Populist politicians are nothing new. And I am not talking about the 1930s. Populists have existed since the beginning of representative democracy, if not longer. This was brought home to me once more as I was reading a story from the nineteenth century.
The story is from the book Familie en kennissen, ‘family and acquaintances’. It was written by one of the few historical Dutch authors who are still read in schools today: Piet Paaltjens. Piet Paaltjens is famous for his ironic verse. But under a different name, the same author – a vicar in everyday life – also wrote sentimental tales in the accessible style of Hans Christian Andersen. His name: François HaverSchmidt. His stories have long been out of print, so I was happy some years ago to stumble on a second-hand copy.
This story, that shows so presagiously the workings of populism, is about two men who share the same house: a cobbler, who lives in the basement; and the owner, a man of independent means who dabbles in poetry. He lets the basement to the cobbler, and occupies the rest of the house himself. He is known throughout country to be a ‘great man’.
It quickly becomes clear that this man is primarily great for his great inheritance and his great political acumen. After a period of liberal hospitality and generosity towards established leaders of the national Church, he lands in a powerful ecclesiastic position. Next on his list is parliament.
First and foremost, [the great man] was great in his popularity. He was friendliness personified towards all. He not only lifted his hat for every unknown lady with a sweet face, but he even shook hands with all kinds of ordinary folk, stroked the children on the street under the chin – sometimes by accident also their nannies – and greeted the wharf loafers and layabouts by name. ‘They are people too,’ the great man used to say, ‘and we are all children of the same big family.’
On the day he is elected as a member of parliament,
several grocers put out their flags; he had stolen their hearts by making familiar conversation with them on their doorsteps. One of them had even had the text ‘the man of the people’ pasted on his banner in gold paper letters.
Yet men of the people are often better at telling the people what to think, than at listening to the people.
Not long after, one man from the ‘people’, a small cobbler […], was in The Hague, where he had a petition to make […] in the interest of his sister’s children, and on that occasion, [near parliament,] he met the representative of the people, who was in the company of several distinguished gentlemen. At first, he thought that the gentleman looked him sharply in the face, but he must have been mistaken, for one moment later the gentleman passed him at an inch’s distance, engaged in busy conversation and without even the slightest greeting.
It does not become clear in the story what political programme the great man adheres to, but it does not matter much either. His voters do not choose him on the basis of his ideas – they do not choose him on the basis of the way he proposes to solve their problems – but because they believe he embodies ‘the people’. His political programme can be very flexible therefore. And once he is elected, he no longer needs to acknowledge individual members of the people, or attempt to solve their problems.
Quotations are from ‘Een groot man en een goed man’, on p. 14 of the third edition of Familie en kennissen (Schiedam, 1894)
Images are from the edition available in the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren.