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The Oxford Union believes populism is a threat to democracy

On Thursday night, the Oxford Union voted for the motion, “This House believes populism is a threat to democracy.” 

The debate was closely watched as it hosted Nancy Pelosi, former speaker of the United States House of Representatives. The debate also comes as a US presidential election is approaching, and former President Donald Trump is facing hearings on whether he would face trial on charges that he attempted to subvert the 2020 election.

Earlier that day, Nancy Pelosi was protested during a speech by Youth Demand protesters that held Palestinian flags inside the Union chamber. The 2 protesters stood in front of Pelosi for approximately 25 minutes, and were taken away by the Thames Valley police after Pelosi’s speech concluded.

Rachel Haddad, the Secretary of the Union, opened the case for the proposition, claiming populist political leaders like Donald Trump and Farage branded themselves as “saviours of democracy”, but actually pose a threat to it.  

While simplistic solutions appear alluring, Haddad argued that populist leaders are not “new generations of geniuses” that can develop simple solutions to generational complex problems.

Haddad closed the debate by arguing that populists had made democracies a “ballot of us versus them”, which chips the essence of the democratic order. 

Opening the case for the opposition, Sultan Khokhar, Chair of the Consultative Committee at the Union, advocated that populism is democracy in its purest form as both concern “the people.”  While he personally disliked the “right-wing populists” elected, he admits that they are indeed democratic leaders which the “imperfect democracy” fails to prevent from rising.

Khokar believes the greatest threat is weakened checks and balances, instead of populism itself. Even though he disagrees with those elected, he believes democracy has failed to live up to our expectations.

Populism, he argues, reveals the deep-seated dissatisfaction the people have with the system and the elites and is the ultimate wake-up call for real social change. Khokhar concluded by saying: “Populism is democracy in action and is the ultimate tool of the democratic world.”

The second speaker for the proposition was Oli Dugmore, the head of News and Politics at JOE Media. Dugmore first showed the chamber an AR-15 shell commonly used by NATO soldiers which was also used by Chris Hill, an insurrectionist at the January 6th Capitol riot, who Dugmore had interviewed. 

Dugmore called out former US president Donald Trump as the “product of the establishment, of capital… and he is the swamp”, while his populist supporters consider him an “actor for the people.”  He argued that the populists are doing “the right thing for the wrong reason” and the “the right thing for the right reason is defeating populism.” 

While populism energise national politics and the calls for redistribution of wealth, he called mainstream populism a “secondary, exclusionary populist program”. Although he believes the world is “pivoting to the radical right” and in a “democratic recession,” he said we should not allow the “bacteria” of populism to feed and flourish. 

Oscar Whittle, Director of Research at the Union, spoke next for the proposition. Populism, Whittle argued, is fundamentally about giving the people a voice in their government a core tenet of democracy itself. He cautioned against pitting groups against each other, whether the Republicans versus the Democrats, or the educated against the uneducated. 

“Democracy is sick, across the world people are rebelling… politicians should not dismiss the instinct,” said Whittle. Closing with a reference to Trump’s election slogan, Whittle exclaimed: “We must make populism great again.”

Nancy Pelosi closed the debate for the proposition. She first disagreed with the opposition on its emphasis that populism is for the people. 

She then asked the chamber to think closely about the nature of populism. Pelosi defined populism in its current form as an “ethno-nationalist populism, generated by an ethnic negativity to immigrants, people who are different from them and the rest.” 

She believes it is sad that “the populists take advantage of people who have legitimate economic concerns, and who want to thrive and survive economically”, and that money and populism have bonded together in this ethno-nationalist form of it.

She closed the debate by repeating the lyrics of the American national anthem: “Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there” – a flag that will pledge justice and liberty for all. 

Winston Marshall, host of the ‘Marshall Matters” podcast for the Spectator, closed the debate for the opposition. He first singled out former US President Barack Obama for using the words “populist,” “strong man” and “authoritarian” interchangeably and believes that “populism is not a dirty word.”

Marshall argued that we are living in the populist age due to events like the trillion-dollar Wall Street bailouts, which he argued exemplified the fall of the elite. He also labelled January 6th “a dark day for America.”

Pelosi, however, interrupted to disagree with equating January 6th to a populist movement, asserting it was an “insurrectionist riot called by a US president.” Marshall contended that the left should be anti-establishment, but the “Global Left” has become the establishment, ignoring genuine concerns of the people.

He then launched a series of US-centric criticisms on “the elite”, denouncing corporations that lobbied politicians. He also accused agencies like Homeland Security and the FBI of colluding with big tech to control narratives at odds with the government.

Ultimately, Marshall declared “The Democrat is the anti-democrat.”

The motion passed, with 177 members voting in favour and 68 members voting against.

Image Credit: NATO