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by UnHerd
Saturday, 12
June 2021

Chris Bickerton: Welcome to the Technopopulist future

The Cambridge professor has identified a new force in democratic politics
by UnHerd

The pandemic has thrown traditional ideas about politics upside down. In a sense, it has been the ultimate triumph of the technocrats, with phrases like “following the science” and “trusting the experts” becoming commonplace; but notions like shutting national borders and moving governments onto a ‘war footing’ are more typically associated with the populist Right — it was Donald Trump who first shut the US borders, Modi in India implemented a swingeing lockdown early, and Boris Johnson’s government is, at least in theory, a populist one. 

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Chris Bickerton, reader in Modern European Politics at Queen’s College Cambridge and sometime star of the Talking Politics podcast, has a book out which sees a pattern in this fusion of technocracy and populism: it’s called technopopulism. In this fascinating discussion tells Freddie Sayers all about it.

The struggle today in the democratic states is not the old style Left versus Right. It is this attempt to combine in different ways popular appeal, charisma, being close to the people, and to have a popular touch with some sort of demonstrable form of competence and expertise. The politician that can get those two together — and it’s not an easy synthesis — but the one who can can win.
- Chris Bickerton, UnHerd

So is Boris Johnson a technopopulist?

Back in that December 2019 election, what Johnson was promising was actually not just to deliver what the people want, the people’s will, as expressed in the majority in the referendum. It was more than that. It was in getting it done. It was in being efficient, it was in delivering. And that promise to deliver is really a classically technocratic one about solving the problem, sorting it out. So I think Johnson — always from the beginning — combined those two things. 
- Chris Bickerton, UnHerd

Is Dominic Cummings an archetypal technopopulist?

I think that’s right…For him politics is about policy delivery, and corresponding directly to popular will. That’s really the essence of technopopulism. It’s like an unmediated form of politics. There is nothing that stands in between the leader who enacts the popular will and its ability to deliver. There’s all the stuff that’s in between that’s just not legitimate and not necessary. And that’s what Cummings is all about. It’s no coincidence that on one hand, he’s an instrumental figure in what we think of as Britain’s populist politics. But his main beef with Johnson in his seven hour denunciation was competence throughout the pandemic.
- Chris Bickerton, UnHerd

On technopopulism as a ‘politics of truth’:

When you translate expertise into politics, it takes on this absolutist form of ‘politics of truth’, and then when united with the populists it becomes very powerful. It goes some way to explaining why politics has become, as people often say, so toxic. If your political opponent just disagrees with you, then fair enough, and you just have a different view of the world. But if you genuinely feel that they are wrong, then there’s very little basis for debate. And so politics becomes this constant denunciation of the absolute error of the opponent and becomes very vitriolic and very toxic.
- Chris Bickerton, UnHerd

On the poor Covid debate about the science:

The way science has been brought into our politics is that there’s some sorts of hard evidence out there that is incontrovertible and incontestable and that’s just the way things have to be. And I think that’s done a lot of damage for our politics…You’d have thought that there would have been really substantive debates, where you can see the options available. And I don’t think that’s the way it’s happened, partly because we’ve had this straitjacket of following the science and assuming that the science is just an interest of everybody. 
- Chris Bickerton, UnHerd

On experts going into politics:

As experts are drawn into politics, like Mario Draghi in Italy and central bankers in the US becoming politicians, their authority comes from their expertise outside of politics. When they start to act in politics, they become criticised in the way that politicians are, and they lose some of that legitimacy that they get from being the experts.
- Chris Bickerton, UnHerd

On a problem-solving approach to politics:

One of the big problems if you frame politics as being about problem solving…The problem with problem solving is that it’s not a disagreement about what you want to do. It’s about how you achieve it. So you end up not really discussing any more what the actual goal is, what the ends are, what your final sort of purpose is. It’s just about did you do this well or did you do this less well? 
- Chris Bickerton, UnHerd


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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

Technocrats are acting like traditional technocrats and this is supposed to be new? There is nothing remarkable about our “expert” class thinking they know better than everyone else, trying to force everyone to do what they want, lying to get what they want, screwing up because they are really not that smart, and then shamelessly worrying about their reputation after the smoke has settled. From foreign policy and economics to public health and immigration, we have seen it many times before. They have always been a problem. Now there are many more of them, they have greater influence, and the standards for being an “expert” are lower than ever.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
2 years ago

It used to be that politicians were elected as honest, transparent, hard-working representatives of the people. Expertise was NEVER a requirement as that was supposed to come from the civil service or, in exceptional circumstances from outside consultants.
The competence of politicians then came (if it came at all) from a combination of expert advice, populism and occasionally a vision of a better future.
However, somewhere along the line the politicians tended to lack vision ands pleasing the voters became far more important.
Later still, politicians realised they could please voters by relying more on experts and less on the civil service (who also lost any vision in favour of career in turn guaranteed by never making a mistake, ie never risking failire).
Best of all politicians could take credit for the success achieved through following expert advice while blaming the same experts for any failure: ie they couldn’t lose. Blaming civil servants was never allowed so experts are far more useful in that regard!
The final part of the jigsaw is of course the voters: less well read, less well informed (media no longer independent) and easy prey to psycologists and other manipulators like Cummings.
The end result? Democracy dies…