The answer was ‘more globalisation, not less’, to paraphrase Tony Blair.

Opponents, meanwhile, saw these distant and amorphous structures as fostering liberal cosmopolitan agendas that had been sanctioned neither by national governments or the people. One example came in 1974 when Jean Rey, ex-president of the European Commission, warned that he would “deplore a situation in which the policy of this great country should be left to housewives. It should be decided instead by trained and informed people”.

Another came when voters were asked to return to the polls following awkward referendum results, or when the now President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, noted:

“We decree something, then float it and wait some time to see what happens. If no clamour occurs and no big fuss follows, because most people do not grasp what had been decided, we continue step by step, until the point of no return is reached.”

This suspicion has similarly been reflected in reactions to the vote for Brexit, the populist revolt in Italy and Trump’s rebellion in America.

Those who argue against giving the people a say over their nation’s membership of the EU, who actively seek to discredit the referendum, or who essentially call for the people to vote again and again and again until they make the right decision would have much in common with Plato who suggested that a “good decision is based on knowledge and not on number”. He warned that tyranny can arise naturally from democracy and contrasted this with rule by an ascetic elite of “philosopher kings” who were trained to promote the communal good. The only thing is that very few people today genuinely seem interested in the communal good.

Populism is also thriving, at least in part, because of how this longer tradition is today being exacerbated by a second feature, namely a growing representation gap between different groups in society. Certainly, there have been some major achievements in recent years. If you look at legislatures in America, Britain or France then you will see record numbers of women and ethnic minorities in the corridors of power. This should be applauded. But when it comes to others in society, who have also been the most likely to vote for national populists ­– the working-class and non-graduates – it is an entirely different story.

Consider just a few statistics. In Britain, by 2017 the percentage of MPs who had experience of manual jobs had sunk to an all-time low of 3% while the percentage who have only ever worked in politics reached an all-time high of 18% – nearly one in five.

In the US, in 2014, it was revealed that, for the first time in history, more than half of those who had been elected to Congress were millionaires (with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans). Yet it is education and not income that is playing the more important role. As scholars like Mark Bovens and Anchrit Wille have shown, since the 1980s the number of degree-holding ministers in Western Europe, many of whom have gone on to postgraduate study, has increased dramatically. As those with advanced qualifications have acquired more representation and power, governments have over time become more empathetic toward their desires and shaped more around ‘cosmopolitan standards’.

During President Obama’s second term, for example, whereas 93% of House Members and 99% of Senators held bachelor degrees this compared to a national average of only 32%. Of the fifteen ministers in Merkel’s third cabinet, fourteen held a Master’s degree, nine had a PhD, seven had worked at universities and two had been professors. In France, many of political and media elites are still drawn from the same prestigious Grandes Écoles while in Britain academics James Tilley and Geoffrey Evans have documented a growing discrepancy between Labour politicians and their working-class supporters.

The representation gap would matter less if these groups thought broadly alike about key issues. But they do not. In both the US and Europe researchers have shown how the growing divide has fuelled an ‘exclusion bias’, skewing the policy-making process towards the better educated and typically more affluent ‘haves’ and away from the less well educated and less secure ‘have nots’.

One recent review of pre-Trump policies in the US by the scholar Larry Bartels concluded that across a range of issues the views of the left behind were often ‘utterly irrelevant’. Others, like Nicholas Carnes, have similarly shown how policies have been far more generous to the haves than they would have been had politicians come from the same mix of classes and backgrounds as the people they represent. And we wonder why many of them have been drawn to populist mavericks who argue that they are getting a bad deal.

In Europe, the divide has become even more visible because of the way in which new and more divisive issues like immigration and European integration have risen up the agenda. Chatham House recently found that while 57% of elites across Europe felt that immigration had been good for their respective country only 25% of voters felt the same way. Political, business and media elites were far more likely to feel they had benefitted from being in the EU, to back further integration and support refugees and the role of Islam in Europe.

“Citizens must have the feeling that they count”, argue Bovens and Wille, “that their voices are heard, and that they are able to impact policy. In a diploma democracy the well-educated voice resonates much more strongly at the ballot box; in deliberative sessions and expert meetings; in parliaments and cabinets”.

What is now clear is that large numbers of people with lower levels of education or socially conservative values feel that that they do not count, that they do not have a seat at the table. Indeed, it is telling that shortly before the Brexit referendum in 2016 nearly half of Britain’s working-class agreed with the statement that “people like me have no say in government”, while shortly before Trump large numbers of whites without degrees felt the same. The writing was on the wall and it was not inaccurate.

But it would also be a mistake to look only at politics. As organisations in Britain like the Sutton Trust have argued for a while, the representation gap extends across much of Britain’s social, economic and media life, with graduates – and Oxbridge graduates in particular – being far more prominent among the ranks of BRIT, Oscar and BAFTA winners, and a wide range of media and business professions.

Amid the rise of this “diploma democracy”, the less well educated are not only less trusting of government and more likely to feel excluded from politics, but are also being left out of large swathes of our national cultural life. It is because of statistics like these that Bovens and Wille argue that Plato’s dream of a meritocratic polity has more or less been realised. Yet whereas Plato’s idealised ruling class was an ascetic brotherhood working for the common good in small city states, today’s rulers are increasingly cosmopolitan, insular and at times self-serving.

None of this has been lost on citizens. Last week, it was widely reported that amid the ongoing Brexit negotiations people who live outside of Britain in other EU member states had become more positive about EU membership than at any other point since 1983. Yet much of the coverage missed another set of statistics that lay hidden in the report. When given the statement “My voice counts in the EU”, on average only 48% of people across the EU agreed while the figure tumbled to 32% in Britain, 24% in Italy and just 16% in Greece. Public support for the EU may well be stronger outside of Britain but the same worries about a lack of voice and distant elites that united many Leave voters are widely felt.

The academic E.E. Schattschneider once observed that a key risk that faces democracies is that they become dominated by the privileged and ignore the less well off. “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent”, he wrote. Today, the heavenly chorus might sing with a middle-class accent, but its members are now holding degree certificates.

Those who frame national populism as an irrational outburst of protest politics would do well to reflect on this. Populists and their supporters are right to point to these problems. The question that faces us now is what are we going to do about it? One pragmatic reply might be to create more room for deliberation and input from across society through devolution, the roll-out of citizens initiatives or making greater use of referendums at the local level.

The vote for Brexit, for example, could have been used to spark a meaningful discussion among citizens about political reform  – how to get more workers and non-graduates into the corridors of power, whether out-dated institutions like the House of Lords should be replaced with an accountable and transparent second chamber, whether local or regional representatives should be selected by lottery, and whether we should think harder about eligibility and running for office.

Such initiatives would not necessarily halt populism, as countries like Switzerland with its long tradition of direct democracy, show. But proactively implementing a suite of packages now might at least go some way to addressing the belief, held by millions, that despite living within representative democracies they are not really being listened to by increasingly distant elites.

Matthew Goodwin is co-author of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, published on October 25 by Penguin.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.