Populism and the Elites: Why the Freedom of Speech Must Be Curtailed

The credentialed media have never gotten over losing their ‘gatekeeping’ function, being the arbiters of what gets published, and what does not. The first real crack in their armor was the success of Rush Limbaugh, and his ability to reach millions of people with a message of which the vast majority of the Democrats with bylines disapproved. But, in radio, ratings are everything, and it was the public who listened, and kept increasing his audience size . . . to the great chagrin of the editors of The New York Times.


Then that internet thingy that Al Gore invented started giving other people the ability to self-publish in a way which allowed them to be read by any. It was Little Green Footballs and Powerline which demolished CBS News’ attempt to throw the 2004 election to John Kerry by using obviously forged documents that was the first big step in destroying the power of the media to hide the truth. Conservatives had a medium through which they could convey their views and, to the credentialed media’s collective horror, expose the truth. Now, to Andrew Marantz’s and the editors’ horror, wicked, wicked people like Donald Trump were able to get out information about the odious Hillary Clinton, information which helped defeat Her Inevitableness, to the great advantage of our country.

Populism refers to a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite”. The editors of the Times see themselves as the elite, the patricians who simply should rule over the plebeians, and thus, to them, populism is anathema.

Yet what is populism? Behind it all is the conviction that the voters should decide the direction of the government, which is something absolutely fine with the elites . . . as long as the plebeians vote the way the elite believe they should. Donald Trump was definitely not how the elite believed the plebeians should vote, but he was hardly the only case: Brexit in the UK, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Matteo Salvini in Italy.


From Foreign Affairs:

Italy’s Precarious Triumph Over Populism

Reports of Matteo Salvini’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

By Alexander Stille¹ | September 13, 2019

Last month, Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s right-wing populist Lega party, attempted a Machiavellian power move. Hoping to take advantage of his soaring popularity, he brought down his own government, with the clear intention of forcing elections that would return him as Italy’s uncontested strongman. To his own and most Italians’ surprise, his jilted coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, turned around and formed a new government with the center-left Democratic Party (DP), until then the government’s principal opposition.

And so Salvini had transformed what appeared as a moment of historic triumph for the right into a major opportunity for the left. Salvini had committed what the Italians call an autogol, a soccer term for accidentally kicking the ball into your own net.

“The idea of saving our country from a swerve into dangerous populism based on hatred prevailed,” said Nicola Zingaretti, the secretary of the Democratic Party. When the new coalition was announced, many commentators breathed a sigh of relief that Italy had prevented what some feared would be the “Orbanization” of Italy, or the emergence of a far-right government, led by Salvini, that would follow the neo-authoritarian model of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

But whether the new government halts the rise of right-wing populism more than temporarily will depend on its ability to improve Italy’s standard of living and reverse some negative trends that have made the country one of the weaker links in the European Union. To fix all this would be a tall order for any government, let alone one composed of two parties—each riven by serious internal divisions—that were bitter rivals until a few weeks ago. In other words, if Italy does not begin to address the problems that paved the way for Salvini’s ascendancy, the country will have him to contend with whenever elections are held next.


I won’t quote the entire article for you — that would be plagiarism — but you can easily follow the link to it. While there is a decent amount of background information, suffice it to say that it fairly drips with condescension for the plebeians, for the riff-raff ordinary public. Dr Stille noted that Signore Salvini “campaigned with the Trumpian slogan ‘Italians first!'”, as though it is somehow wrong for Italian voters to be concerned with Italians first.

Italy and Greece, two of the poorer economies in the European Union, have been subjected to the greatest inflows of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa; Sig. Salvini, promised to halt illegal immigration, something he was at least able reduce as Interior Minister. Prime Ministers Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland have been doing the same thing, while Boris Johnson, now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was the driving force behind the Brexit campaign, much of the support of which was due to Her Majesty’s subjects wishing to curtail the inflow of immigrants.

Of course, the European Union, led by Führerin und Reichskanzlerin Angela Merkel of Germany, have been busy welcoming these non-Western civilization immigrants into Europe, and it’s just horribly raaaaacist for the commoners to object.

One external factor that could make an important difference in Salvini’s fortunes is the European Union. The leaders in Brussels would make a serious mistake if they assume that they can return to business as usual now that an EU-friendly government is back in place. In part, right-wing populism has grown because the social compact within many European countries has broken down. Tone-deaf EU bureaucrats have appeared more concerned with fiscal rigor than the quality of life in member countries. They have had little patience with countries such as Italy that have struggled to meet EU deficit targets. At the same time, the EU has left Italy (and other frontline countries such as Greece) alone to contend with mass migration from Africa.

In order to seriously undercut Salvini—and those like him—Europe must revisit the Dublin Regulation, which established that demands for asylum must be handled by the countries in which the applicants arrive, placing an unfair burden on Italy, Greece, and Spain—also the countries that were hardest hit by the crash of 2007–08. Europe must act collectively to reduce the flow of refugees, combat human trafficking, and process the cases of asylum seekers. In the same spirit, it needs to show greater flexibility about spending limits, worry less about inflation, and pursue a more growth-oriented economic policy. Paradoxically, the recent slowdown of the German economy might favor this prospect.

In other words, unless the current government and its allies in Brussels take concrete, meaningful steps to improve the lives of ordinary Italians, Salvini’s power grab may turn out to have been delayed but not denied.


Which begs the question: how would Italians — and other Europeans — view improvement in their lives? The patricians all seem to assume that the primary issue is having more euros in their pockets, and that’s an important consideration.

But the various European nations are, unlike the United States, established on ethnic groups; Italy is the country of Italians. We saw how the various ethnic groups in the old Yugoslavia, held together by the iron will of Marshall Tito, fragmented and fractured on ethnic lines not long after his death; we saw how the Czechs and the Slovaks, so long united in Czechoslovakia, chose to split into two nations. The patricians, so long imbued in their liberal ideas, cannot seem to grasp the fact that perhaps, for Italians, the quality of life for many Italians includes having neighbors who are also Italian.

Yes, I know, I know: such ideas are anathema, simply beyond the pale, but that doesn’t mean that some people don’t hold them. And in democracies, countries which are (supposedly) governed with the consent of the public, the voters have a right to vote for the politicians who support the policies they prefer.

Professor Stille, of course, hopes that the European Union can somehow impose Rightthink on the plebeian voters in Europe, that the general public will mirror the views of the elite. Dr Stille quoted, rather approvingly, Democratic Party secretary Nicola Zingaretti, who said that the surprising coalition had saved Italy from a “dangerous populism.” That danger was that the plebeians would no longer do the will of the patricians.


That, of course, is much of the reason why the editors of The New York Times are publishing OpEd pieces in favor of regulating the speech of the plebeians, while still clinging very tightly to their own freedom of the press. As long as the editors of the Times were one of the most powerful gatekeepers of what could be published — meaning: what the common people could read — the elite could tolerate the (mostly) unfettered Freedom of Speech. Once Rush Limbaugh and Powerline started to break things open, not so much. Why, if the commoners could read and hear differing viewpoints, why them might adopt those differing viewpoints, and that simply cannot be allowed.
¹ – Alexander Stille is San Paolo Professor of International Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.
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