The first political party to be called populist was the People’s Party, a powerful but short-lived force in late 19th-century America. It was a left-wing movement which opposed the oligarchies running the railroads, and promoted the interests of small businesses and farms. Populists can be right-wing or left-wing. In Europe they tend to be right-wing and in Latin America they tend to be left-wing.

Populist politicians pose as champions for the “ordinary people” against the establishment. They claim that a metropolitan elite has stolen the birthright of the virtuous, “real” people, and they promise to restore it. At the heart of their political offer lies nostalgia, and opposition to change. Ironically, the populists themselves are almost always members of the same metropolitan elite that they excoriate.

They espouse what they call traditional values, including allegiance to established religious and social norms. They sneer at social progress, and belittle attempts to improve the conditions of oppressed and under-privileged groups. In particular, they allege that immigrants are being favoured over local people, and are queue-jumping to obtain better social services, especially housing. They are authoritarian and illiberal, and they select minorities, like Jews or gay people, as a common enemy for their supporters to rally against.

These days, populists rarely use the word to describe themselves. They are demagogues, offering simplistic solutions which cannot cure any of society’s ills. They deride experts and shun evidence-based policy making. Many of them are brazen liars – pure political entrepreneurs who will adopt whatever slogan wins votes. Some are ideologues who genuinely believe in the policies they promote.

Whatever their orientation, their fundamental dishonesty means they are bad for democracy. Once in power they move quickly to neuter possible sources of opposition. Judges become “lefty lawyers” who frustrate “the will of the people”. They undermine, take over, or simply abolish media organisations which report their misdeeds. They restrict the right to protest, and lock up people who dare to speak out. They are generally corrupt, and appoint friends and allies to important positions, even when they are woefully inept.

Some populists – like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez – remain in power long enough to die peacefully of natural causes. More often, they face one of two fates: disgrace, or disastrous war. This is because they pursue the wrong solutions to the wrong problems.

The American archetype of the populist politician whose career ended in disgrace is Joe McCarthy. At the beginning of 1950 he was an unknown senator from Wisconsin, but that year he shot to fame with a speech in which he claimed to have a list of 205 communist party members working in the State Department. Despite lying about his income and his military service, he quickly became one of the most powerful Senators, and he held a series of Congressional hearings which ruined many careers.

After a few years the American public tired of his bullying, his lies and his tantrums, and in December 1954 the Senate voted to censure him. McCarthy remained a Senator for two more years, but he was a diminished and disgraced figure. He died in 1957, a drunk and a heroin addict, and President Eisenhower quipped that McCarthy-ism had become McCarthy-wasm.

The classic example of the populist whose career ended in disastrous war is Adolf Hitler. Because they offer bad solutions to the wrong problems, populists need scapegoats to blame for the deteriorating economic and political environment. If these scapegoats are foreign, so much the better, but this logic drives countries to war.

The forces that lead voters to support populists are poorly understood. The most popular explanation is economic hardship, and indeed this played a role in the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. But economic hardship is rarely the principal cause. With the Nazis, Germany’s sense of injustice after the First World War was more important than simple economics.

Fast forward to today: many people think that the financial crash of 2008 had such a deleterious effect on household incomes that it explains the current wave of populism. It is true that many of England’s Brexit voters live in deprived areas in the north of the country, but the south is more populous, and Brexit voters there were typically comfortably-off, older, and often rural. Donald Trump has three major constituencies: less-educated whites, born-again Christians who are willing to overlook Trump’s egregious moral defects because he is rolling back the country’s abortion laws, and wealthy people who equate progressive policies with tyrannical socialism.

The current wave of populism is less about economic deprivation than it is about dislike of change. Change is always uncomfortable, and rapid change especially so. In the last few decades, societies all around the world have changed rapidly. Women have penetrated the workforce and made progress towards equality of opportunity and economic freedom – although obviously there is a long way to go. Overt racism is now frowned upon in most societies, even if ethnic minorities remain significantly disadvantaged. Homosexuality has gone from illegal, to disapproved of, to celebrated in just a few decades.

Many of the people who benefited from the previous state of affairs are happy to declare these changes as positive – in theory. In practice, some of them find the changes threatening, and this makes them susceptible to claims that family life is breaking down because both parents are working; that immigrants are queue-jumping, and poised to replace the “indigenous” population (whatever that means); and that transgender women wanting to use female toilets are often rapists.

It is more palatable to believe that populism stems from economic disadvantage than from these regrettable notions, but we should not under-estimate the fear of change. You cannot defeat an ideology if you mis-diagnose its causes. Populism is the most important ideology in today’s political landscape because it can do so much harm. It could lead to war between the US and China, for example, which would be utterly disastrous.

What does all this have to do artificial intelligence? In the coming decades, AI will usher in more economic, social and political change than humanity has ever experienced before. In a few decades (a few years, according to some well-informed people) we will have machines that can do any job faster, cheaper and better than a human. The end of wage slavery should be very good news, but only if we devise an economic system that makes it beneficial for everyone. Some time after that we will have superintelligence, at which point absolutely everything about the nature of being human will change.

These changes will be exciting for some, and uncomfortable for others. We will need to be clear-eyed about the risks and rewards of these changes, and we will need honest, intelligent politicians who understand what is at stake. Purveyors of weaponised nostalgia are not the leaders we need, and continuing to elect them could turn out to be the single biggest mistake our species ever makes.

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