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Oxford Union believes populism is a threat to democracy

On Thursday night, the Oxford Union voted in favour of the motion “This House Believes that Populism is a Threat to Democracy.” The final count had 177 members voting for the motion and 68 members voting against. 

Speaking in favour of the motion were Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House, and Oli Dugmore, editor of PoliticsJOE. Secretary Rachel Haddad of Balliol College also spoke in favour of the motion. 

British musician, podcaster and former lead guitarist of Mumford & Sons, Winston Marshall, as well as Union committee members Sultan Kokhar (Chair of Consultative Committee) and Oscar Whittle (Director of Research) spoke against the motion.

Rachel Haddad opened the debate for the proposition, explaining that populism is a force which slowly chips away at the foundations of democracy, naming Trump and Modi as key perpetrators. She continued by suggesting that populism also sows divisions in many areas of society, giving Trump’s ‘muslim ban’ as a key example. Her opening speech was also peppered with jovial remarks and digs at opposition speaker, Sultan Khokhar, commenting on his various attempts at assuming office in a number of different student societies – and even in his own JCR.

Responding to Haddad and speaking first for the opposition was Sultan Khokhar. He claimed that opposition to populism amounts to “slander and denigration” of the average man’s intelligence. 

After introducing the proposition speakers, Khokhar argued that populism only arises when ordinary citizens decide that enough is enough, and that the existing system has failed them. He conceded that it was understandable that many people have a disdain for populism; right-wing populists often promise the world before failing to deliver meaningful change. However, he went on to argue that populists are democratically elected, and that it is not the populists themselves that we should blame for developments like Roe v. Wade. He instead blamed the weak checks and balances present in many political systems for such losses of freedom. He finished his speech with the assertion that populism is the purest form of democracy and that we should reclaim it, not abandon it altogether. 

Oli Dugmore, head of news and politics at JOE Media, opened the proposition’s first rebuttal, reminding the audience not to fall for the ploy that populism is not as much a threat to democracy as other issues.

He continued by joking that he had only just spoken at the Cambridge Union in a debate entitled “This House Believes Modern Technology Will Destroy Liberal Democracy” this past Hilary Term. In a swift change of tone, Dugmore produced a .223 Remington bullet, drawing reference to the January 6th Capitol riots, stating: “[they] did the right thing for the wrong reasons.” He took the time to take a point of information from the audience, joke about his podcast on LBC with Pelosi, and even managed to exclaim “bless you” to someone as their sneeze interrupted the concluding moments of his time at the despatch box. Dugmore finished his speech by stating that populism is the greatest challenge of our times.

Speaking second for the opposition was Director of Research Oscar Whittle, a first year at St. John’s College. Whittle began his speech with the concession that, as a student of politics and a listener of The Rest is Politics, he had – before preparing for his speech – taken for granted that populism is an evil. 

However, he noted that what had made populism the subject of disdain was not the consequences of the ideology in itself, but the politicians who had used it as a manipulative strategy. Populists politicians on both sides of the spectrum make undeliverable and outlandish promises to the electorates which, once in office, they cannot deliver. His solution to this was similar to Khokar’s: we ought to reclaim populism, because ordinary people ought to be represented by their governments. He finished with the argument that democracy is sick, and that the only way to save it is to “make populism great again”.

Following Whittle’s speech, the debate was opened to the rest of the chamber. Of the evening’s two floor speakers, one was ex-President Charlie Mackintosh. He likened populist sentiments to Martin Luther’s condemnation of the Catholic church’s failure to keep up with the needs of his followers. He went on to quote Luther’s famous line “hier stehe ich” numerous times, including in his final remarks.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was last to speak for the proposition and – following a long day of engagements – she began her speech by accusing modern populism of upholding “Ethno-nationalism”. She 

contrasted this with the populism of 200 years ago under Andrew Jackson, who is known as the founding father of populism. Her main case revolved around the fact that political arguments of 200 years ago shouldn’t necessarily be upheld as ones we use today. Eight points of information were raised during Pelosi’s speech – none of which were entertained by the ex-Speaker of the House. Her closing remarks took issue with one of the points repeatedly raised by the opposition: that a rejection of populism questions ordinary voters’ knowledge of their own interests. She argued that populism on the ground in its current form (emphasis added by Cherwell) is a threat to democracy. 

Winston Marshall spoke last and closed the debate for the opposition. He began his speech with the remark that when he was younger “the word ‘woman’ meant someone who doesn’t have a cock”. The most notable aspect of his speech was his back and forth with Pelosi, who took issue with his argument equating the January 6th Capitol riots with progressives’ 2020 attack on the federal courthouse in Oregon. Later in his speech he attacked Pelosi’s claim that the 2016 presidential election had been hijacked, to which she plainly responded: “it was”.

Throughout his speech, Marshall attacked a number of groups who he argued were in cahoots with political actors around the world. He accused Big Pharma, Big Tech, Davos, Brussels, and large corporations (among others) of undermining democratic processes. Finally, he closed the debate with a list of headlines by media outlets, many of which cited democracy or voters as being “the problem”. He used these as evidence that media elites, too, disdain the views of ordinary people. 

In the Members’ bar, President Louis Wilson announced that the Ayes had swept the debate 177–68 in favour of the motion.

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