To recap and settle our terms, the populist demagogues now emerging as leaders of governments around the world have a peculiar way of operating.
At the core of their practice is a truculent nationalism that defines a part of the political community as the ‘real’ people. They claim to govern in the name of ‘the people’, as defined. They use polarization deliberately, even when in government; they define enemies and rail against these unceasingly in colorful language. They demonize The Other/ the Outsider. They are crude propagandists without the slightest regard for truth or logic or the rules of polite discourse. They can be both boorish and ridiculous…and they rejoice in the fact.
Now, typical technocrats or policy wonks are highly educated persons, usually with advanced degrees from excellent universities. These are minds that have been tilled, ploughed and cultivated to a sophisticated degree. They understand ideas. They have been trained to handle evidence with care. They have been taught the basic rules of logic, the nature of fallacious or tendentious reasoning etc. They also know the importance of public debate and discussion, of making your case vigorously but fairly, of avoiding lies, obfuscation and downright dishonesty.
Finally, whatever the ideological commitments of these technocrats or policy wonks, they are not usually people who go around spouting racist or misogynistic views in public …no matter what they privately believe.
Yet, look around the world today, and you will notice that quite a few supposedly polished technocrats are working for brute demagogues. You listen to them and you wonder: How have you sold this gig to yourself, comrade?
Some of these technocrats say they are motivated by patriotism. They say: ‘Okay, I know that the populist leader I serve is awful but my country needs me. Someone has to do it. We have to help our country get through this crisis of governance. Also, I hope to become one of the moderating influences.’ They go in, take plum jobs and do their best to avoid the limelight. The gig is all.Others go in and sign up for the entire program. They jettison their own values and convert to the populist creed…at least for now. They are the ones who show up on television in each country where populists rule, ready and willing to find ever more tortuous reasoning to defend whatever the populist leader is up to at any point in time. If he says night is day they ask you to see the brilliant sun in the darkness, urge you to really open your eyes so that you can see it. They change their views as rapidly and as dramatically as the Dear Leader changes his. They argue the opposite of whatever they were arguing on television last week with equal eloquence and intensity. In these people that still small voice known as the conscience has been entombed.
But I am mostly interested in the third category of policy wonks attracted to authoritarian rulers generally, populist or otherwise. These are the callous chancers. They are usually the promoters of all manner of out-of-the-mainstream policies that will not normally survive the rigors of democratic politics. They abhor the compromises and delays of the democratic process. They like situations where, if they can win the trust of the Dear Leader, they can, at long last, put their favorite theory into practice. The Dear Leader might be awful, buffoonish, whatever…these people don’t care, so long as they get a chance to pursue that policy goal that has long eluded them. And, by the way, this is also the attitude of many business leaders in these situations. They might find the Dear Leader repugnant but, if there is money to be made, they will put perfumed handkerchiefs over their noses…and go in to look for lucrative deals.
The callous chancers are often pushing deeply unpopular and noxious policies. These are minds in thrall to abstractions. Fellow-feeling and compassion? Not their strong suits. They do not dwell on the likely devastating impact of their policy prescriptions. They hide their wickedness behind plausibly technocratic language. It is the big policy goals that matter, not human beings. They say, for instance, that budget deficits have to end and propose brutal medicines for achieving the objective. What about all the poor and middle class citizens whose lives will be smashed? Not a relevant consideration. For the callous chancers like to consider themselves men and women made of sterner stuff. No sentimentalities here, you understand. Not ever.
What does history tell us? That wherever populism reigns today its moment will eventually pass. For populism is a dead end. It is not a viable basis for governance in the modern world. Right now, loads of supposedly intelligent people are destroying their own reputations. They will pay the price that those who collaborate with odious leaders eventually pay.
But, as I close, if there is one prediction that I will make it is as follows. The current set of technocrat-collaborators with demagogues will someday deny it all. They will seek to downplay their role, and they will make creative attempts at reinvention. For, although political seasons change the one characteristic that these technocrat-collaborators have in common will never change.
And that’s their brazen opportunism.~
*Dr. Sina Odugbemi Is a Senior Communication Officer (Policy) with World Bank