The Common Good and the Challenge of Populism

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Anna Blackman, Research Fellow, Center for Social Concerns, March 2019

Over the last several years, populism has become a political buzzword, being used to refer to numerous left and right interpretations, but all approaches share in common the idea of the “people” over and against the “elite.” At first this might seem close to Catholic social teaching’s idea of both the option for the poor and the common good, holding to account a corrupt elite. However, in reality, the way that populism manifests itself has very little to do with either of these principles, often actively violating them. Benjamin Moffit, author of The Global Rise of Populism, explains how populism is often misunderstood as what benefits the majority rather than the elite few, but a more representative account of populism is an ideology that is vigorously divisive. By imagining a “pure people” against a “corrupt elite” populism divides society into very black and white, Manichean terms, using moral claims about those who are and who aren’t included in “the people.” Nigel Farage, at the time the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, demonstrated this when Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU). He termed this a “victory for real people,” yet this only truly represented fifty-two of the seventy-five percent of the population who voted; the remaining populous who did not agree with this consensus were somehow “less real.”

Part of the danger with populism is that it is not a holistic ideology in itself; it makes no claims about how to organize politics or society past the point of being anti-elitist and critical of the reigning political establishment, and is usually therefore combined with other ideologies to produce something more robust and concrete. In the last several years, there has been a surge in forms of populism wedded with nationalism—the idea of maintaining sovereignty and control of one’s nation—in many cases taking a xenophobic and anti-immigration stance that favors the local over the global, again acting divisively in promoting the idea of there being one type of national identity that people either fit into or don’t. Through such a narrowly prescribed definition of “the people,” this term becomes exclusive, moving away from a democratic view of the will of the people and acting in a threatening way towards pluralism within society. As Pope Francis said in his 2017 address to EU leaders and heads of state, “Forms of populism are . . .  the fruit of an egotism that hems people in and prevents them from overcoming and ‘looking beyond’ their own narrow vision.”

This is oceans away from the idea of the common good that insists on the inclusion of every individual person, holding a responsibility, and right, to contribute towards the good of the whole of society as well as benefit from it. This differs enormously from populism, emphasizing how each single member of society should be benefited. As populism narrowly defines those who form the beneficiaries of society, this opposes both the common good and the option for the poor by marginalizing anyone who fails to meet the criteria of “the people.” Within a nationalist context, this inherently further marginalizes minority groups and their interests. The common good, on the other hand, insists on evaluating a society from the position of the poor and marginalized, and asking how “the least of these” can prosper.

While the common good emphasizes diversity within unity and cohesion, populism only ends in division. Due to the designation of those who are morally acceptable and those who are not, this has led, in several situations, to the complete breakdown of dialogue and political functioning; one might look to the U.K. government’s deadlock over Brexit negotiations and the recent U.S. government shut-down. Here can be seen failures on behalf of the political establishment to pursue the common good above their own party-political interests. In Pope Francis’ annual address this year to diplomats to the Holy See, he warned of the dangers of reverting to the nationalism and populism seen in the 1930s, warning against policies that lead to “reactive, emotional and hasty solutions” that may “garner short-term consensus” but don’t go to the root of the problem.

The logic of the common good dictates that we cannot prosper while our neighbor is suffering; our well-being is bound up with everyone else’s. The principle of solidarity, the firm commitment to the common good, is therefore needed to act as an “antidote” to populism, as Pope Francis has argued. The journey toward the common good includes the entire human family, embracing the dignity of all regardless of gender, nationality, race, ethnicity, wealth, or political leanings. It is only through solidarity, even with those with whom we disagree, that dialogue can begin to move forward and divisions wrought by populism can be healed.


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