Is Global Populism on the Rise
Interestingly, the phenomenon of populism has led many scholars, social scientists, journalists and academia to jump on the bandwagon of “Populism Studies.” Especially, journalists are prone to the overuse of ‘populism,’ labelling it as populist phenomena for which other synonyms like ‘nationalism’ or ‘nativism’ could be used. Denoting lazy thinking-it feels safe nowadays to call all sorts of things as ‘populist’, because we’re told day and night that ours is “the age of populism.” It is also consciously ideological attempt to discredit as ‘dangerous populism,’ what might in fact be legitimate criticism of the powers-that-be.
Use of term ‘populism’ is more in vogue in Europe due to issues of identity, refugees, economy – where it carries particularly negative connotations. In the US, on the other hand, remnants of the late nineteenth-century meaning of ‘populism’ remain as a largely progressive movement defending workers and especially farmers, against Wall Street.
Examples from a broad group of authoritarian states and ‘illiberal democracies’ demonstrate that the two leading authoritarian powers viz., China and Russia, have set the trends towards rise in populism. Russia, more than any other, has incubated and refined the ideas and institutions at the foundation of 21st-century authoritarianism. Above all, the chief espouser of liberal democracy, USA, has taken a turn towards semi-authoritarians under President Trump, who has shown some secret admiration for strong leaders. Now, many other countries are following in same footsteps where authoritarian trends are unmistakable due to lack of faith in Western liberal democracy, which has unleashed forces of inequality, moral decline and military adventurism. However, the past quarter-century has shown that quasi-dictatorship in general will not disappear on its own, but authoritarian systems would seek not just to survive, but to weaken and defeat democracy around the world.
As an illustration, the crash of stock market and economic decline created societal chaos. There was resentment against the elite republic and people wanted a strongman to take charge. The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent global recession were nowhere nearly as painful as the Great Depression of 1930s but the effects are somewhat similar. The heady economic growth of the 2000s led Europeans and Americans to believe they were on firm economic ground; the shattering of banks, real estate markets and governments in the wake of the crash left tens of millions of people at sea, angry at the institutions that had failed them – above all, the politicians who claimed to be in charge.
Why, the voters asked, did the government allow so many bankers to behave like criminals in the first place? Why did it then bail out banks while letting car factories go under? Why is it welcoming millions of immigrants? Are there separate rules for the elites, defined by a hyper-modern liberal worldview that ridicules the working class – and their traditional values – as yokels? Election of former US President Donald Trump and his policies attacking immigration, cuts in aid, open support for Israel and sometimes admiration for authoritarian leaders may have contributed to this anti-Western thinking and disenchantment.
In America and Europe, the rise of anti-establishment movements is a symptom of a cultural shock against globalized post-modernity, similar to the 1930s’ rejection of modernity. The common accusation by the ‘masses’ is that liberal democracy has somehow gone too far in fomenting ills: that it has become an elite ideology at the expense of common man. Marine Le Pen, Chief of the French National Front, calls the normal folk ‘les invisibles et les Oubliés,’ as the ‘invisible and the forgotten.’
In the Middle East, after heady days of Arab Spring (from 2010), countries are reverting back to leaders with despotic trends after dictatorships collapsed. The wars in Iraq, Syria Yemen and Afghanistan are major cause of discontent and heartburning in the Islamic World.
In South Asia, the Indian parliamentary elections (April 2019) have demonstrated populism as anchor of PM Modi’s policies, called as Hindutva (anti-Muslim) politics. Although Indian democracy may bungle along, given its multifarious problems many are casting doubt on the ‘largest democracy’ for discrimination and violence against minority groups. Ironically, India is seen favourably by West for military and economic clout, anti-Muslim agenda and facade of democracy. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, as smaller powers in South Asia, are affected too by authoritarian trends and disaffection with working of democracy.
Examples from a broad group of authoritarian states and illiberal democracies demonstrate that the two leading authoritarian powers are China and Russia. Russia, other than any, has incubated and refined the ideas and institutions at the foundation of the 21st-century authoritarianism. Turkey, Italy, East Europeans like Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, are being followed by others. Above all, the chief espouser of liberalism, the US, has taken a lead towards authoritarianism under President Trump who has shown some secret admiration for strong leaders in China and Russia. Now, many other countries are following in the same footsteps where authoritarian trends are unmistakable due to lack of faith in Western type of liberal democracy.
Psychologically, the power of nostalgia is always strong when circumstances turn difficult. It’s easy to say that people need to accept the new realities and work toward feasible reforms. Yet most mainstream parties haven’t done so, at least not in a compelling way. Instead, they bicker and fight among themselves and see the rise of demagogues as a solution to their problems, not a threat to their nations.
Today, as in the 1930s, we are seeing the failure of the mainstream parties to respond to the serious challenges. In the so-called ‘new Europe’, erstwhile Communist, economic aid and investment are considered more important. For Balkan counties, entry into the EU is a tortuous and time-consuming process with hundreds of stringent laws and regulations. Unsurprisingly, China is more welcome as investment partner as it does not raise ethical questions. Ukraine, a beneficiary of Chinese aid has, for instance, termed 2019 as the “year of China.” Likewise, Greece, Italy, Spain, Albania and Romania have sought Chinese investments in building ports, railways, dams and other infrastructure – unimagined with EU or US. China provides the money while Russia strategic direction to increase its influence. Also, China is not as hard-driven like Russia but it is not bothered by public opinion. According to Levad poll in Russia, Stalin is eulogized by 38 per cent while Putin by 34 percent.
Since 2012, both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have doubled down on existing efforts to stamp out internal dissent and have grown more aggressive on the world stage. But all despotic regimes have inherent weaknesses that leave them vulnerable to sudden shocks and individually prone to collapse. However, the past quarter-century has shown that dictatorship, in general, will not disappear on its own, as authoritarian systems will seek not just to survive but to weaken and discredit democracy around the world. It is getting into a new breed of democracy due to rise in inequalities, widespread corruption, moral decline and politics of exclusion.
Therefore, it is too early to predict who shall win. Unlike the Cold War in the 1950-1960s, as of today, there is no advocacy of ideological containment but crude competition for influence and power. Moreover, today’s world is becoming more complex due to resources and non-traditional security.
While authoritarian regimes signified by Russia and China may seem appealing, but repression and tyranny give free run to autocrats and authoritarian leaders. The Western public is still open to liberal values; had they not accepted liberal-democratic values in the past, they would have ended up as despotic states and remained underdeveloped as many Third World nations.
Noted German journalist, Jochem Bittner, traces the rise of authoritarianism in constitutional democracies as represented by the pre-WW II Weimer republic despite different circumstances, and opines that the trends can be seen in today’s Western democracies. But the analogy is not very apt as it is not 1933 and Trump is no Hitler. Besides, today’s democratic institutions are more robust and stable through practice and evolution. But psychologically, the power of nostalgia and need for demagogic leaders tends to surface when dire socioeconomic circumstances are there.
It’s easy to say that people need to accept the new realities and work toward reforms. And yet most mainstream parties haven’t done so, at least not in a compelling way. Instead, they fight among themselves, and see the rise of demagogues as a solution to their problems but not a threat to their nations. Previous democratic systems such as Egypt, Turkey and present Pakistan and Sri Lanka are, therefore, following and looking at presidential options of democracy – a break from non-delivering parliamentary systems.
While democracies are weak and vulnerable to such playbooks, they are not entirely helpless. Whatever be the danger of over-intrusion of technology, it is an invaluable aid in fight against corruption and mal-governance. Media is also a crucial source of oxygen and oversight in protecting values and norms, even though autocrats have learnt quickly to use this tool against democrats with armies of bots and trolls.
Although populists are likely to fare relatively well in future elections due to demagogic leaders, they need not be marginalized completely but given due space and competed in pragmatic, calm and patient adversarial spirit. In any case, democracy should stand for dissent and pluralism, where others’ rights and views are duly respected. No wonder, even illiberals swear by democracy and electoral politics; another drawback is that populists tend towards binary divisions of elite and people – neglecting the fact that all people in a society are not homogenous.
Support for parliamentary processes is, as South Africa has shown in fight against ‘state capture’, but that is also the responsibility of the public at large, liberal values and freedom of speech – not just political representatives. In this way, the world is divided not only between populists and conservatives, but liberal and illiberal worlds.
Confronting authoritarian ambitions demands consistency in squaring up not just to right-wingers, but left-wing regimes too, including in the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, values and dialogue as preferred political method. Populism is not to be overly worried about in future and should be allowed to run its normal course. More important, liberal democracies should first set their own houses in order and strive for bold economic and social welfare reforms; there is need to build forward-looking political movements that appeal to masses and emphasise existential issues like climate change, cyber security and human rights.
Since populists thrive mainly on fear, nostalgia, race and identity politics, it is essential to seize the narrative of victimhood and discrimination from the demagogues by putting facts and reality. After all, democracies have always been criticised for their open way of life; hence plurality is to be welcomed and not disdained.
Being overly defensive towards populism does not mean throwing away the baby of democracy along with the wash tub.
The writer is a member of staff.