Prof. Pratt: Populist Leaders in the West Tend to Have Short Political Lives

Back view of Donald Trump, former President of the US as speaking to a large crowd at "An Address to Young America" in Phoenix, Arizona on June 23, 2020.

Professor John Pratt: “I think, democracy has largely held firm. The Netherlands, for example, I think there was an election there just the other week and the populace didn’t vote much for populists. Which isn’t to say that you haven’t got populist leaders and doing well in other countries. You know, the picture is very fluid, obviously. But, I don’t think it’s as gloomy a picture as some people make out of it. I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists. Often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with ECPS Prof. John Pratt of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand argued that in Western democracies populist leaders who gain power usually have short political lives. Prof. Pratt underlined that the reason for this was populist leaders were quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. He added that the best example was former US President Donald Trump but stressed that the situation in non-Western societies was different. Because democratic institutions were not as strong as in the US, the populist leaders were staying in power for long periods of time.

Despite the rise of populism and populist leaders worldwide, Prof. Pratt sounded optimistic about the future of Western democracies. Stressing that democracies have largely held firm, he argued that populist leaders were ‘ignorant clowns.’ ‘I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists, often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns,’ said Pratt.

The following are the excerpts from the interview:

Thank you very much Professor Pratt for the interview, my first question is, how do you define penal populism and how popular is it in different countries, and what lies behind it?

Well, let’s take that one step at a time and, first, I think I would define penal populism by first defining what populism is:what it means to me. It refers to the moods and sentiments and voices of distinct and significant sections of the public that feel that they’ve been ignored by governments. They feel there are more favored and less deserving groups. They’ve been left behind or disenfranchised in some way by government policy. These significant sections of the public does speak out against the machinery of government which they judge of being complicit in conspiracies against the worthy members of society that they see themselves as being.

And if you take that on to penal populism, then that refers to the way in which criminals and prisoners are thought to be favored at the expense of crime victims, in particular, and the law abiding public in general. It feeds on expressions of anger, disenchantment and disillusionment with what it sees as the insidious workings of the criminal justice establishment. That is to say senior officials, ministers of Justice and corrections department judges, academics, members of the police and parole boards. It holds these members of the establishment responsible for a much too liberal criminal justice policy which has put ordinary people at risk of crime.

And so, remind me again the second question. 

Populist Politics Is a Different Phenomenon From Penal Populism

How popular is it in different countries. And what lies behind it?

Well, I think it’s been particularly popular or virulent in the Anglo American world. Not so much in the other European countries, although they haven’t been free from it, but certainly I think it’s been most strongly experienced in the Anglo American world. It is no coincidence that it’s been in those countries that the conditions necessary for penal populism have been strongest and its effects are being seen with the dramatic rises of imprisonment in most of the Anglo American countries.

What lies behind it, well, I think it emerges out of the neoliberal restructuring that began to take place in these societies during the early 1980s and onwards which produced significant benefits for many in terms of access to wealth and freedom to choose how they spend the money through lower taxes and so on, but which, at the same time left as I’ve said already, a lot of people behind. A lot of people didn’t share the benefits and they only experienced anxiety and uncertainty as the world around them seem to be changing very rapidly due to this restructuring and they struggled to find a legitimate place for themselves in it. How did they then turn their attention to crime and worry about crime in an era when crime itself has been rapidly declining? Well part of that restructuring has involved deregulation of the mass media and privatization of the media.

Up to the mid 1980s in most countries, the TV was terrestrial and consisted of access to just a few channels. With deregulation, with technological development, it’s opened up to a massive 24/7 television network, a lot of those channels are news programs competing with each other. What’s the best way to attract an audience and buy advertising, because they don’t receive funding from the state? Well it’s concentrating on crime and it’s the same to do with the way in which the newspapers have become much more tabloid entity feeding on sensational stories rather than the kind of authoritative statements of government policy that used to find in the broadsheet press.

Social media takes public discourse further away again from control by government and allows all manner of opinions to be expressed, but mostly to do with crime and fear of crime, and you know that’s a very strong theme of talkback radio. So that combination of factors swirling around together with neoliberal restructuring let loose in conjunction with growing distrust of central government and in career politicians and what they can achieve: all these lead to this phenomenon that I’ve referred to as “penal populism.”

Right and what gave birth to penal populism, you already answered this question. Does each populist government has penal populism?

Well, I don’t think it does. Because I think our penal populism, for the most part, as I said, it’s been concentrated primarily in the developed world in the Anglo American society, but now you are getting the rise of populist politics right across Western society. That’s a different phenomenon from penal populism and, in some ways, it uses the same mechanisms that made penal populism more powerful relying on common sense, anecdotes, and downright lies.

If you look at the Scandinavian countries, the Nordic countries, you find right across quite strong populist parties. But, the emphasis is not so much on crime, it’s on fear of immigrants and what they might do to those societies. Populist parties have become very powerful in that region by wanting to keep those Nordic countries as they are with their very strong welfare states, a strongly protective state, for what they see as authentic citizens of those countries. That doesn’t include the wave of immigrants that are headed towards that region over the last 10 years or so, both legal and illegal immigrants.

Populist Politicians Are Quickly Shown Up to be Fraudulent and Full of Empty Rhetoric

After the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 Turkish President has imprisoned tens of thousands of people with flimsy evidence and sacked hundreds of thousands, without any meaningful objection mechanism, how long can a leader use penal populism, to consolidate his power?

It’s a difficult question to answer, and I wish I could give you a definitive answer to that. I think if you look outside of Turkey, you see, in the Western democracies, politicians who try to use populism to gain political power tend to have quite short political lives. Because, they are quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. One of the best examples of that is Donald Trump in the US. Fortunately for American citizens and the rest of the world, the democratic processes were held up against all the efforts he made to undermine them. So there you have very strong tradition of democracy and it takes a much more astute, more intelligent and more clever politician than Trump to undermine it. In Turkey, I think, it is rather different because you haven’t got such a strong tradition of democracy. Your democratic institutions of government are not so firmly embedded and it allows the current president to disregard what we in the West would see as absolutely central elements of the rule of law.

How long, he will last in in power, I can’t give you a prediction. In populism, I think, wherever it takes root usually has a finite life. It may be shorter in some societies, longer in the others.

Professor, why does penal populism decreases when populism increases?

Again, I’m looking primarily at the Anglo American world where those countries that most strongly experienced penal populism and what I’ve argued in some of the work I published is that penal populism was used by neo liberal governments to essentially maintain the status quo, and that is to say, they didn’t think de-structuring programs that neo liberal governments were pursuing despite all the inequalities and divisions that it created. 

Having penal populism, as part of the program of government performed a very useful function, because it told the general public that: Look your enemies are criminals and law breakers or people who are putting you at risk. We are prepared to use really extraordinary measures. So look how much we’re taking care of you against those who pose the greatest risk to your well being. So it was a way of maintaining social cohesion and allowing the status quo of neo liberal governments to be pursued. Now, it decreases when populist politics become stronger. Because there comes a point when penal populism wasn’t able to fulfill that function, it wasn’t able to maintain the status quo that neo liberal politicians had hoped for.

And I think there are two reasons for that. First of all, was the 2008 global financial crisis which increased social disadvantage and inequalities and allowed a minority to become even richer, so that those inequalities became more and more glaringly obvious and thereafter as well, it was followed by the high levels of immigration, particularly from the Middle East to the West or South to the North, East to the West. And those who had already been left behind in the Anglo American world, seem to feel threatened even more by immigration. Not only did it seem to be endangering the jobs or their prospects of getting a job, but it seemed to be an endangering on all left to cling to, like national identity.

Because immigrants were bringing different traditions, different cultural values with them into these societies. So,populist politics which are using and exaggerating many of the tactics associated with penal populism was no longer interested in maintaining the status quo. Its appeal to its supporters like Trump supporters, for example, was that you know we’re going to change things, we’re going to have a revolution. We’re going to make America great again by turning the clock back to some sort of dream time or the 1950s when America was ruled principally by white men. With the Brexit campaign in Britain, we want to stop all this collusion with foreign people in Europe, because Britain can make it on its own; sort of replaying themes from Second World War and the days of empire and all the rest of it.

Populist politics in those societies have arisen out of the failure of penal populism to maintian the function that was expected of it. That is, the failure of penal populism, to maintain social cohesion and, which would then have allowed the neo liberal program of government to continue. After the 2008 crash and growth of immigration, populist politics says no, we don’t want to maintain the status quo, we want to dramatically change. And, the way to do that is to trust on strongmen leaders who know best, who know better than the experts, who know better than career politicians and civil servants and bureaucrats people like Trump and (Boris) Johnson in Britain.

In your works, you have quoted Francis Fukuyama. You know hes famous for the argument that human race has reached at the end of history, and we would witness the universalization of western liberal democracy. However,liberalism seems to lose ground to populism. What went wrong?

Well, I am sure that Fukuyama himself with that knowledge was being wildly over optimistic when making that comment. It was certainly not the end of history, it was the start of a new chapter in history characterized not by the tradition of social democratic post-war governments. “The end of history” that he was talking about i.e. the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain already coincided with the growth of neo liberal program of governments. Economic and social restructuring that occurred witnessed a lot of people became winners and enjoyed things they could never previously have dreamed of, but many people who got left behind felt embittered and trapped.

Trapped in what we call in New Zealand: Modern societies’ bargain basement. They had no way out of it for the $2 stores. Outside the $2 stores, they could see all the winners or in these casino economies that’s been created, all the winners gliding up the escalator of success, but they were stuck in the bargain basement.

That was what went wrong with Fukuyama’s prediction. It wasn’t the end of history at all and the continuance of Social Democratic policy came to an end. It was the beginning of neoliberal governments which caused great social divisions.I’ve come home to roost in all kinds of ways in the last few years in western societies. 

Specialist in hazmat suits cleaning disinfecting coronavirus cells epidemic in Ukraine.

Things Successful Against Covid19 Are Antithetical to Populism

Professor, you argue that Covid-19 pandemic has turned into an antidote against populism. Can you please elaborate a bit on this?

It is remarkable in some ways, given all the damage that Covid-19 has done to individuals and societies. But at the same time, I do believe it does act as an antidote to populism and that’s because all the things that have been successful against Covid-19 are at the same time antithetical to populism.

I’ve argued in papers, I’ve written, that the most successful ways to control the virus have been ways which simultaneously contradict and undermine populism. For example, it’s been the way in which science and expertise have come to the fore again and being able to convince governments that they know best.

It’s also been strong central government, but accountable government, who are able to tell the truth to the citizens. Whether it’s bad news or good news they’re conveying to them. They’re not afraid of the truth, unlike populist politicians like Trump or Johnson who feel that they have to tell good news all the time that’s the only way in which they can keep the public on their side. But in New Zealand, we’ve had a very strong central government, which has been absolutely straight with the population, the whole time. So, two things that are anethema to populism: science and expertise. They know more about the virus and how to cure and control it, than the ‘the strongman’ leaders who say ‘I’m a magician. I know best.’ No, you do not know best. People don’t want their snake oil cures. They’d much rather believe in or hear what science and expertise have to offer, and then you got strong democratically accountable government which is able to win the trust of the public. 

At the same time, people have been very anxious to find out about the virus and what risks it carries. Many of course turn to social media and listen to all the conspiracy theories i.e. that it is unleashed deliberately by China or it’s a plot by the democrats to undermine Trump and so on. But, most people have turned back to state broadcasting organizations and the BBC, for example, has been enormously popular because it tells people the truth. People trust it much more than social media. Something very similar has happened in New Zealand which has had great success in controlling the virus.

For example, Radio New Zealand’s audience increased dramatically with its news broadcast so people turning back to the state broadcasting because that’s where the truth is. At the same time, I think, despite all the damage that Covid-19 has done to societies it’s actually helped to develop social cohesion, at least in some societies.

One of the reasons why New Zealand has been so successful is because of the very strong social cohesion that exists in this society due to willingness to support the government in the fight to control the virus. 

In societies where there has been success against the virus we see very strong compliance with things like wearing a mask, social distancing and so on. And, at the same time, the social cohesion has meant that people are not so distressful or antagonistic towards strangers.

In many ways the homelessness problem is being tackled by governments in many societies, because they recognize if you’re going to control the virus then it’s not a question of dividing societies, you have to unite them and all have to be helped and cured and protected from the virus. If you leave some people out then it’s likely they’re going to spread the virus. Social cohesion have also lead to all kinds of volunteer groups helping the poor and disadvantaged to a much greater extent than before. Then the virus itself is being defeated, but at the same time, this is a different kind of politics and a different kind of social action.

But I get some other examples from this part of the world as well. In our election last October (2020), which was a triumph for the Labour Party and Prime Minister Jacinda Arden because of the successful way she has managed to control the virus and keep New Zealanders safe through these strategies that I’ve just told you about. Meanwhile, the right-wing populist party in this country, New Zealand First, disappeared from Parliament.

There have been similar types of state elections in Australia as well, another success story against the virus where you get the triumph of mainstream political parties and right-wing populist parties have been largely defeated.

Penal Populism Is Essentially Used to Undermine Human Rights

Professor it has been witnessed in many countriesfor example in France, that many new criminal statutes have been accepted for their impact on public opinion rather than the actual effectiveness at reducing crime? How do populistsinstrumentalize legislation for the sake of penal populist objectives?

Well, I think, when they do that, it galvanizes public opinion against particular groups in society who may or may not be dangerous, usually, in a not very big way. In so doing, the strategy of penal populism is essentially used to undermine human rights.

Instead of protecting the rights of individuals, caught up in the criminal justice process, penal populism argues that it’s the rights of the public to protection that government should take care of. So, they try to redefine what constitutes human rights and there’s usually as well, a very large bill to pay for these kinds of policies. Because they nearly always involve increases in imprisonment with very damaging economic and social effects and by starting these campaigns, they intensify division between particular sections of the society.

What kind of risks and threats emerge through the politicization of criminal justice because of populist punitive law and order tactics in an attempt to gain support from the public?

I think, as I’ve said, they relate to the erosion of human rights, which have been a feature of Western society, particularly in that post-war era from 1945 through to the early 1980s. One of the ways in which Western societies distinguished themselves from other social formations was to say “well look, we have the rule of law here.”

If individuals get into difficulties or in trouble here, then we protect their human rights, and that is what makes us world – at least that is what we used to say. Now, it strikes me that one of the dangers penal populism present is the way in which it erodes that understanding of human rights and tries to substitute a new understanding based around public protection by using measures that involve variously retrospective legislation or hybrid legislation or changing rules of evidence to make convictions easy.

These kinds of strategies that fundamentally undermine the rule of law and allow for initiatives that were previously thought to have no place in democratic world. I’ll give you an example. We have public protection orders in New Zealand which mean that if sex offenders coming to the end of a finite prison term are still judged to be a serious risk to the public. The Court can order that they must be detained in prison at the end of this sentence indefinitely. They don’t call it ‘prison’, because this is the West and we don’t lock people up arbitrarily when they haven’t committed a crime. It’s called ‘civil detention’, but essentially they stay in prison.

Once Populists Come to Power, It is Shown to be Nothing More Than Ignorant Malevolent Clowns

Penal populism gives way to harsher mechanisms for social control to address the publics demand to be tough on crime. How do you assess ties between penal populism and authoritarianism?

Well, I think those who are associated with it, and promote it as strategies, usually say that “We’re doing this, to protect democracy. We are the defenders of democracy against these criminals, law breakers, terrorists who pose such a risk to us.” And, at the same time, they’re very coy with the language they use. I just gave you the example, the way in which post-prison detention in New Zealand isn’t actually called ‘prison,’ it’s called ‘civil detention’ to give it some sort of legitimacy. Whereas in authoritarianism, I would guess, they just don’t bother to pretend they are defending democracy at all. Democracy, in the eyes of authoritarian leaders would seem to be a dangerous exercise all together and it’s much better to have strongman leaders like Trump and do away with democracy, all together. Because, people make the wrong choices, or the wrong people vote. They are more likely to try to involve the military to prop up the rule because they got no particular interest in pretending that they’re defending democracy. So, that is the distinction, I would make between them.

All right Professor, my last question: When one talks about penal populism, it is the name of the Philippines’s Duterte that first comes to mind. However, he is not only the one in the world, could you please make a short list of penal populists or law and order populists around the world?

I don’t know how good my geography is and I don’t have knowledge of all the world’s leaders. I mean my knowledge of the world is confined in the mainly to Western Europe and some of the Asian countries. Rather than giving you a list of leaders who have relied on penal populism, to maintain their power, I would give you governments or countries where you’ve had triumph of social democracy against populism and we’ve had that in New Zealand you’ve had that in a number of Western countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia.

I think, democracy has largely held firm. The Netherlands, for example, I think there was an election there just the other week and the populace didn’t vote much for populists. Which isn’t to say that you haven’t got populist leaders and doing well in other countries. You know, the picture is very fluid, obviously, but I don’t think it’s as gloomy a picture as some people make out of it. I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists. Often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns.

Trump is the best example of that. But, we’ve had other examples. I think, in Italy, the collapse of the populist government is another example of the way in which leaders who rise to power on a populist wave of support quickly get found out and come undone. In Austria, something similar happened. So, I think there should be hope around the world. I think Covid-19, despite everything it’s done and the damages caused, one of its biggest casualties will prove to be populism.

All right, Professor. Thank you so much for your time.


Who is John Pratt?

John Pratt is a Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His fields of research are comparative penology and the history and sociology of punishment. He has published in eleven languages. He is currently undertaking research on the relationship between risk, populism and criminal justice.

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