Why The Populist Always Wins

ROTTERDAM – Imagine you’re sitting across from someone at a party who just proclaimed that immigrants are ruining this country. You just forced down your glass Merlot and tried to not get into this shit, but you just can’t help yourself, and you ask him (it’s always him) why he might think that.

‘Cause it’s true. They are fucking this country over, y’know. Did you- did you know that like 70% of criminals have a different ethnicity? They’re coming in, they’re profiting off our welfare state’.

Now, at this point you may think ‘but I don’t live in a country that has decent welfare in the first place..’. So, you’re American, then. Hello from the other side.

I got you. ‘They’re taking our jobs. And they’re abusing the food stamp system.’

There are some frowns in the gathering audience. So the opposition takes a sip and continues: ‘their cultural values are fundamentally at odds with ours. They don’t respect women. They don’t respect gays. And they’re all Muslim, so if you want to leave the religion they will stone you to death. Marry outside this religion, and they will kill you because you dishonoured their family… why do we want these people in our country, man?’

Be careful now who you call a racist, though. Only the extremist alt-right people are racist. This guy isn’t: ‘I’m not saying our culture is superior or anything, we’re different. If you want to live like that, fine, but do it in our own country.’

You think back of the good ol’ days when the Clash of Civilisations was considered a pseudo-scientific theory not to be taken seriously. Now it’s an actual political ideology. And one with passionate followers it is.

‘Look, all I’m saying… I’m proud to be [insert nationality]. I’m proud of my culture. I don’t want people living here who don’t respect it. They can fuck off.’

I let him unpack entirely.

‘I’m fed up with the elitist liberal multicultural assholes who don’t get that their little experiment failed. They’ve taken away the power from the people and let the European Union take control. You know, I think the Brexit was a power take back by the British. It’s important to have sovereignty as a country, that’s why democracy works. We should have more referendums. Shit, I’d vote against immigrants, I’d get my friends to vote… you wanted young people to be politically active? Well, this is what you fucking get’.

I have always found that there is an emotional appeal here. It targets the lowest common denominator in all of us: fear. I’m not proud of it but I am at least somewhat suspicious of Moroccan youth in the subway at night. I don’t want to but my stereotyping brain overshadows my rationale for that second, and that’s all I need to check whether my wallet’s still there.

It’s extremely difficult to counter, though. Supposedly, I am one of those elitist liberal multicultural assholes he’s so mad at. I’m actually not- I might be as dissatisfied with the current political system as he is, and right now I am put in the awkward position of being the ultimate defender of a political Establishment I think is fundamentally broken.

I could tell him that. I could meet him halfway, and I sometimes do. I’ve noticed that rhetorically it’s hardly ever a good idea. Because if I acknowledge I think he’s right about one thing, he’ll take the whole hand.


It’s silent now.

Here I go: ‘you think the Muslim North-African Black and Brown People are coming to get you and rape your sister?’

That’s not what I think he thinks. But I’m testing the waters here: there is a lot to be said about immigration, and only some of it is valid. Most of it is rooted in xenophobia. You fear them because you don’t understand them.

But you don’t understand much anymore, do you? You are so proud of your nationality and your culture, and yet I bet that you feel as alienated from it as I do. You say you don’t recognize your country anymore, yet you display a whole lot of loyalty towards it anyways. You want immigrants to assimilate, yet we fundamentally disagree on what culture they need to adapt to. Because this pro-democracy, women-friendly, pro-gay, colour blind nation that you speak of so proudly doesn’t fucking exist. We are in theory, yes. But you and I are part of the same culture, so which one of us should this Afghani immigrant try to emulate?

You think you get to define our national culture. You don’t. Culture cannot be defined for the moment you do so, you deny its fluidity. Our culture is not what it was 10 years ago, and that’s not a value judgment, that’s a fact. It’s only constant in our mind because the name doesn’t change, but our culture changes continuously.

Then there’s immigration itself. I can point out that immigrants are in fact not stealing our jobs, and they actually don’t cost money, they are not detrimental to our economy, and they’re not raping your sister. I know it doesn’t feel that way, though. And it’s hard to argue against feelings.

Crime is more complicated. Depending on the country you’re in, your 70% may or may not be true. Then there’s judicial discrimination and the fact that crime is more prevalent amongst low socio-economic layers of society. It just so happens that rich immigrants aren’t the rule… but yes, immigrant crime is a problem. Integration efforts in the 90s failed. Does that mean I think that it’s impossible for people from different cultures to live together? No, it does not.

The new alt-right belief that racial realism means you live separately because cultural and racial bridges cannot possibly be crossed is uninformed about how our cultures came to be in the first place. Not a single country started as an ethnic and cultural unity. In fact, immigrants have shaped culture in more than significant ways, for minorities can hold substantial sway over mainstream. The one nation we call a ‘global superpower’ is a nation of immigrants, yet you want to kick ‘em all out.

And yes, some Muslims hold sexist and bigoted views, but so do a lot of our ‘own’ citizens. What ideal do you want to hold them up to, exactly? The one of our law? There’s no one disagreeing with you there, and you’re not the paramour of national virtue. In this debate we treat our own democracies as heaven, while Brexit and Trump have shown us that politics in the West can be ugly, it can be based on emotional appeal, and it can play to our lowest common denominator and our basest of instincts. Where is this Enlightened Western Humanist you speak of? Is he hiding behind Farage’s fetishist  masculinism? Or is she hiding from Trump’s loud bragging of his sexually assault endeavours? Is the stone-throwing, angry, and scared white guy screaming at immigrants while protesting at an asylum centre really the best we can do, folks? Is this the topping of the cake we call Western Civilisation?

You say you have a right to be angry, and I wholesomely agree. Yet my arguments leave me exasperated and yours just make you furious. There’s a sad and wistful undertone in mine, yet yours rally disenfranchised white people around you. There is an emotional appeal I cannot match, for it takes me 5 minutes to rebut a 10-second statement. I can lecture you on the facts of immigration, which are complex and sometimes counter-intuitive. But I seem to lose my audience every time I do so.

Modern politics has us turned into opinion holders who hold 10-second opinions. Anything more than that and people just bugger off into the night.

Truth is, reality is way more complex than those 10 seconds. Immigration debates, and discussions on nationalism, and screaming matches over racism need contain more information. They say there’s an inverse relationship between knowledge and confidence. The more you know, the less confident you become.

But I need that confidence to counter the populist at the party, so I simplify my own statements, too. And in the end, he beats me at his own game. He’s way better at it than me.


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