The rejection of expertise damages public debate, but it also creates risks for populist governments

One common feature of populist anti-immigration movements is their eschewal of expertise. Populist movements mobilise support through claiming to articulate the interests of ‘the people’ as against established institutions and elites. They mobilise support against a discredited ruling elite and their values: not just those seen as part of the political and economic establishment but also the media, academics and other experts (Canovan 1999). While populism does not necessarily imply the rejection of technocratic measures (Mudde 2004), populist styles of mobilisation tend to reject complex, technical arguments in favour of simple claims and spontaneous action.

This implies that populist claims are not typically backed up with ‘evidence’ or specialised experience. Part of their appeal may derive precisely from their defiance of such expertise. As Michael Freeden puts it, populist claims are characterised by their simplicity and urgency – they should not be ‘adulterated by reflection and deliberation’. And they promise immediate fulfilment – dispensing with planning and negotiation in order to achieve instantaneous results.

This might imply that populist parties are shifting debate away from more technical or evidence-based forms of deliberation – what in previous work I have termed ‘technocratic modes of settlement’. They are the defenders par excellence of supposedly ‘democratic’ modes of settlement. They want to let ‘the people’ decide.

Yet moderate parties do not necessarily embrace this anti-expert mode of settlement. They may continue to evoke more technocratic or expert sources to underpin their claims. They may still see evidence and specialised knowledge as carrying particular authority in debates on immigration. In this sense, the mode of settlement for weighing up rival claims may itself be contested: there may be quite different understandings of what constitute appropriate ways of evaluating competing claims. In other words, there may be a divide between protagonists who continue to invoke expertise as relevant to deliberation on immigration policy issues, and those who see it as irrelevant.

This type of fracture appears increasingly evident in public political debates across liberal democratic countries experiencing a rise in populist parties. It implies that political contestation goes beyond substantive claims about appropriate policies: it involves more radical disagreement about what constitute legitimate and appropriate modes of settling political debate. So the divide is not just ideological, it reflects fundamentally different epistemological positions.

This is not just a problem for public political deliberation. It also creates a number of challenges for policy-making in national administrations. One of the features of populist claims-making is that it is not constrained by evidence or expert knowledge about the causes and dynamics of social problems, or about the sorts of interventions that may be effective in steering them. Thus the populist rejection of expertise creates an awkward gap between the types of claims grounding pledges, and prevalent modes of knowledge use within the civil service. Populist politics invokes different causal stories about policy problems and responses, drawing on quite distinct sources of knowledge (such as anecdote, public myths, or dystopian scenario-building).

The gap is likely to be especially pronounced where populist movements offer up specific pledges or commit themselves to precise outcomes which can be measured. Incumbents seeking to mobilise support through signalling commitment to populist goals will face substantial challenges when it comes to implementing them.

This clearly creates political risks for populist parties that achieve political power. In many ways, such movements will be more comfortable in opposition than as incumbents. Once in power, they risk being exposed as unable to deliver their simplistic and overly ambitious pledges. This creates what I have termed a ‘populist gap’: a discrepancy between what opposition parties may claim, and what they can feasibly achieve once in government.

How populist-oriented governments manage this risk depends in part on how far they can sustain their narratives about policy problems and their government’s performance, in the face of contradictory evidence. Where the impacts of interventions are diffuse and difficult to measure and attribute, populist governments may evade exposure – and this may well be the case in areas such as immigration control and immigrant integration.

But where their performance is subject to such observation and measurement, then they may be exposed as unable to achieve their goals – as may be the case with, for example, reducing asylum or immigration inflows. In such areas, voters are likely to be disillusioned at the failure of governments to deliver.

So while we may be distressed at the eschewal of expertise and evidence, it is precisely this rejection that creates the most serious risks for populist governments. Where their claims cannot be delivered, they risk exposure. And this exposure is most likely to occur in those areas where their outputs can be monitored.  In this sense, we might want to embrace quantitative targets as a tool for exposing the unfeasibility of governments’ promises. Targets may be distorting and simplifying, but their capacity to hold expose unrealistic claims that have no grounding in evidence creates a strong tool of accountability.

This entry was posted in Immigration, Research & Policy, Symbolic politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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