Spearhead Analysis – 21.03.2018
By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
‘We live in an age of anger’ muses Pankaj Mishra, in his globally-acclaimed writings on the reactionary political turn the world has taken in the late 2010s.
If the year 2016 was the year that populist resurgence revolutionized our political systems and the way we woke to embrace a new political consciousness about the way masses view relationships with their governments, 2017 only went on to solidify the belief that perhaps populism is not a moment, but an age we must now reconcile with.
To begin the dissection of the political movement that has taken the world by storm, political scientists have turned to the past to diagnose the condition; Citizens had never been this disillusioned with politics from the start. In fact, in a post-world war construct, age of depression era of economic instability and innumerable human loss to global wars and conflicts, the idea of ‘liberal democracy’ with its promise of stability in governance and belief in the electoral choice of the majority, brought with it a sense of relief in constitutional protection. The universal triumph of liberal capitalism and democracy seemed assured; free markets and human rights would spread around the world and lift billions from poverty and oppression
Until very recently, liberal democracy in all its glory reigned triumphant. For all its shortcomings, most citizens were committed to their structures of government. Radical parties were insignificant and the political backdrop was ripe with parties representing a variety of divergent agendas to the public. Political scientists thought that democracy in places like France or the United States had long ago been set in stone, and would change little in the years to come. Politically speaking, it seemed, the future would not be much different from the past.
In many ways, the democratic project was successful: we live in a vast, homogenous global market, which is more literate, interconnected and prosperous than at any other time in history.
Then the future came – and turned out to be very different indeed. Citizens are increasingly disillusioned with politics; now, they believe their essential needs from the state were never met and they have grown to be restless and angry at their fate. Party systems have long seemed frozen and authoritarian populists are on the rise around the world – from Asia to America, and from Europe to Australia. Liberal democracy is now in steep decline.
Pundits and scholars alike have struggled to explain the chaos, disorder, and anxiety that have come to define the contemporary political moment. Recent developments include the rise of the far right in Trump’s America, razor fences covering Eastern Europe’s borders reflecting growing xenophobia and ‘fear of the others’, militant Hindu nationalism in Modi’s India, Shinzo Abe’s powerful campaign for ‘national revival’ in Japan, Sisi’s militaristic tactics in Egypt, Le Pen in France, a strong appeal to anti-immigrant nationalism in the Brexit referendum in the UK, Macri in Argentina, the rise of the ultra-right, anti-Islam AfD in Germany and the spread of similar authoritarianist populist movements around the globe.
When chartering the course of divergent populist movements, it is baffling that there is no common denominator for any of the faces that have emerged. India’s Narendra Modi, likened many a times to Trump for their multiple similarities, is strikingly different from Japan’s Shinzo Abe – it is only in their visions of a corrupt and complacent status quo that they believed needed to be shaken up that all three capitalized on the caveat and this simple concept has led to the meteoric rise of all each.
Many then look to the May election of Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, as another example of a striking new political entrant. His tough talk on crime, crass comments on women, and unpredictability have been likened to those of Trump, while his insistence on being open to minimizing long term intra-state alliances fits in with features of both the POTUS and the Brexiteers.
The world in practice in the recent turbulent few years of politics has witnessed, that salient in the ‘populism’ of these new-age leaders are a greater emphasis on strong governing styles and the appeal of nationalistic rhetoric rather than an adherence to any particular established philosophy. Populism therefore, has no real moral or social groundwork, compared to Democracy.
Interestingly, even in their apparent differences as Duterte veered left and Trump sticks to hard right policies, political observers cite that this hasn’t dispelled the obvious kinship in their largely popular leadership styles. Even after what political observers saw as severely damaging statements on the Mexican border, anti-immigration by the former and a score of extrajudicial killings and civilian disappearances by the government of the latter, Duterte on paper enjoys a 76 percent satisfaction rate among Filipinos. Anyone privy to Trump’s election campaign after his presidential election can also vouch for the immense popularity the white, middle class working American men and women exhibited towards the nominee. In foreign affairs, Duterte emphasized the primacy of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national interest above all else—much in line with Trump’s isolating ‘America First’ vision. Their collective victories thus, across the political spectrum energized far-right groups that were previously confined to the margins of their state societies and politics. Trump’s presidency even where it hasn’t fallen through with its hardlined promises to its voter base, (such as mass deportation, cajoling Mexico to pay for the border wall), thanks to America’s well established and thriving judiciary, has still allowed the ultra-right radical groups in the country, such as the KKK, to come out of the shadows and legitimize their once bleak cause, and seize what they see as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make inroads into mainstream society.
In Japan too, current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in 2012 in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, defeating its rival albeit weak contemporary, Democratic Party of Japan. A staunch nationalist who advocated a more proactive defense posture for Japan, he promoted a revisionist narrative of his country’s history, unnerving South Korea and China — two victims of Japan’s past military adventurism.
The forces that swept Abe into power were precisely those that have helped 21st century populists elsewhere: economic anxieties, public disgust toward government corruption, and a reassertion of national identity in the face of foreign threats. Abe, whose party enjoys a 60 percent approval rating, is on track to becoming that longest serving prime minister in Japan’s post-war history.
But what is behind the mass appeal of populism or ‘nativism’ if the 21st century saw us living through our promise of our most technologically advanced, socially enlightened times?
One popular theory posited by Mishra, is that the enigma of ‘populist resurgence’ and resilience lies in the “emotional and psychological allure” of charismatic leaders who ― through their “powerful rhetoric and imagery” anchored by “mastery of digital communications” ― have managed to firmly supplant the cold, calculating, technocratic politicians across emerging market democracies.
In practice, the theory has manifestations to speak for itself; From India and Indonesia to Turkey and Russia, the main lesson one derives upon closer observation is that right-wing populists like Erdogan and Putin derive their political capital not from delivering on their core promises, but instead by convincing people that they are sincere and strong-willed leaders who are bent on dismantling the ancient régime ― and bringing about a brighter future for the ordinary folks.
Interesting thus, is the case of Russia, a world super power of the past which is now in dire economic straits due to chronic corruption, mismanagement and sanctions over Moscow’s adventurist campaigns in Ukraine and the post-Soviet space. The Russian economy has seen the pitfalls of high oil prices that trickled down to adverse effects for the citizens of the state in terms of basic benefits, living wages, pensions and savings.
Yet, in the dawn of the current Russian elections, Putin has rolled to another crushing re-election victory Sunday for six more years as Russia’s president, gaining an overall resounding 76% of the votes. The demi-god of Russian politics is now more popular than ever, evidenced by a total of his two decades in power. Most cherished for bringing political pride and stability to the country by rising to the occasion as the man in charge, in the backdrop of the Soviet Union breakup, it appears that his heavy handed ways of human rights abuses, crackdowns and dissent have been largely ignored or worse, accepted by the masses as ‘political necessity’. In the wake of withering of any active opposition, an independent media and evidence of mass fraud in ballot counts, Putin has managed to replace the conventional notions of liberal democracy with a politics of his own making – a top-down control of politics called “managed democracy.” A thinly veiled term coined to mask a populist autocracy.
Another popular theory has been to blame the ‘pathological anti-modernisms’ that have emerged from places outside the West—especially the Middle East. With lone figures like Bashar-ul-Assad, Netanyahu and Sisi with a consistently maintained hold on power despite adhering to the ideals of ‘democracy’, this theory is self-explanatory in its appeal to political scientists. The constitution of the Islamic Republic is perhaps unique among modern constitutions in that it seeks to marry two quite different political ideas within one system. The political observer Ali M Ansari in his paper on Populist regimes in the Middle East described the tensions in the two wings surfacing from a balance of powers between – ‘the Islamic (authoritarian) wing centered on the Guardianship of the Jurist and the revolutionary organs of government, and the Republican (democratic) wing centered on the presidency and the orthodox institutions of government.’ He cites Iran as a model of this dichotomy that led to the election of Khomeini in the 80s. When elected, the charismatic leader chose to be both Islamic and Republican, and saw considerable merit in arbitrating between these tendencies in order to reinforce his own authority and power. His arbitrary exercise of repressive power transitioned into the political culture of the modern day Iran and the 2017 elections saw the makings of the most popular, populist opposition to President Rouhani. Described as a black turbaned cleric, Ebrahim Raisi was a hardliner in policy and an anticorruption, anti-West proponent who rallied support among the poor and the pious in an underdog effort to win the presidency. While Rouhani busied himself dealing with the economy, Raisi’s meteoric rise lay in his nationalistic, inward looking approach, with an emphasis on Iran’s success deriving from militaristic adventures of the IRGC and the Basij Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria.
According to Mishra however, while the “identity politics” of autocratic populism have been a constant presence in the Middle East in part due to the instability of the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Arab world which is repellant to the idea of a unified democracy, he disagrees that present-day populism has much to do with the Middle East model of governance.
In reality,” he explains, “today’s malignancies are rooted in distinctly modern reactions to the profound social and economic shifts of recent decades, which have been obscured by the optimistic visions of globalization that took hold in the aftermath of the Cold War.” Simply put, the traditional idea of a nation state with well-defined boundaries has not been able to match up with the advent of globalization and suddenly, the world has shifted into a new era where the lines between ethnicities, borders and race are more blurred and intertwined than ever and power, that was once held by a single entity i.e. the nation state has now been diffused to a vast number of opaque forces.
The natural reaction of the people has been to scramble to familiarity and reject the foreign. As Mishra puts it, the example of Brexit saw people i in Britain blame the European Union for its social and economic problems, and in this attempt to identify the enemy, they reach for the simple answers, so they rallied against the people in Brussels to ‘take back control’ The rise in the idea of white supremacy, anti-immigration policies, stricter border controls of states and isolationism of the country’s wealth and resources for the ‘pure’ citizens versus the impure has been the outcome of the political frustration felt by one majority class that their identity and their power is vested in ‘all kinds of opaque and impersonal forces’ and must be regained solely for their use and benefit. Further, as the populists are the vox populi, ie the voice of all the people, anyone with a different view speaks for “special interests”, i.e. the elite. Given that the key distinction is between the pure people and the mistrusted elite, any compromise would lead to the corruption of the people and is therefore rejected. This uncompromising stand leads to an increasingly polarised political culture, in which all non-populists ultimately turn into anti-populists.
Political scientists find that technology has played a revolutionary role in the populist movement for it has broadened this new, alien landscape for the people still further. With the accessibility of digital technology, digital communications, people all over the world have ended up feeling helpless, exposed and vulnerable, more likely to compare their lives with others over the globe and feel inadequate as a result of what they lack. This sense of ‘universal competition’ has led to an exponential increase in resentment and hatred – in anarchic expressions of individualism which are the pathologies of what we see now manifest on a large scale in social media and among the increasingly alienating rhetoric of politicians today.
To those who argue for populism, the benefits are clear; populism brings to the fore issues that large parts of the population care about, but that the political elites want to avoid discussing; think about immigration for the populist right or austerity for the populist left.
To those who see populism as a disease of the 21st century, populism’s black and white views are uncompromising and lead to a polarized society for it retains a monist ideology, which denies the existence of divisions of interests and opinions within “the people” and rejects the legitimacy of political opponents and more dangerously, the minorities.
To paraphrase the Mexican political theorist Benjamin Arditi, in those cases populism behaves like the drunken guest at a dinner party, who doesn’t respect the rules of public contestation but spells out the painful but real problems of society. With political leaders of powerful nations such as Trump, as the live, full-bodied manifestations of the modern Populist movement, it remains to be seen whether his example and of those like him, will prove as a deterrent for future democratic political movements, or whether, we have finally entered the era where we witness the slow but sure descent of the liberal democratic chapter for the world.