Experts of every definition – economists, politicos, foreign policy wonks – are all at a loss to truly explain the Brexit and the seeming willingness of 51.9% of the population of a 21st century nation-state to gaze into the abyss, set down their teacups, and happily take a big step off the ledge. The results of the referendum – massive devaluation of the pound, skittish global markets, and regretful voters wishing for a do-over – might be enough to cause one to call into question the quality of British drinking water the day of the vote. But far from being a uniquely British problem, the same trend of cheerful self-destruction appears to be evident everywhere in the free world. In the United States, a racial demagogue armed with experience in business failures and beauty pageants stands a 50-50 shot at gaining access to 4,500 nuclear warheads. In Austria, a chillingly xenophobic man who encouraged using guns to “solve” immigration, and who sports the blue cornflower pro-Nazi symbol, came within a whisker of winning the presidency. And in the Philippines, the thuggish former mayor (and self-proclaimed vigilante) of Davao, who happily advocates both extrajudicial killings and sexual abuse of women, recently ascended to the presidency.
Astute observers of the seemingly quite contagious disease of madness have been on the case since the Trump campaign gained serious steam earlier this year, and have helpfully prescribed “populism” as the cause of the infection. Like all good “-isms,” populism makes a good villain because it sounds scary, befits our sense of big and important changes, and gives us an easy target to toss into the ring of knowledgeable dinner table conversation. In America, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, populism has attacked your party to one degree or another. In the world at large, it may have been attacking your culture, your identity, or your economic standing for years now, as citizens in Turkey, Greece, Russia and a host of other countries can attest. Despite the wide spread of populism and its apparently late-onset nature, commentary is divided on what has caused it. Economic angst caused by slow recovery from 2008? Posh, out of touch elites laughing pompously through cake crumb covered lips and ignoring the plight of the commons? Entrenched angry white people angered by rapid liberalization of societies on social issues from sexual identity to growing atheism? Regardless of where you stand on why the world is going to hell in a handbasket, the consensus seems to be that hell is indeed the world’s current destination, and handbaskets will be the mode of transportation.
But while popular and alarmist journalism about our end times may be the new fad, populism itself hardly is. In fact, it’s as old as the very invention of Western democracy itself. Ancient philosophers from Plato to Polybius wrote about it, and both attempted to tackle the challenges that attend giving the people the right to vote whilst avoiding tipping the scales to total mob rule. Ancient Athens struggled with populism on a nearly constant basis, as great leaders struggled to herd the easily-startled mass of voting citizenry toward beneficial action on the behalf of the state. Despite their sometimes Herculean efforts, they failed as often as not – in one famous example, the Athenian people put on trial and executed six of their best strategoi (generals) who had just won a major victory over Sparta for having failed to pick up enough survivors in the wreckage. In less than a year Athens, deprived of competent military leadership, had lost the Peloponnesian War. In another case, the Athenians impulsively voted to launch a foolhardy expedition to Syracuse in search of conquest and glory whilst losing a war at home to Sparta. The expedition ended in disaster and Athens never recovered, losing nearly all of its allies. In both cases, clearheaded expert advice on the matters at hand were ignored by the voting people in favor of impulsive, reactionary demagoguery – and in both cases, great harm befell the state.
Rome, the eventual inheritors of the great liberal experiment, tried to avoid the perils of direct democracy, but continued to fall prey to the whims of populism as often as not. Following near-catastrophic defeats at the hands of Hannibal at Trebbia and Lake Trasimene, during which its armies were almost totally crushed, Rome appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus as dictator, a temporary military post used in times of crisis. Despite the success of Fabius’ strategy of delaying and denying battle to Hannibal, the Roman people grew restless and demanded a direct confrontation – as a result, Fabius was removed from office, an army was raised, and at a place called Cannae, Rome suffered the greatest military defeat in its entire history. In another instance, the poor plebian farmers of Rome rallied behind populist candidate Gaius Gracchus, who introduced a number of genuine reforms, which improved their lives. When he proposed extending some rights to non-citizens, however, even the poorest plebeians turned on Gracchus, allowing him to be voted out of office and leading him to later commit suicide. In both instances, the fickle whims of the crowd steered Rome against the course counseled by its wiser leaders, to great harm.
The legacy of populism and the danger it posed to any experiment in liberal governance stuck with scholars of classical history throughout the ages, and was certainly present in the minds of the American Founding Fathers as they gathered for the Secret Debates at the Federal Convention of 1787 to frame the Constitution. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, in particular, were insistent on the need to guarantee sufficient safeguards to prevent the whims of the people from driving the ship of state too far astray. Both, however, struggled to elucidate actual structures, which might facilitate this without significant losses of liberty to the voting man. Hamilton finally concluded “I am at a loss to know what must be done – I despair that a republican form of government can remove the difficulties.”
Indeed, in Athens, in Rome, and in Philadelphia, men have tried and failed to discover the magic potion, which can cure the ill of populism in democratic governments. Throughout recorded history, stories of populist upswings carry with them the attendant catastrophes for the states which experienced them. And, throughout history, those states picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and continued on with the business of civilization. Contrary to all the angst, the shock, and the incomprehension that current commentaries seek to raise about global populism, all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. In the wake of Brexit, of Trump, of ochlocracy, and demagoguery run amok, history provides a soothing degree of perspective by showing us that that, far from being a product of our times, populism ebbs and flows in its intensity. Nothing has really changed about the world. It is exactly as it has always been.
Colin Reed is a recent graduate of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He received his undergraduate degrees in History and International Studies from North Carolina State University, where he was a junior fellow in the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and presented thesis research on the effectiveness of UCAV operations in Pakistan. He specializes in NATO-Russian relations, naval strategy, and intelligence methods. He is currently employed as an operations analyst in the private sector.