The demagogues have no clothes: The demonstrable failures of populists in the pandemic
Douglas William Gelfeld X
While no leader or country has gotten the pandemic response 100% right, a few standout figures across the globe have gotten it spectacularly wrong. With even the best responders and policy, there have been clear trade-offs. New Zealand and Australia, championed for their low rates of COVID and low mortality numbers, have sequestered their respective populations and cut themselves off from contact with other countries. Asian standouts like South Korea and Taiwan, who effectively used testing and contact tracing to minimize the spread and effect of the coronavirus, have lagged behind Western nations in vaccination rates among their populations. And European countries who initially got key policies right and have solid vaccination rates—like Germany and Denmark—have seen intermittent spikes after periodic re-openings. There have been good performers among democracies, such as the aforementioned countries, and relatively good performers among autocracies, like China. So the type of government is not necessarily an explanatory variable for successful COVID performance. But there is one key element that almost all of the worst responders have in common: they have been led by populists.
What is populism and who are the populists?
Populism. as defined by noted sociologist Cas Mudde, is a “thin-centered ideology” that preys upon polarization to further divide the populace between the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” Populism is thin-centered because it lacks a clearly defined ideology or belief system, other than blaming other groups for perceived injustices or slights. Because of this vague connection to a specific set of beliefs, we have seen populist leaders emerge on both the left and the right. On the left, populist leaders like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia tended to use economic issues, predominantly inequality and wealth gaps, to convince adherents that extreme policies like nationalization and complete government control of the economy are the sole solutions to these injustices. On the right, populist leaders, populist leaders like Donald Trump in the US and Viktor Orban in Hungary have used cultural issues like immigration and insecurity, often tinged with racist and xenophobic undertones, to rally supporters behind policies advocating the vilification of foreigners and the muzzling of the free press.
Populists on both sides of the political aisle often rely on their charisma and force of personality to gain power, and once there, lean on personal judgment or “intuition” over evidence-based policy recommendations. They tend to denigrate experts and academics, claiming that they know best, and that these elites cannot be trusted. They seek to establish a cult of personality and cast themselves as the lone savior to the crisis du jour, often of their own making. Donald Trump, as president, exemplified this type of bravado and megalomania, declaring of the many problems faced by the US during his inaugural address that “I alone can fix it”.
What makes populists particularly poor pandemic responders?
Populists tend to be better at making promises than keeping them. But the challenges posed by the pandemic has revealed populists to be especially unsuited for office during this time of crisis. As previously mentioned, populists rely on character and charisma over substance and science; what is needed during a pandemic is the exact opposite: a measured, level-headed leader who can assure the nation and chart a clear, data-driven way forward. Populists’ active distrust of experts and their anti-intellectual bent create confusion as to whom to listen to in the pandemic, and the unwillingness to follow the science leads the prescription of fake cures, easy-fixes, and bad messaging.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, populist leaders like Donald Trump of the US, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, among others, have downplayed the seriousness of the disease. They have refused to wear masks, taking it as a personal insult and slight on their dignity and manliness. They have flaunted and even excoriated the precautions of caution and social distancing and have undermined faith and confidence in the efficacy and safety of vaccines. Simply put, they have been a public health hazard to their countries and themselves.
But since I am touting the virtues evidence, don’t take my word for it. Here are the top ten countries by COVID deaths according to Johns Hopkins, which tracks global pandemic data:
*Countries in red indicate countries that are now or have been led by populist leaders at one point during the pandemic.
The top eight countries in the world by total COVID deaths have all been led by populists at some point during the pandemic. The worst-performing countries all featured anti-science, anti-expert, contrarian leaders who felt that they, and not the eggheads, the scientists, or the medical experts, knew best. The evidence begs to differ.
Perhaps, you might credibly argue, the countries on this list are here solely because they represent countries with large populations, like the US, Brazil, and India, among other sizeable nations. So let’s look a bit deeper into the data at per capita statistics. Here are the top five countries by per capita COVID deaths:
Again, three of the top five countries in COVID deaths per capita are led by populists. The evidence is unequivocal, and it demonstrates the abject failure of populists in the pandemic and the bankruptcy of their philosophy of misdirection, mendacity, and skepticism of science and expertise.
What can countries led by populists do?
While it may be too facile to suggest merely not supporting populist politicians or buying into their overly-simplistic, divisive solutions, this represents a good start. Voting populists like Donald Trump out of office is also highly effective when possible. It is also important to keep in mind that populists feed upon polarization so it is necessary, however difficult and frustrating, to respect one’s political opponents and make room for them in substantive policy debates. Compromise, though sometimes distasteful, is important to centrist, incremental yet sustainable solutions and governance.
As long as individuals’ stances and policies (and those of their parties) are based on evidence and fact, we should treat them as legitimate and in turn have legitimate, open, vigorous debates about them. Where politicians and public figures try to play upon emotion, fear, and speculation, we should shunt them off to the side as unserious candidates who are unworthy of our collective attention and certainly our votes. We face problems of grave, even historic proportions, and we need serious people with serious solutions to join in the effort to solve them. Populists leaders have demonstrated that they are no such people.
* Profesor de ciencias políticas y relaciones internacionales en el Tec de Monterrey.
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APA 7: Gelfeld, D. (2021,Septiembre 01). THE DEMAGOGUES HAVE NO CLOTHES:THE DEMONSTRABLE FAILURES OF POPULISTS IN THE PANDEMIC. Global Lens. https://www.globallens.mx/post/the-demagogues-have-no-clothes-the-demonstrable-failures-of-populists-in-the-pandemic
MLA 8:Gelfeld, D. “ THE DEMAGOGUES HAVE NO CLOTHES:THE DEMONSTRABLE FAILURES OF POPULISTS IN THE PANDEMIC” Global Lens, 1 Septiembre, 2021, https://www.globallens.mx/post/the-demagogues-have-no-clothes-the-demonstrable-failures-of-populists-in-the-pandemic
Chicago: Gelfeld, D. "THE DEMAGOGUES HAVE NO CLOTHES:THE DEMONSTRABLE FAILURES OF POPULISTS IN THE PANDEMIC” Global Lens, 1 Septiembre, https://www.globallens.mx/post/the-demagogues-have-no-clothes-the-demonstrable-failures-of-populists-in-the-pandemic