Competence is the test for populists

You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose. Successful politicians have always known to live by former New York governor Mario Cuomo’s adage. Those who fail to shift from campaigning to governing end up running into problems of their own making.

Look no further than UK prime minister Boris Johnson. The withdrawal treaty from the EU that he now finds so unbearable as to justify breaching international law was the core of his election campaign last December. This was the “oven-ready deal” he promised a weary public would “get Brexit done”.

The promise worked; voters returned the largest Tory majority in a generation. Mr Johnson’s campaign poetry has now caught up with him. Far from “getting Brexit done”, his own deal is — in his telling — getting in the way of moving on to a new relationship with the EU. But rather than take governing seriously, with honest deliberation about the trade-offs the country faces, he is doubling down on campaign mode. It is the political version of a Ponzi scheme: always move on to the next promise before you are asked to deliver on the last one.

The UK prime minister is not alone. A parade of populist leaders have gained support around the world by making simplistic promises they have no hope — and often no intention — to deliver on. What matters is to gain power; what they do next is something to worry about later, if ever. Voters can take time to catch on. But sooner or later, reality usually imposes itself.

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That is most fatefully true in times of disruption and instability. The UK’s rupture of close relations with the rest of Europe is showing up in myriad concrete challenges to people’s lives and livelihoods. Around the world — above all in Donald Trump’s America, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and Narendra Modi’s India — the pandemic has shown that we literally depend for our lives on governments being up to the job of governing. Ever more often, the damage of global climate change — so often denied by populists — is making itself felt. In all cases, visionary promises give scant comfort when real policy solutions are lacking.

The distinction between campaigning success and governing fiasco has parallels in the contrasts between appearance and substance, between rhetoric and competent delivery. The more a populist government falls down on policy, the more it is tempted to make things look better than they are. The more incompetent a leader is at governing, the greater the draw of distracting attention by reverting to a permanent campaign against real or manufactured opponents.

The populists with the greatest staying power are those that have managed to combine campaigning with effective delivery. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has made sure never to seriously jeopardise his country’s receipt of EU money or its place in the Schengen passport-free travel zone. Poland’s Law and Justice has delivered social policies that make a real difference to many poorer Poles. As a consequence, they have cemented their own power much more effectively than populists who treat governing as an irksome afterthought.

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The appeal of the permanent campaign is natural. A leader’s job is also to offer voters a way to make sense of the world, especially a world more changeable and unpredictable than it once was. Mainstream politicians have been slow to understand this, much as they were slow to realise the economic polarisation their own policies permitted for decades. They should take heart. Competence eventually shines through in a crisis, when something as prosaic as getting the right things done is poetry enough.



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