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  • Mauro Gonzalez

Our Experts Versus Theirs: The Rise of Technopopulism

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, 2018. Previously a law professor who had never held elected office, his government straddled the line between populism and technocracy, a first for post-war Europe. Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images

The last decade has seen a resurgence of populism all throughout the industrialized world. From the rise of ultranationalist parties in Europe to a new pink wave in Latin America, the traditional parties of both left and right have been threatened. However, this new wave of populism has a major twist, mixing technocratic and populist language together to form technopopulism.

Technocracy and populism may seem like complete opposites to one another, with one emphasizing the role of non-partisan experts and one emphasizing the role of the general public against those in power. However, technopopulists have been able to meld the two into a new product. Much of the ideology revolves around calls for removal of the old, out-of-touch political caste, still entrenched in outdated 20th century ideology, and to be replaced by experts who have won the support of the commoner. Its leaders include those who know what’s happening at all times: lawyers, professors, and business moguls. It is a rejection of old-school political warfare and embraces “pragmatism” without ideological anchoring.

Technopopulism manifests differently in every country. In Italy, a previously low-level politician named Giuseppe Conte became Prime Minister in 2018. Styling himself as the “defense lawyer of the Italian people,” he split his cabinet between non-partisan technocrats and populist firebrands, and adopted a buffet-table of policies ranging from nationalizations to a flat tax to a “citizens’ income”. In Spain, the Podemos party has effectively combined common leftist-populist talking points with an often top-down intellectual party structure, leading it to be a major regional party in several parts of Spain. However, the common thread between all technopopulist movements is that it embraces the populist calls of power for the majority, while also embracing the “non-partisan” use of experts and seeking out “common sense” solutions. This can be seen with the push for universal basic income among many of the movement’s adherents, being seen as an efficient, non-ideological solution to issues with the welfare state. With no tethering to specific ideological platforms, the world is technopopulism’s oyster is choosing out policy positions. To lead the charge you need the experts who know how to implement such change and will ensure it won’t get mucked up in partisan fighting.

In the United States, technopopulism’s avatar has been the entrepreneur and business mogul. Under this framework, the bureaucracy is seen as corrupt, out-of-touch, and inefficient, and viewed with total suspicion. This is in opposition to the American entrepreneur, a celebrated figure who shows that with just enough grit you can do anything in this country. Thus, it is a natural fit to bring the business owner into politics. They are viewed as successful and efficient, bringing much-needed change to Washington. Whether it is true or not, they are viewed as an outsider to Beltway politics, someone who tells it as it is, as is demanded by the nature of their job. The end result is the sort of “drain the swamp” rhetoric Trump championed: it is getting rid of the political-bureaucratic caste, installing efficiency in the system, and making it work for you.

American conservatives are not the only group susceptible to this, with the foremost technopopulist figure from the left briefly being Andrew Yang. He is the flip side of Trump: the technopopulist who strives for efficient, “human” capitalism. He plays on a similar appeal to Trump, he’s a business owner, an entrepreneur, someone who is an expert. This is visible in every aspect of his campaigns for President and for Mayor of New York City, particularly with his 2020 slogan, MATH (Make America Think Harder). Yang publicly signaled he is a technocrat or some sort of wonk, while also presenting himself as a “unifier,” a classic populist archetype. While populism often turns into being anti-pluralist (us vs. them; i.e. Trump), Yang has embraced a type of pluralist populism: he considers himself non-ideological, only pushing for pragmatic policy, and embraced the syncretic nature of his coalition.

Andrew Yang, 10 June 2021. Part plucky entrepreneur, part wonk, and part man of the people, Yang’s brand relies on promoting efficient solutions not tied to any ideology or party. IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

This is not to say that Donald Trump is a technopopulist (he isn’t) or that Andrew Yang will be the future of American politics (most would agree that the formation of his third party killed any chances he had at continued political relevance). However, the usage of business-talk as a shorthand for “expertise” continues to be a powerful force in American politics. It presupposes that the way businesses are run is by default the same way the government should run. The goals of the government are to be the same as the goals of the firm, creating such a strong symbiotic relationship it becomes hard to distinguish when government ends and where private institutions begin.

As Edmund Berger, writing for American Affairs points out, any successful populist movement will inevitably face the challenge of how “to integrate themselves into the vast machine of technocratic government”. What makes technopopulism unique is that it doesn’t reject this fate outright. Giuseppe Conte’s nationalizations, Podemos’ intricate internal party bureaucracy, and flirtations with e-democracy by the Italian Five Star Movement and the Chilean Party of the People point towards a co-opting of technocratic governance as opposed to destroying it.

To adapt the words of Italian journalist Piero Gobetti, populism is the “autobiography of the nation”. It takes the malaise of a society and flips it on its head, presenting the remedy to all of its ills. In a stagnant two-party system like the United States’ or an often unstable system like Italy’s, a government of stewards that rises above partisanship is particularly enticing. It promises to break the walls of whatever old, tired system is in place, and to bring in those who understand how complex the world is. It is clear that the traditional parties of the mid-20th century are in decline, with technopopulist movements as one of the many alternatives trying to fill in the gaps. It is just a matter of time to see whether it is a passing fad or in the words of Italian political historian Lorenzo Castellani, “the Ghost of Many Governments Yet To Come”.


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