The 21st century sees the rise of populist politics. It should be investigated in its myriad manifestations taking root across the world.
Bu Ajez Ahmed
The phenomenon of populism has been one of the most discounted political jargons of the 21st century. It has been the most talked about yet misunderstood trend in recent times. There has been a steady surge of populist leaders from divergent ideologies coming to power in countries as diverse as India, Hungary, Brazil, Philippines and Italy. Swathes of populist leaders have taken the entire spectrum of socio-political affairs by storm.
So what exactly is ‘Populism’ is the question of, perhaps, the decade if not the century. Although there is no universally agreed upon definition by political scientists, populism loosely means a political approach that seemingly strives to emancipate ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by the ruling elite. A common notion in the mainstream media has been to paint populist leaders in a negative light which may not necessarily be accurate. It is just another way of politicians doing what they are best at— arousing and exploiting people’s political sentiments and latent anxieties. Populism comes in many forms that are as different as apples and oranges. Hence, it is futile to compare one populist leader with another, let alone put them all in one compartment.
The right one
A common denominator of populism is to create notions of exclusivity amongst the electorate. And what defines the right-leaning populist leaders is that they aim to restrict and strengthen their support by focusing especially on social citizenship rights of a certain group of nationals against ‘others’ such as immigrants, foreign entities and apparently intrusive inter-governmental organisations. Domestic as well as external enemies are also considered to be threats to national security and integrity in economic & sociopolitical terms. To overcome such threats and put the nation & its ‘people’ first is fundamental to the populist agenda.
What the likes of Donald Trump & Nigel Farage express through their “Make America Great Again” and “Leave” campaigns is to restrict the national identity of ‘the people’ which clearly excludes refugees, immigrants and others defined as ‘foreign’ to the predefined ideal that they propound. Populists on this side of the aisle tend to claim that their version of the ‘people’ needs more representation. They champion the people against the elites that they accuse of favouring a third group that comprises of immigrants, Islamists or African Americans. The operative substances in their rhetoric are established elites, the other people and ‘nation first’ at all costs. They also invoke a sense of morality in their cause, thereby evoking conscience on a much deeper level. It arouses people’s sentiments on moral grounds that paints the leader as a saviour and he/she is worshipped in a god-like fashion. This moralisation of ideology or the leader translates to voter consolidation wherein citizens vote en masse with little to no rationale to back their respective political choice.
Right-wing populism itself comes in a variety of forms. For instance, in the United States, populists have gained traction largely, though not exclusively, through anti-immigration policies. In India, religious/ethnic and nationalist/ethnic versions of ‘the people’ have resonated and focused more strongly on the corruption of elites. Although, this difference is a matter of degree, broadly speaking, a nationalist and anti-elite agenda, as well as the demand for more ‘true’ representation is characteristic of all.
The left way out
Populist leaders on the left focus on economically superior elites — who, according to them, continue to suppress the majority of the population to perpetually keep themselves in the echelons of power. For the leftist populist, one of the main factors that keep making the rich even richer is globalisation and that is where they tend to exploit sentiments and call for nationalist policies that include more economic barriers. To quote historian Michael Kazin, populist leaders subscribing to the left ideology “use a language that conceives of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class; view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilise the former against the latter.”
Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle, arrayed against the top. They are in constant conflict with the establishment and the demands that come out of it are, to say the least, utopian. Exclusionary politics is not identical to just the right; left-wing populist leaders exclude not people but sectors of the establishment that are in the service of neo-liberal global corporations.
Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont & a presidential hopeful, has famously talked about “breaking up the big banks” that has cast a dark shadow on the lives of the working class Americans in the forms of student loans, artificially heightening consumerism, and economic meltdowns. Interestingly, like the Tories & Labour party in the UK, the Republicans and Democrats have lost much of their popular support because of their acquiescence to the demands of predatory financial capitalism. This has essentially paved the way for populists who espouse in their rhetoric a sense of hope for a better future against the exploitation of the global corporate.
Populists at home, globalists abroad
As a consequence of the increasing intermingling policies between the left and right; and shrinking of spaces to channelise people’s grievances in liberal democracies around the world, populism has become an effective way to take the people’s demands into account. However, it is important to note that populists leaders, even when exclusivists domestically, tend to be globalists on the international front. Bilateral and multilateral events are where they demonstrate their eagerness to bring in more foreign trade & investment into their respective countries because they know that it would positively stimulate the economy and benefit the people.
Leaders like Narendra Modi & Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey exploit popular sentiments at homeby raising questions around perceived enemies. For instance, both Modi and Erdogan want S-400 Defence Missile systems from Russia; they want a seat at the high tables of Nuclear Suppliers Groupand European Union (EU) respectively. Similarly, populists in countries such as Hungary, Italy and Austria have expressed their reservations over EU immigration policies in their political rallies at home but they do not shy away from exploiting the free trade marketplace that European Union provides. Once in power, they are more globalists than the capitalists themselves.
Interestingly, what transpires after they come to power is that they back their decisions and raison d’être on the mandate they have received from the people. Populists do not necessarily want to completely do away with the prevailing world order— they want to cause temporary disruptions in their polities by creating notions of exclusivity and come to power. Policy decisions are taken, apparently, keeping ‘the people’ at the centre of every assessment made; even if it leads to disruptions in the socio-economic fabric of the society. And then again ‘the people’ seem to support the cause despite its evils in the name of a long term moral cause that will lead to a predefined ideal society that the leader advocates for.
It would be wrong to simply portray populist ideology as a media construct or something the leaders and their political parties have foisted upon ‘the people’. On the contrary, populism thrives on the social conditions that prove to be a fertile ground for movements to rise and define ‘the people’ and rally against the established elites. But to comprehend why most of the world’s democracies have turned to populism in its different forms, it is imperative to realise how harmful the ‘moralisation’ of politics in the recent past has been. The 21st century will be the century of the rise of populist politics; and it would serve the academics and career politicians well to further understand the phenomenon in its myriad manifestations taking root across the world.