Populism is doomed to fail. It may seem a bright idea to some, in the short run. But sooner or later, it will, due to its very design, backfire. One can analyse the phenomenon endlessly. And certainly, it points to the deep-rooted and pressing issues of the moments of history it thrives in. But ultimately, the reason it fails and will continue to do so is because, as one writer puts it, “the political science of providing simple answers to complex questions.”
The saga of the Iran nuclear deal is just one illustration of this principle in action (for those who would choose to ignore ones closer to home). In recent days, there appears to be some headway in salvaging what remains of it after four years of Donald Trump’s unbridled egotistical hubris. While we are told the signs now seem ‘promising’, one cannot help but consider the opportunities lost. Time that could have led to a significant roll-back of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and allowed for the nation of more than 80 million to gradually re-join the global mainstream has instead resulted in the opposite. Reports suggest Iran has already breached many of the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear activities in response to the US withdrawal and re-imposition of sanctions under Trump.
All this for what? Nothing more than pure and utter pettiness. A collective expression of spite because it could have been seen as part of his predecessor’s lasting legacy. That is the shape populism always takes. Logic flies out the window as we egg on a disenfranchised mass to listen to only emotion. Unreasonable emotion. And so it leads us back to where we started, in the best of cases. In the worst, to a new hell of our own making. There is a cautionary moral to all tales of populism for those who rule, perhaps best summed up by a popular comic book hero: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Most of us would ponder on and stress the underlying ethics of this statement. But we should also pay heed to the warning. Like fire, if you toy with power, it will always burn you in turn.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2021.