If you look up “populism” in the dictionary, the definition doesn’t sound that bad.
What it comes down to is a political approach appealing to ordinary people who feel their concerns are being disregarded by elite groups. That’s a good thing. Leaving aside the problem of deciding what an “ordinary” person is, a government is supposed to have the best interests of the entire population at heart, not just special interest groups.
In practice, populist rhetoric is being used by a wave of populist leaders riding to power around the world on celebrity, charisma and promises to fix, well, everything.
The problem is that while this kind of populism is successful in getting people elected, it really doesn’t have any place in government, or even choosing who to vote for.
Here’s a secret: no one person, no single ideology, no government, has a magic wand to wave. Change is slow, often painful, but if the people we choose to govern are planning for the future, ultimately it benefits all of us.
Governments do get co-opted, making decisions that support special interests at the expense of the larger population. And sometimes they just make mistakes. But governing, whether it’s local, regional, provincial or federal, isn’t about making decisions to just to please the most people either.
It’s about weighing the options and taking the long-term view of what will do the most good. So, spending more than the minimum on building a new bridge may not please your taxpayers, but having the capacity for increased traffic in coming years makes sense.
Instituting a carbon tax might get a government condemned, but working to slow the rate of climate change makes sense as we think beyond our current needs and look to future.
Listening to populist rhetoric, no matter how much it appeals to us here and now, is no way to decide who to vote for this fall. Politicians — of all ideologies — are always going to promise what they think people want, even if they can’t deliver.
What counts is a politician’s record and a little bit of critical thinking on our part — can that person who wants our vote deliver on that promise? Or are they promising more than anyone can deliver?