Whatever happened to Populism 2.0? People such as Paul Mashatile, Giorgia Meloni, Liz Truss and Ron DeSantis were once seen as being more dangerous than the buffoonery of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson because they could actually get things done.
Retaining elements of the old-school populist playbook — presenting politics as a clash between the “pure people” and “corrupt elite” — this latter generation ominously combined the thin-centred ideological vacuousness of earlier populism with a degree of cold, calculated effectiveness.
However, shorn of any ideological rigour, it seems to have self-destructed. Mashatile is emblematic; his reputation crushed under the jackboot of one of his goons.
The Italian example
As ever, the Italian example is instructive. Despite initial signs of effectiveness, Meloni’s government has devolved into post-Berlusconi infighting, her coalition divided on everything from Europe to Ukraine, beach-club ownership reforms to changes to the legal system. It may survive, but lacking an ideological core it remains to be seen what it will ever achieve outside of headlines.
Such was the brevity of Liz Truss’s government it is a challenge even to recall her name. Her pretences of neoliberalism and market fundamentalism were so ill-thought-through, so patently absurdist, she almost bankrupted the United Kingdom. Her moment in 10 Downing Street has become a byword for chaos and ineptitude.
Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, has become conspicuous by his absence. Subsumed by Republican Party infighting and the Trump media circus, his once compelling image of conservative Floridian efficiency now looks stale and boring.
There is a lesson here for aspirant leaders like Mashatile. First, start with the basics. A populist-style “thin-centred” ideology, as coined by political scientist Cas Mudde, is not enough. While effective in opposition, it becomes hopelessly vague when in power, leading to organisational confusion (like Meloni) or the most basic blunders (like Truss). When in office, ideological rigour is essential in defining what one is, and what one isn’t.
Second, as the football visionary Arrigo Sacchi once said, “You can’t achieve anything on your own, and if you do, it doesn’t last long.” Meloni, Truss and DeSantis are all guilty of appointing the wrong consiglieri. Yes-men, goons and in-laws are not enough to ensure the longevity of any political project. Instead, truly capable and talented protagonists who could one day represent a realistic threat of gaining power are essential in retaining the intellectual relevance of an administration. What would Tony Blair have been without Gordon Brown, or Thatcher without Heseltine? Such talent ensures competition within the administration, ensuring organisational rigidity which can get things done.
Mashatile and Steenhuisen take note
Paul Mashatile and John Steenhuisen should take heed. The former is tasked with a monumental project of organisational rebirth, of arresting the demise of a juggernaut. As eloquently argued by Jonny Steinberg, it is inaccurate to depict the ANC as a once pure and chaste organisation subsequently corrupted by Jacob Zuma.
It has always been riven with internecine conflicts and afflicted by perverse agendas. However, it was once effective and had a purpose. It out-negotiated the Nats at Codesa and managed to reconfigure the political economy of South Africa under Gear. Now, it cannot achieve anything beyond formulating new subcommittees, the findings of which remain unpublished and unremembered.
If Mashatile is to attain and retain power, ideological coherence and a Stalinist adherence to organisational discipline will be key. He also needs the right people around him, as opposed to the current coterie of ministerial debris. Needless to say, these are all critical elements to ensure what is surely the overriding objective of any nascent ANC administration: rent extraction.
For Steenhuisen, the challenges are even more profound, if diametrically opposed. He has to build a coherent coalition from the ground up. It is not enough to be “anti-ANC”. He should look to Hungary for an example of how that strategy tends to work for opposition movements; despite appearing close in the polls, the United Opposition movement against Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz collapsed in the 2022 elections.
The anti-Orbán vote never materialised simply because people are wary of trusting disjointed coalitions whose raison d’etre is simply being against something, as they are unsure of what they might be for if ever in power. There is a dearth of credibility. Instead, disillusioned voters tend to abstain, ensuring the survival of the incumbent.
Historians are unlikely to mourn this generation of populists. They have achieved, and are likely to achieve, even less than their most ardent detractors ever predicted. However, that is not to say what comes next will be any better. DM