POPULISM IN CONTEXT OF TODAY’S GLOBAL ORDER

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All across the world, populist, and equally, anti-populist views are stirring. Depending on where one is on the globe, there is either support, or opposition to right wing populism, or left wing populism. With regards to right wing populism particularly, there has been a significantly divided public opinion. There are many prominent and influential heads of states who are critiqued primarily and fundamentally for being populists. Leaders like US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; are all considered populists. The question that then arises is that if populists are put in power because they have electoral appeal, why are they then critiqued for the very same reason by so many? Moreover, why is populism considered a negative order? Can it not be recognised as a positive force that brings people disenchanted with the current state of affairs back to mainstream politics and conscious of the national discourse? To begin with, let us take a look at how populism today is different from the populism of the past.

It is generally accepted that the last time populist ideology took global centre-stage was after the Great Depression, in the pre war years of the 1930s. This period, characterised by high levels of unemployment, public debt, inequality, over-production and a heightened state of panic and general distrust, forced millions of people on the streets, homeless and starving. This economic climate was the perfect environment for populist parties to gain momentum on nationalistic and anti-establishment lines, resulting in frantic support for them and the targeted rooting out of the opposition. Sometimes even curbing the free media and expression of free speech. Another classical pillar of populist ideology of the time was the looming threat to cultural values and the identity of a people. Thus, economic interests along with non economic values proved to be the two pronged spear of populist ideology. Populism today however isn’t based solely on the dissatisfaction with the economic situation prevalent in a country nor is it based on authoritarian values. At least, not completely. With a relatively prosperous period in global history and the rise of globalisation and a global community, there are better economic opportunities for social mobility, a greater emphasis on democracy & democratic institutions and a culture of cross border learning along with increased political and civic awareness. Today, to believe that a change in the economic environment and associated individual interests largely account for changes in support for populists and patterns of economic policy preferences would be wrong. Similarly, to say that cultural factors are central to understanding the populist identity would also be wrong. Pitting the two, i.e. economic problems with cultural problems is in today’s times a misguided debate. Economic interests, in fact, help shape our core values and identity today is measured in degrees rather than as a whole. Thus, populism today is characterised by empty spaces in modern democracies that allow populists to ascend to power.

Popular French philosopher and activist Claude Lefort conceptualised that the political is a sphere of society’s symbolic representation of its unity to itself, a symbolic order of a society’s togetherness from which authority is sourced. In modern democracies however, politics is no longer given or inherited from the past but is actively generated. This destabilises and pluralises the order which leads to these ‘empty spaces’ being constituted in democracies. Using these spaces as a platform, populists appeal to the electorate and promise policy action. Populist gesture is above all an invocation to ‘Right to Politics’, the right to matter politically, to have one’s own experience of social injustice count as a public concern and therefore merit policy action. However, more often than not, populists are big on rhetoric and slow on policy. Once in the system, they cry foul, call it rigged and still function in a ‘protest mode’ which helps them reinforce their image as an outsider fighting for the interests of the people. The transition from championing the cause of the people to governing is a slow one for populists and they in fact end up doing the same things that they ascribe to elites, like excluding citizens and usurping the state. Moreover, they do this with a clear justification and sometimes, sadly, even a clear conscience. Thus, as put forth by Dr. Albena Azmanova, a professor of Political Theory at the University of Kent, ‘populists do not ensue democratic reconstruction and populism is therefore a symptom of a pathological state of the polity, a crisis that emerges out of a crisis. In contemporary democracies, populism is not the cause of erosion of diversity capital, but rather, it is its outcome!’

Several factors impact the future prospects of populism. The role of the media in determining the future of populist politics is one of paramount importance. To summarise the general relationship of the media with populist politicians in one word would be complex. Even the best, most critical journalists tend to have difficulties dealing with populists. Any criticism or attack, positive or otherwise, on populist ideals labels them as a corrupt part of the political establishment and populists claim to be marginalised by these sections of the media. Investigative and satirical media tend to do much better with populists but their audience are often not supporters of right wing populist parties. In this situation, independent media must be encouraged and crowd funded media houses should take the lead. Another important determinant of the future of populist politics is the current neoliberal regime. Long reign of neoliberal policies, even in times of social democratic governments has contributed to the recent upsurge in populism. The negative aspects of the social effects of neoliberal politics enlarges the sphere of the ‘politically unthinkable’ that allows populist movements to rise. With unfettered globalisation, finding ways to socially and ecologically regulate the global economy while addressing national inequalities and injustices will take time, especially when political and economic trends pinpoint in completely opposite directions. There is a need to recognise, acknowledge and make corrective policies for the same. Next, it is urgently necessary that we as a people start identifying ourselves as global citizens part of a global community with shared ideals, challenges and opportunities. Instead of fighting cross border problems like migration, it is now time that we actively regulate and institutionalise the world’s problems. The global response to climate change is a good example of how we need to learn from one another and adapt successful strategies across borders. Cross border learning and transplantation of successful practices, be it business, political or cultural, have great appeal and seem almost natural in a globalised world of instantaneous communication and wide spread use of English. However, each national context has institutional, historical and cultural specificities, both in terms of opportunity structure for populists and for the conditions of success for the combat against them. Lastly, political and electoral strategies have their limits, especially with identity issues, which are at the core of populist conceptions. Thus, they are almost impossible to address politically beyond defeating the parties that represent such ideas at the polls. However, in light of the fact that populist parties and politicians have shown that they can at best only be temporarily weakened by participation in governing coalitions (for example in Austria) and at worst they come to dominate power and government, and transform the country in an authoritarian and illiberal direction (as in Hungary and Poland), it is clear that it will not suffice to just keep populist parties from political power and strategies like sanctions also only partially address the problem. In fact addressing questions of identity in this sense means challenging the discursive power of populist parties and this can only be achieved by political and civic education, through debate and struggle in civil society.

Populism today, hence, has to be tackled head on. The best response to populism is in fact, positive populism. Using populism’s own strengths, complex arguments that are over simplified by populists must be taken in their emotional essence. Instead of values, the discourse should be centred around the advantages for an individual, community and country. Controversy and attention seeking behaviour must give way to simple reflective, deliberate and ethical concerns. For in the end, populism today and in the future will be what we make it to be. From the rhetoric of the past, populism today should be positive; for, rather than against. Positive populism opposes populism, not politics or people. May we all have the courage to be positive populists.

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Author: Praket Arya