Fate of Populism in Post-Covid-19 World

Fate of Populism in Post-Covid-19 World

Fatima Razzaq

Political trends had never been this synchronized until the turn of 21st century when the entire world saw a whole new lot of politicians rising around the globe. These world leaders, labelled populists, gained more power in years to come. The 9/11, economic crisis of 2008, and the migration crisis of 2015 whipped fear and created wedges among people as well as peoples. These events provided fertile grounds for sowing seeds of unilateralism and prompting disdain for traditional democracies, bureaucracies, science, accepted protocols and existing system—the very characteristics of populism. Thus, mentioned crises became gateway for bolstering populism.

Once again, the home to almost 7.8bn human beings and several other species is hit by an unexplored and somewhat unknown virus resulting in a crisis of the scale, unheard in modern era. Whereas previous crises strengthened populists every time, this crisis has divided historians and intellectuals over the fate of populism. First camp sees populism crumbling in the near future and its members are exploring and exposing the limits of populism. Other camp comprises of those who expect this political trend to gain more strength and continue in post-Covid-19 world with even more ardour. Ones belonging to latter group are paying much attention to the similarities between the reasons and impacts of this crisis and that of previous ones which typically ushered populist thought.

Before assessing fate of populism in post-Covid-19 world, it is pertinent to brush-up few concepts like understanding populist thought and knowing the reasons and ways crisis situation leads to populism. It is also essential to analyze and compare efficacy of state-level responses – approved by different populists and non-populist world leaders – in the wake of current virus outbreak. Finally, it can be investigated that how different aspects of populism will be weakened or strengthened in this virus-hit world.7043573c67614083a3c84e7a30113832

To understand the populist thought thoroughly, it must be made clear that terminologies like populism and populist are not strictly defined. But these terms are used mostly in a negative sense – the way capitalism and communism had been used since Bolshevik Revolution by contending blocs. Anyhow, in “Populism: A Very Short Introduction”, Cas Mudde gave most acceptable schematic of populism in a scientific manner. According to Mudde, populists see their society being separated into two antagonistic groups – “the Pure People” and “The Corrupt Elite”. Former group sees latter one as the reason for various social as well as economic ills. This division and grouping could be at national, international or any other level. Similarly, reasons for this division could range from social class to religion to ethnicity. This is very much in accordance with the “versatility,” Professor Nadia Urbinati of Columbia University has recognized with the phenomenon of populism. This discussion infers that populist agenda can be furthered in an environment where lives and livelihoods of one section of a society are endangered by other section. Mainstream politicians seem oblivion to this situation and then populists come forward vowing to take measures to allay fears of pure people. Moreover, social experimentation has revealed that populist leaders are generally anti-liberal; promote anti-elitism; disregard science; disdain traditional democracies, accepted manners, protocols and pluralism; and tend to make direct contact with their people carrying bundles of false promises.1590783905970

Different crises endanger different aspects of life and thus raise different kind of populist thought. Populist leaders cash this fear in their rhetoric to fuel the fire and create wedges among people. For example, first major crisis of the ongoing century – 9/11- made westerners fearful of Muslims and indicated rise of populists on both sides of Atlantic. For this anti-Muslim and anti-Islam propaganda, “Clash of Civilizations” provided theoretical base to western leaders. Similarly, 2008 financial crisis divided people on the basis of social class where economists, policymakers and bankers were held responsible for all the economic problems. Financial insecurity and frustration gave way to the rise of populists of the kind who promised fixing economy in all aspects. Anyhow, immigration crisis made public forget this genre of populists when they looked around to find more inward-looking, anti-immigration leaders. Though, purpose remained the same – saving jobs for working-class. Thus, different crises – one after the other- set the stage for newer kinds of populism every time.

But is just a crisis enough to trigger rise of populism? NO. Instead, prevalent global economic and political systems play undeniably huge role. For example, globalized capitalist world brought ills of uneven wealth distribution and threat to cultural identity. Mainstream political leaders paid little attention to these issues or they had no concrete plans to tackle these problems. Rising concerns among working class created dividing lines in a society where business and working classes stood poles apart. Anyhow, dawn of the financial crisis (2007-08) strengthened this division. In such situation, to get to higher echelons of power, populist leaders used tools provided by democratic system: freedom of speech and public representation. So it was not just crisis but conditions created by existing system that heralded arrival of populism.

pray-for-the-world-coronavirus-concept-vectorNow, let’s start analyzing if Corona virus outburst has made the environment suitable for rise of populism or not.

Populists hate democratic setup, bureaucracies and constitutional institutions. They like authoritarianism which allows taking actions swiftly, and mobilizing huge resources without any resistance. In post-Covid-19 world, these aspects of populism are more likely to be favored. This point can be validated by comparing actions of different democratic and non-democratic governments to save their nationals from Corona virus. China, despite being origin of Corona virus, controlled the situation in an effective manner. Brutal but effective lockdown placed 11 million Wuhan residents in quarantine which was later extended for whole Hubei province of 50 million. But supply of food and other essentials was ensured during lockdown period. Effective healthcare measures were also taken by building hospitals overnight and sending over 42,000 doctors and paramedics to Hubei province. On the other hand, world’s largest democracy, India, responded to this crisis in a poor manner by not enacting any support system and putting the responsibility of spread of virus on the most vulnerable of their society. And when Modi-led government ordered nation-wide lockdown on 24 March for 21 days, states sealed their borders, businesses were closed and Indians were barred from moving. According to The Guardian, around 120mi rural-to-urban migrants took to the roads with their kids tied to their backs and domestic stuff bundled on their heads. To add salt to injury, even grocery and medical stores were not allowed to open. TS-Populism-HeroComparison of policy measures, adopted by democratic-India and authoritarian-China in the wake of virus outburst, will bolster political stance of populist and help them bring forward in political arena. Moreover, chances of social unrest and violence are looming amid this crisis, as UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, has warned. These social problems will also compromise performance of democratic system and bring a tinge of authoritarianism into administrative setup while boosting populist ideology.

In addition, populists prefer unilateralism and virus outbreak seems to rupture multilateral system which stood at the heart of liberal system. This crisis has the potential to affect the mechanisms of cooperation and inter-dependence among world nations negatively. For example, after virus wreaked havoc in some European countries and weaker South asked frugal North to join hands to create Corona bonds, a clash of interests was observed among Eurozone finance ministers. Italian prime minister went as far as to say “If we do not seize the opportunity to put new life into the European project, the risk of failure is real.”  This indicates vividly that cooperation blocs could be hurt amid this crisis. Threat has not passed yet and existence of this union will be threatened again and again after this epidemic ends. IMF chief has warned that global economy is less likely to recover fully in 2021. Moreover, war-torn Arab and African nations will plunge into a new cycle of extreme poverty. In such scenario, many Arabs and Africans will try entering European continent and Europeans would like to keep them out. Intra-Europe disputes over entry and distribution of refugees will also arise. So it is highly predictable that more nationalist, anti-immigrant and inward looking forces will arise not just in Europe but throughout the world. In other words, amalgamation of different crises in post-Covid-19 is predictable which will accompany a heightened wave of populism.unnamed

Populists also target international law and legal institutions as major tools for exploiting common people at the hands of global elite. Covid-19 seems ready to weaken, if not destroy, many important Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs). For example, integrity and role of WHO is challenged after president Trump blamed WHO for being too deferential to China. Mr. Trump also complained that despite the fact China suppressed information about Corona virus outburst, WHO is praising China for its arrangements and policies for tackling the situation. Blame game amid this crisis and emerging bipolar world order will weaken IGOs further in days to come. Moreover, people will lose their trust in these multilateral organizations. So those politicians will have higher chances of winning state offices who vow to take matters in their own hands totally instead of taking policy directions from IGOs. This also infers that in post-Covid-19 world, more inward looking, populist political class will gain strength.

Cas Mudde’s definition of populism tells that creation of two antagonistic groups lies at the heart of propagation of populism. So it is imperative to see if two antagonistic groups are generated after Corona virus outbreak to push populism ahead or not. Currently, one can’t find a definite party to hold responsible for the outbreak and spread of this deadly virus so “corrupt” and “pure” people can’t be identified. Instead, A multi-directional blame game has ensued; world is made to hear a long list of conspiracy theories. That’s why, anti-Chinese, anti-Asia, anti-migrant and multiple other feelings are noticed after virus outbreak and no two definite sides are identifiable until now. These feelings have been demonstrated by American, European, and British public when they attacked immigrants, Asians and people of Asian descent accusing them for spreading Corona virus. Political class of the two most powerful nations has also contributed in this spat but without bringing the world close to any conclusion regarding the culprit. Moving away from USA-China blame game and considering state-level scenario, different victim parties can be identified in different countries. For example, Muslims are blamed and harassed in India on the account of spreading Corona virus. But this narrative is not appreciated by international media and world leaders. So, until now, no specific community, nation or ethnic group has been accused worldwide for spread of Corona virus.

Populism vector illustration. Flat tiny leader manipulation persons concept. Disinformation strategy to lie crowd. Political fake news approach ideology. Trump demagogy speech power to persuade nation

While pole creation hasn’t taken place until now, we need to see if this is going to happen in near future or not. For this, world order and foreign policies of world powers at the time of 9/11 are to be compared with that of now. At the time of 9/11, Western world was united and they had prepared their public psychologically to stand against “Islamic Civilization”, as Noam Chomsky opines. Russia also pledged to back USA on this issue and, in fact, President Putin was among first foreign leaders to talk directly to President Bush. Same was the case with China which sided with USA against Taliban. As all regional and global powers of that time were on the same page, voluntarily or forcibly, one narrative was furnished and adopted. This is why after 9/11 anti-Muslim sentiments precipitated very quickly and poles were created soon after twin towers were hit. Contrary to this scenario, Corona virus outburst has created rifts among western countries on the issue of funding, policing and role of international organizations like WHO. Moreover, at global-level analysis, China and USA – both comparable in economic and political power – stand in contending blocs now. Both are trading barbs and blaming one another for the creation and spread of Corona virus. So this division among western nations and confrontation of major powers in political arena will hinder consolidation of one universal narrative regarding creation and spread of this virus and thus formation of contending groups.

It has been seen that Corona virus outbreak has made the conditions ripe for fungal growth of populism but it is also necessary to know the performance of existing populists and thus the fate of populism. For the purpose, overall governance and legislation, policy making amid crisis and its results need to be gauged. While different world leaders decided to fight against a common foe differently, neglected healthcare systems of populist regimes stung them badly. For example, Covid-19 could have wreaked little havoc in USA if Obama’s ‘Affordable Care Act’ (ACA) would have been fully in place. Populists always put business and defense on priority list at the cost of social safety nets. Moreover, differences between Centre and States or Provinces are not surprising in populist-led countries. Populists, holding higher offices in federal governments, could not coordinate strategically with state/provincial governments leading to discords. These discords, verily, hampered smart and swift actions after virus outbreak. Downplayed threat of virus (e.g. Brazil), delayed responses (e.g. USA), and declarations assuring their fellow nationals to be disease-resistant (e.g. Mexico) worsened the situation. On the other hand, many non-populist leaders took strict and painful measures in time to dodge more dreadful circumstances. For example, New Zealand announced state of emergency on 25th March and imposed lockdown on 26th March when there were just 205 confirmed or probable cases of Corona virus nationwide. On the other hand, Italy’s nationwide lockdown began on 9th March when tally of Covid-19 patients had crossed 9,000. So it can be said that delayed response and inefficient governance strategies of populist leaders after virus outbreak exposed their reality and that of populism also. 

From the discussion, it can be concluded that in post-Covid-19 world populism will strengthen its foothold. Democracy is less likely to be considered as best form of governance. Economic and political issues will encourage nationalists and unilateralists. Social problems will push governments to take authoritarian actions. Mechanisms of inter-state cooperation will also be affected. Anyhow, as two globally recognized antagonistic groups, in the wake of Corona virus outburst, are missing, any universal populist agenda is less likely to be adopted. In such situation, fate of populists is to be decided at national level. Each individual populist will formulate one’s own rhetoric and buy faith in accordance with local situation. If this happens then upcoming populists will have ideologies conflicting with one another’s. They will not praise one another the way it had been done just before the virus outbreak. For example, Trump praising Boris Johnson or Matteo Salvini wishing to become Italy’s Trump. And so Urbinati’s versatility will be experimented in space for the first time at a large scale.

In post-Covid-19 world, conditions are good for the growth of populism. So media and mainstream politicians need to accept the challenge of not letting populists takeover the system further. They can expose flawed governance of populist leaders after virus outbreak. They should not deny new problems arising after this crisis. Instead, they should formulate and present practical strategies for these problems and ensure unbiased talk on media.  




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