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On populism -Part I

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a glaringly unflattering light on the inability of populist leaders around the world to manage this crisis. As Babar Sattar, and more recently, Miftah Ismail have lucidly outlined on these pages, the virus has unmasked their hollow rhetoric, and utter confusion and chaos in policy.

All have pretty much followed the same script: initially trivialising the seriousness of the threat; recklessly opposing stringent lockdowns; accusing political opponents of misleading the public; creating false binaries between lives and livelihoods; and eventually – especially in our case – resorting to blaming the people for not taking the virus seriously.

While the pandemic has exposed the incompetence of populist governments globally, whether it hastens their demise or results in a further shift to the far-right is open to debate. Though, the fact that populists retain fanatical levels of support remains a cause for alarm and makes it imperative to attempt to understand the rationale behind such zealotry.

What is populism and why has it gained such fervent adherents over the past decade? To attempt to understand this, let’s walk down memory lane.

Populism is said to be as old as democracy itself, with the ancient Greeks cultivating it much before Julius Caesar left his populist influence on the Roman republic.

And while there may be no standard definition of the term, we’ve come a long way from 1967, when political theorists from around the world gathered at the London School of Economics for the first ever academic conference on populism, and had difficulty clarifying the topic under discussion. A summary report from the event read ‘there can, at present, be no doubt about the importance of populism. But no one is clear what it is’.

Over half a century later, we can claim to have made evident progress. Political theorists now agree that it’s an ideologically fluid approach to viewing politics as a basis for opposition between ‘people’ and ‘elites’. A tactic that infantilises politics into a ‘Manichean’ worldview, breaking it into a binary battle of good against evil, between the ‘ordinary masses’ and a ‘corrupt’ elite.

However, as opposed to firmly rooted political ideologies, populism paints politicians on both sides of the spectrum with the same brush.

Hence, while Trump, Bolsanaro, Farage, Erdogan, Modi, Duterte and Khan can be considered its central characters today, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Mexico’s AMLO would not be out of place in this cohort, despite having hardly any ideological commonalities with the afore-mentioned. And it wasn’t that long ago when Hugo Chavez was populism’s master spirit.

The fact that it can be used by politicians on both wings validates the assertion that it is not sustained by a single consistent ideology or subject position. Cas Maude, one of the leading scholars on populism, defines it as ‘a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’’.

Another core tenet Maude outlines, is that populists believe that politics should be an expression of the ‘general will’ – defined as a set of needs presumed to be common for all ‘ordinary people’.

Thus, populist leaders, through their charisma, fiery rhetoric and false promises, bring to boil the long-simmering resentments of the common man. In doing so, they claim to channel the general will of the people against the self-serving schemes of the elite establishment.

As Trump said on his inauguration, ‘we are transferring power from Washington DC and giving it to you, the people… the establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country’. The latter part of this snippet could be juxtaposed into any number of speeches by other populists; yet in practice, they are incontrovertibly hand-in-glove with the same elites.

However, no one who studies politics seriously can deny that populist movements can raise valid criticisms of the status quo, and of the palpable anti-democratic power of elites.

Political theorist Benjamin Arditi summed it up rather appropriately, describing populism as the drunken guest at a dinner party; one who disrespects the rules of sociability, but blurts out the real and painful problems that most others in the room choose to ignore.

Others have described contemporary populism as a response to the existing political order that asks the right questions but provides the wrong answers.

As reasoned by Jan-Werner Miller, while populism claims to fight for the will of the people, in power it enforces the same exclusionary policies it accuses the entrenched elite of practising. Its anti-pluralism is evident in its intolerance towards dissent and diversity of political beliefs, with any opposition discredited as being immoral and corrupt.

Instead of harmonising the polity, it creates further divisions, thus upholding Miller’s assertion that for populists only some of the people are really the people.

According to a global survey conducted by YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project in 2019, populists are also significantly more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. The results depicted populists as being highly sceptical of mainstream views on vaccinations, global warming and 9/11, and maintaining a strong belief in conspiracy theories that have been contradicted by factual or scientific evidence.

This explains the success of many populist leaders who promote conspiracy theories and frequently dismiss fact-based journalism as ‘fake news’.

A significant proportion of respondents also believe there is an exclusive cabal of powerful people who secretly rule the world together, regardless of who may officially be in charge of governments. Not surprisingly, the survey revealed that populists preferred obtaining news from social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp, where conspiracy theories are known to flourish.

Despite its obvious superficiality, over the years, populism has only strengthened its hold over the public’s imagination.

In March 2019, the Guardian revealed the results of a comprehensive study conducted by a global network of political scientists of speeches made by almost 140 world leaders. The research suggested that the number of populist leaders had more than doubled since the early 2000s, with the most significant increase occurring since 2015.

For instance, in Europe, the study established that populists have tripled their vote over the past two decades, with more than a quarter of Europeans voting for populist parties at their last election.

This can be witnessed through gains made by the likes of Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, which has become the third-largest party in parliament. In Italy’s 2018 elections, three populist parties gained more than half of the total votes. Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Freedom Party is The Netherlands’ second-largest in parliament. In France, Marine Le Pen made the final round of the French presidential elections in 2016, while Nigel Farage played an instrumental role in Brexit. Populists have also gained power in Greece, Hungary, Poland, India, Brazil, US, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

Even in the widely acclaimed social democratic states of Scandinavia, anti-immigration populists have gained a foothold over the past decade, being part of coalition governments in Denmark, Norway, and Finland.

Alarmingly, even in countries where they haven’t attained electoral success, populists have managed to influence policymaking and succeeded in shifting the political discourse in their countries to the right.

All of which begs the question, if populism is based on hollow rhetoric, bigotry, resentment and an ‘us versus them’ worldview, what explains its rapid rise in popularity? The answer lies partly in the question itself.

Shahrukh Nawaz Raja, "On populism -Part I," The News. 2020-06-25.
Keywords: Political science , Political discourse , Democratic state , Presidential election , Political scientist , Global Network , Social media , Global warming , Global survey