The death of Aylan Kurdi. Public Domain, Ur Cameras / Flickr

I know I’m biting off more than I can chew. I could not in a single blog entry give a thorough and cogent response to the question I pose. That is not what I intend to do. But I believe there is value even in just raising the query. And if I am able, besides, to signal the more crucial issues, then we may all get closer to coming up with a thoughtful answer.

First, a bit of context. To whom are populists a moral political alternative? Above all, to the so-called globalist elites from traditional political parties who, till recently, have ruled established liberal democracies. Populist leaders have democratically risen to power in the wake of voters’ discontent with liberal democratic regimes not having delivered on their promises. So populism is largely viewed as the illiberal yet radically democratic and nativist remedy to problems liberal governments before them have proven incapable of resolving. Populists may endanger purportedly universal values such as the rule of law, the separation of powers, and civil liberties, but citizens have been willing to pay that price if they are guaranteed physical security and economic well-being in their homeland in exchange.

Flashback to 1989, when the world seemed closest to achieving the liberal democratic utopia. The Berlin Wall broke down, communism collapsed, and democracy and free markets reigned triumphant. What began around 300 years ago as a struggle against absolutist monarchs had culminated in popular sovereignty and the conquest, not only of political and civil liberties, but also, and increasingly, of social and economic rights for citizens of all nations. Of course, even for the majority of countries, there was still quite a distance to be covered; however, the path was already settled and clear. There was faith in that democratic processes and free markets together would unfailingly help societies move forward. They only had to stick to the Washington Consensus master-plan.

Then came 9-11, when passenger planes were used as bombs against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, resulting in thousands of casualties. Afterwards came the horrific attacks perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in London, Madrid, Nairobi, and a host of other cities. Meanwhile, different wars in the Middle East, not only between Muslims and Christians, but also among different Muslim sects themselves likewise came to a full boil.

As if this weren’t bad enough, on the economic front, there was the Dot-Com bust at the turn of the millennium, and less than a decade later, the Great Recession that almost triggered a global financial meltdown. It was right at this moment when charismatic populist candidates first, and parties that coalesced around their personalities afterwards, began conquering political ground.

To be sure, macroeconomic data were already indicating a recovery. The US, for instance, embarked on what has become the longest period of continuous growth, and quarter upon quarter, unemployment figures just kept on falling. Although not as robust, the same optimistic tendency could also be found among the EU and Asian economies. Moreover, the much feared spectre of inflation was nowhere in sight. Nonetheless, for the great majority of individuals, it certainly didn’t feel that way. Economic growth seemed to have benefitted only the extremely wealthy, whereas the middle class saw their salaries stagnate or worse, their purchasing power erode. Inequality then became everyone’s favourite whipping-boy.

Further, people just didn’t feel safe commuting to work, dining out, visiting tourist spots, or even exploring Christmas markets. Any time, at the shout of “Allahu akbar!”, suicide bombers can detonate their vests, rogue drivers ram vehicles through crowds, and knife-wielding madmen hack their way through a thicket of pedestrians. All Muslims are now viewed as Islamic fundamentalists. These, in turn, are conflated with all Arabs, and lastly, with all migrants, foreigners, or whoever looks different.

Populists build their platform on providing safety and taking care of their own citizens first. What could be wrong with that? So voters, driven by anger and fear, bought into these promises wholesale. Never mind if it meant leaving boatloads of refugees stranded at sea and lifeless bodies of toddlers washed ashore. Never mind if children of asylum-seekers are separated from parents and detained in cages. Never mind if hundreds are murdered by government forces in an all-out war on drugs. They’re all just unfortunate collateral damage, sacrificed to a future greater good. If that is the price of social order and economic security, so be it.

But as in all things human, we must consider not only the what, but also the how; along with the objectives, the methods. Dignity requires that we acknowledge and safeguard the inviolable, intrinsic value of each human being, regardless of the situation or consequences. All human beings deserve respect as “ends in themselves”, never to be used simply as means or instruments to another’s ulterior motives, however noble these may appear. The same holds when choosing politicians as well.

So next time you cast your vote for populists, just to get the job done, without worrying over the how, consider the following: you may have unknowingly added a hit-man on your payroll. Now, what does that make of you? Who have you become? Politicians cannot be mere thugs for hire to do our dirty work. We may be content at first, for they seem effective and unscrupulously deliver the goods. But because they lack a moral conscience, it won’t take long until they turn against us. Beware.

Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. For the academic year 2018-2019, he is a visiting professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He is an editor of the recently published “Business Ethics: A Virtue Ethics and Common Good Approach” (Routledge 2018). He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission.

Alejo Jose G. Sison

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...