Should you today pay brief attention (I’d recommend it) to the State celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Freedom Day, remember to be surprised. It’s not what you’ll hear or see that will surprise you. It’s what lies in the background. Today’s rhetoric of gravitas, forward-looking sense of destiny, of prosperity with freedom-lovin’ purpose rides on a political bandwagon of anger, frustration, spoiling-for-a-Facebook-fight sentiments.
Maybe I should have said bandwagons, in the plural. The Nationalist Party and even the Partit Demokratiku are no strangers to the rhetoric of anger, catcalling and frustration. But then they’re in Opposition and, what’s more important, there is understandably no triumphalism in what they say and do. Whereas what is striking in Labour’s rhetoric is the combination of triumph and frustration, pushed by Party Leaders and certainly fuelling the most motivated segment of its electorate.
It’s striking because the combination is often overlooked. Otherwise, it’s par for the course in populist politics. Donald Trump boasts about achievements in the same breath that he denounces plots against him. Matteo Salvini talks about an Italian renaissance while blasting migrants and hosting international ‘family summits’ that denounce contraception, feminists and homosexuals.
What we are seeing in Malta cannot be explained purely in terms of national culture. The Brexit-strapped UK and US are caught up in it as well, as indeed are many polities around the world, with movements on both the right and left wings of the spectrum pushing the trend.
What explains this alchemy of triumph and anger? What holds them together? A rhetoric of justice.
Yes, justice. The disregard for the rules and the niceties of legislation, the effective cancellation of environmental regulations and planning requirements and financial supervision… all that is carried on the back of a rhetoric of fixing injustices. Sometimes, for justice to be done, you need to suspend it… in the name of love of country.
Because they think of justice in terms of process, liberal critics – whether in the international media, the European Parliament, or here – often miss it. But populist politicians project justice in terms of outcome. They are denouncing ‘injustices’ all the time. Trump (like Silvio Berlusconi before him) denounces the prosecutors who dare to investigate him; Joseph Muscat and Konrad Mizzi denounce those who dare say they should be investigated.
They get away with it because the people who listen can identify with that experience in their everyday lives. It could be arbitrary bureaucracy and planning laws. It could be arbitrariness, injustice, discrimination and bullying at work. It could be neighbours, petty vendettas and ineffectual police. MPs’ constituency offices are filled with such stories every week.
In such scenarios, the institutions are not seen as the solution but often the problem. They are the arbitrary weapons used by personal enemies for their own purposes. It’s sometimes a pretty good estimate of what’s going on. The laws themselves seem to be stitched up against you. And if you come from the wrong side of the class tracks, there is cultural prejudice – where you are blamed for not knowing codes of etiquette that you were never taught.
In Malta, Labour has astutely appealed to grudges held by the middle classes (in 2013) and the PN-voting working classes (2017), and is currently working on mobilising the justified frustrations of middle-class women, particularly those who entered the professions in the last 15 years or so.
In such contexts, a perceived injustice is an injustice whether it’s because of a just law or one past its sell-by date. You still resent a planning regulation whose sense you recognise, if it’s being selectively applied to you and not to others. Your upwardly mobile aspirations are still blocked whether it’s because of illegal discrimination or free but derogatory Facebook speech (‘hamallu’).
Against this background, the politician who doesn’t care for the rules, who listens to your story and fixes things, stands for justice. Fair results, not namby-pamby process. Suspending the law becomes justified because it’s rectifying injustice. Oppression and repression are also justified if they are righting a wrong.
Of course, the populist politician may actually be responsible for all this. But here’s the paradox: the more you hear about corruption and bending of the rules, the more you demand for yourself. It’s the populist who appears to listen to you who appears sympathetic, and it’s his critics who seem to have you in their sights by pointing to your kinds of case as abuse.
So here are the ingredients of the populist cocktail. Replace due process with the right outcome. Replace institutional fairness with patron-client ‘love’ and ‘understanding’. Replace the political correctness with patriotic correctness. The cocktail will leave liberals shaken but many ordinary people stirred.