Populist politicians rarely help populace

March 14, 2009 

I've never understood why it takes people so long to catch on to populist politicians. They are rarely policy wonks. They don't have to be. There's no need to understand issues and policies as a populist. The only real skill a populist needs is the ability to measure public opinion. Get a read on people. Determine what they want and then connect with them.

A good populist politician can pander with the best of them and at the same time convince you they believe what they are saying and proposing is the best thing to do. These are the real skills of an accomplished populist.

You can recognize a populist politician early on. If during a campaign, they refuse to take stands or offer specific solutions on important issues and instead refer frequently to the "will of the people," you have a populist on your hands.

For example, let's say a state had widespread corruption involving the oil industry. And that corruption was combined with a delay in building a pipeline, high prices at the pump, record profits for the industry and high salaries for oil company executives.

A populist politician might rise to power by demonizing the oil industry. Populist politicians are great demonizers.

Populist politicians can turn on a dime. They can appear liberal one minute and then if it benefits them politically, turn conservative overnight. With a populist politician, it's not what they do but what they say that counts.

A populist could, for example, almost double the size of state government in two short years, then show up on the national campaign trail talking about how they are for smaller government.

A populist could also raise taxes on the oil industry to levels never seen before while launching an all-out war on "Big Oil." A populist could publicly tell a major oil company, "Don't let the door hit you on your way out," and then just months later on the national campaign trail in front of gigantic rallies, that same populist could lead chants of "Drill, baby, drill."

A populist politician has special powers other leaders don't. A populist can, with a turn of a phrase, transform a Canadian company into an Alaska one by simply renaming it TC Alaska.

A populist could, while campaigning for governor, tell the people of Ketchikan that he or she supports a bridge to the airport and is insulted when some characterize it as a bridge to nowhere. That same populist could later tell the nation about telling Congress, "Thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere."

A populist could tell a crowd at a right-to-life banquet he or she will fight for their cause and then, to avoid a battle with the liberal media, appoint a former board member of Planned Parenthood to the Alaska Supreme Court, killing any parental consent legislation.

While running for governor, a populist could get caught on tape telling a hometown Chamber of Commerce crowd, "Some in Juneau fear I will be biased toward the Valley; well, so be it: I will be." Then that same populist could explain it away by claiming it was meant as opposed to being biased toward the Lower 48.

A populist could also insist there was never a campaign by staff or family members to get a former brother-in-law fired. But then when a tape surfaces proving otherwise, that same populist could say he or she didn't know about the campaign by her staff and family members to get their former brother-in-law fired.

The beauty of being a populist is you are not constrained by truth and consistency. You can say one thing to one group, and then a completely different thing to another. Or you can implement one policy and then later pretend to favor the complete opposite of that policy. Yes, populists can be a slippery bunch.

There are downsides to being a populist politician. They typically rise to popularity very quickly but have trouble maintaining it.

And the truth is, populism typically leads to bad policy because it prevents the politician from making tough decisions. Populism usually benefits only the politician practicing it.


Dan Fagan hosts a talk show on AM 750 KFQD and publishes the Web site thealaskastandard.com.

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