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Sado-populism

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 Sado-populism is a term used by Timothy Snyder, a Professor of history at Yale University, in the fourthof a series of short lectures he published in 2017. The lecture was perhaps inspired by the election of Trump. It was publicisedin the UK recently by Alastair Campbell in The New European, who applied it to Brexit ...

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Sado-populism is a term used by Timothy Snyder, a Professor of history at Yale University, in the fourthof a series of short lectures he published in 2017. The lecture was perhaps inspired by the election of Trump. It was publicisedin the UK recently by Alastair Campbell in The New European, who applied it to Brexit and Johnson. In this post I want to relate this idea to my own discussion (e.g here) of plutocratic populism.


The most trivial difference is terminology. Snyder talks about oligarchy, and how the US under Trump was an oligarchy. However in his third lecture in the same series Snyder is clear that you can use the terms oligarchy, populism or kleptocracy to describe what he is talking about, so there is no difference here.


Why sado-populism? Snyder says that normal populists offer policies that will benefit the people they appeal to to get their support, but Trump didn’t do this. Instead he offered policies, like a large tax cut to the rich, that will hurt most those who voted for Trump, because to a first approximation lower taxes for the rich mean higher taxes or less spending on the poor. The idea that tax cuts for the rich create aggregate wealth which trickles down to everyone else is a right wing myth.


So he uses sado-populism to denote a form of populism that in reality does harm to most of those that support it. So how do sado-populists like Trump (and, I would agree with Campbell, Johnson) get elected. To some extent it is by fooling people about who will benefit from their policies (hence trickle-down), but mainly through a culture war. The aspect of the culture war that Snyder talks about for the US of course is race. More generally, the offer made to supporters of a sado-populist is status rather than income.


Typically the way to create status is to hark back to the past when such status was very evident. One of the things that differentiates sado-populism from a more typical democratic platform is that it is more about the past than the future. Here the link to Brexit is very clear. As Campbell notes, in the US it’s “not ‘Make America Great’ but ‘Make America Great AGAIN.’ Or, bringing it to Britain once more, Take BACK control”. One of the fascinating things about the Ashcroft poll published after the referendum is how Brexit voters thought the past was better than today, while Remain voters did not.


This is why Johnson keeps talking about ‘world-beating’, and right wing ‘journalists’ keep harping back to WWII or even Empire. A sado-populist looks for ‘the other’ who can be demonised and then tormented so that at least their supporters can feel they are better than someone else. So this government is brutal to asylum seekers, and hard on benefit claimants, not because they happen to be mean but because that is how to win votes. The UK government is also is very antagonistic to attempts to reduce racism, for similar reasons.


I think Snyder's analysis is broadly correct, and his discussion complements my own thoughts on populist plutocracy. As I have sometimes said, the focus of my discussion tends to be on the supply rather than the demand side, by which I mean how did part of the rich elite set out to transform democracy into a populist plutocracy rather than just support one of the two dominant political parties. In doing this I focus on two elements that Snyder also mentions as critical to the formation of rule by oligarchy: the media and inequality.


One interesting aspect of Snyder’s discussion of the rise of oligarchy in the US is the emphasis he puts on the decline of local newspapers. He suggests that with local newspapers readers could relate the news to things they knew about and that were therefore clearly true or false. With the decline of local newspapers we now have just ‘media’ which largely talks about facts that are remote from readers/viewers and can therefore be described as fake news.


It’s an interesting idea. It is certainly true that a feature of both Trump and Johnson’s government is that they lie all the time, and that it would be hard to convince others to go with you, internet based cults aside, if the entire media reported reality. This is why Fox News and talk radio in the US, and the right wing press in the UK, are so essential to sado-populist leaders. In the UK having a public broadcaster with a huge audience that is vulnerable to state funding cuts turns out, like so much of the UK’s pluralist democracy, to be highly vulnerable when a lying sado-populist is in charge.


The BBC aside, understanding why parts of the UK press went rogue is hard, because we are talking about the psychology of a few men. My guess is that Brexit was a radicalising moment in this respect. All the right wing press have supported it for some time, but getting it over the line required them to argue against the leader of the party they normally support, and also meant they lied their socks off. (In truth they had had practice from what they had done before.) Later they saw the chance of getting their journalists to lead that party. As Johnson sometimes says, the owner of the Telegraph is his real boss. By forsaking truth they gained influence like never before.


As to those that read these papers, I think we should never underestimate the power of propaganda for the majority that spend so little time thinking about politics.


Should I talk about sado-populism rather than talk about plutocratic populism? As I have always tried to make clear, I use populismin the sense Jan-Werner Müller uses it. A populist in this sense will always talk as if they are representing the views of the people, when in fact they only speak for some of the people. Remember how Brexit was ‘the will of the people’ when around half the people opposed it. Almost by definition this form of populism is divisive, with a clear ‘them’ whose wishes are irrelevant. By ignoring this 'them' and calling them the elite they can give some status to 'the people' who appear to have finally beaten the elite (although in reality the elite has just fragmented).


If you add in plutocracy, then it is clear the true interests of a plutocratic populist will be the interests of those in that plutocracy. Again it almost follows that everyone else, particularly those who are not ‘the people’, will suffer as a result. What I think Snyder’s discussion adds to my own is that what is offered to ‘the people’ by populists is status: an ‘other’ which is clearly beneath ‘the people’. Furthermore that status may have been lost compared to what it was, and the populist plutocrat or sado populist aims to return it to ‘the people’.


Snyder talks about the US as being on a knife edge between plutocratic populism and democracy. At the end of his talk Snyder briefly discusses how the US can end up on the right side of this knife edge, and then get off it. He suggests the opposition to plutocratic populism has to talk about the future, with clear policies about how to make the future better.


I was reminded of this when reading this piece by Alan Finlayson. He argues that Labour spends too much time talking about values and not enough time formulating demands. Values are timeless, and our plutocratic populist leaders are more than happy to talk about values. In contrast the future is about demands: demands for a better future. Get the demands right and detailed enough to move beyond three word slogans, and you also make it clear what your values are.




Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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