By Oliver Mills
Populism is the most recent political concept to gain traction in political discourse. But in my view, elements of it have permeated Caribbean and Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) politics throughout the years, but a strict definition of it has not been advanced fully. We have an idea of what it is about, but nothing concrete in terms of it being a political ideology.
Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands
Sheri Berman in a Foreign Affairs
magazine piece says populists are symptoms of a decline in the ability of traditional political parties to satisfy the needs of most voters. Another writer locates populism in an uprising against elites who have backed neoliberal globalization, while ignoring the persistence of massive inequalities. Fareed Zakaria, in Foreign Affairs
, says all versions of populism share a suspicion of, and hostility towards elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions. It speaks for the forgotten ‘ordinary’ person, and imagines itself as the voice of genuine patriotism.
Here we have specific ideas about what populism entails. Modern Caribbean politics has its origins in populism, emerging from post-plantation society, which continued from slavery to be run by elites. In the plantation system, only the wealthy could be involved in government, and there were no formal political parties, only interests that made decisions for themselves, while the majority population remained on the periphery.
We cannot then speak of populism as symptomatic of a decline in the ability of parties to satisfy voters’ needs. However in the period of the 1930s, with the formation of trade unions and political parties, populist leaders emerged such as Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley in Jamaica, the former establishing the Jamaica Labour Party, and the latter the Peoples National Party. One being labour oriented, the other nationalist. Later Eric Williams a populist leader in Trinidad formed the first organized political party, the Peoples National Movement.
These populist leaders fit the definition above of emerging from an uprising against elites who ignored massive inequalities. Caribbean populist leaders mentioned earlier, along with those who came in the aftermath of the 50s and early 60s and beyond, challenged the colonial elites and their local counterparts for political power. These included many Eastern Caribbean leaders and, in The Bahamas, Lynden Pindling, who enhanced the political consciousness of their people, and led their countries to full sovereignty. Did the Caribbean produce the first political populists?
And the Turks and Caicos has been influenced by populists in Jamaica and The Bahamas, using them as political models. Formal political parties emerged in the late 70s with a nationalist political philosophy. Notable were JAGS McCartney, who formed the People’s Democratic Movement, and became the first chief minister, and Norman Saunders, who helped establish the Progressive National Party, later to become chief minister as well.
McCartney fits the populist definition given by Fareed Zakaria in having suspicion of local and foreign elites, established institutions, which he saw as serving the interests of a colonial elite, and their local adherents, and spoke up for the ordinary person. He challenged the policies of a system that served others to the detriment of indigenous persons, and brought hope and dignity, to the powerless. He dialogued with the authorities about independence, and made progress.
Saunders, although a populist among the people, was more incremental in his politics. Both, however articulated the aspirations of the people, and contributed to a populist brand of Turks and Caicos politics.
A Princeton University professor, Jan-Werner Muller, gave what I believe is a comprehensive discourse on populism. He states that populists claim that only they represent the people, that their competitors and critics are part of the immoral, corrupt elite, when running for office and, once in government, they do not recognize any legitimate opposition. The logic they follow is that whoever does not support populist parties might not be part of the proper people at all. And they see a split between the actual citizenry and the ‘real people’, which is why populists question election outcomes when not the winners.
To some extent this view represents Caribbean and TCI politics in the modern period. Michael Manley of Jamaica can be regarded as a populist since his political ideology, although undergoing change at periods, conveyed the impression that only his political party represented the real people, and saw the Jamaica Labour Party, his competitor, as the elites, supported by counterparts abroad. He appealed to the people’s sense of patriotism, and their sensitivity to the period of slavery, using it to explain the existing class structure with the masses, the real people at the bottom, and the elites, or ‘higher ups’ at the top of the social pyramid.
This populist trend continues in political organisations in Jamaica, but inverts itself at particular points where, on the one hand, the JLP was seen as the party of the working class, and the PNP the party of the intellectual and professional elite. This paradigm repeats itself throughout the Caribbean, and in many instances specific election outcomes have been questioned but not overall, as populists do when not the victors.
In the Turks and Caicos, the Progressive National Party now in opposition was seen as the party of elites, while the People’s Democratic Movement was described as representing the interests of ordinary citizens. The PNP in recent years also seemed to have become more capitalist oriented, with the PDM being more socially conscious, and appears to be one of the reasons the latter won the recent elections.
The PNP boasted of surpluses, but ordinary citizens claimed they never saw it in their wallets. But the PDM leaders were also more charismatic, and spoke of social divisions. However, both parties recognize the legitimate opposition when in government, unlike most populists.
Populism, then, is alive in the Caribbean and Turks and Caicos. It is an attractive political ideology, and appears set to enjoy an extended shelf-life.