Genesis of global populism – Opinion
The concept of ‘illiberal democracy’ introduced by an American scholar, Fareed Zakaria, has enjoyed notable topicality. While Zakaria defined this concept negatively, seeing it as a valid description for countries lacking a strong constitutional-liberal tradition, some authoritarian leaders proclaimed “illiberal democracy” as a positive and justifiable notion.
Presented as an “anti-core” voice from the periphery against the supposedly elitist, bureaucratic-technocratic liberal democracy that has favored the upper classes of Western countries, illiberal democracy is presented as a majority, bottom-up and repoliticized democratic alternative to democratic governments.
Interestingly, the phenomenon of populism has led many academics, social scientists, journalists and academics to jump on the bandwagon of populism studies. Journalists, in particular, tend to abuse “populism”, calling it a phenomenon for which other synonyms like “nationalism” or “nativism” could be used.
Denoting lazy thinking, it is safe these days to call all sorts of things “populist” because we are told day and night that ours is “the age of populism.” It is also a consciously ideological attempt to discredit “dangerous populism” or what might, in fact, be a legitimate critique of the powers that be.
The use of the term “populism” is more in vogue in Europe because of issues of identity, refugees and the economy, where it carries particularly negative connotations. In the United States, on the other hand, vestiges of the late 19th century sense of “populism” remain as a largely progressive movement, defending workers, and in particular farmers, against Wall Street.
Recent examples of a cluster of authoritarian states and “illiberal democracies” demonstrate the tendency towards populism. The main proponent of liberal democracy, the United States, had taken a turn towards semi-authoritarianism under President Trump, who had shown some secret admiration for strong leaders. Today, many other countries are following in the same footsteps where authoritarian tendencies are unmistakable due to a lack of confidence in Western liberal democracy which has unleashed forces of inequality, moral decline and military adventurism. The last quarter of a century has shown that near dictatorship, in general, is not about to end and that authoritarian systems seek to survive, weaken and defeat democracy around the world.
To illustrate, the great stock market crash of 1929 and the economic decline created societal chaos. There was resentment against the elite republic and people wanted a strong man to take matters into his own hands. The 2008 financial crisis and the global recession that followed were nowhere near as painful as the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the effects are somewhat similar. The rapid economic growth of the 2000s led Europeans and Americans to believe that they were on solid economic ground. The collapse of banks, real estate markets and governments in the aftermath of the crash left tens of millions of people at sea, angry with the institutions that had failed them, especially the politicians who claimed to be in charge.
Why, voters asked, has the government allowed so many bankers to behave like criminals in the first place? Why then did he bail out those banks while ditching the auto factories? Why is it welcoming millions of immigrants? Are there separate rules for the elite, defined by a hyper-modern liberal worldview that ridicules the working class – and its traditional values - like jousting? The US election of President Donald Trump and his policies of attack on immigration, aid cuts, open support for Israel and sometimes admiration for authoritarian rulers may have contributed to this. anti-Western thought and this disenchantment.
In the United States and in Europe, the rise of protest movements is a symptom of a culture shock against globalized post-modernity, similar to the rejection of modernity in the 1930s. The common accusation by the “masses” is that liberal democracy has somehow gone too far in fomenting evils, that it has become an elite ideology at the expense of the common man. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, calls normal people “the invisible and the forgotten”.
In the Middle East, after the heyday of the Arab Spring (from 2010), countries are returning to rulers with despotic tendencies after the dictatorships that collapsed. The wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan are a major cause of discontent and heartburn in the Islamic world.
In South Asia, the Indian parliamentary elections (April 2019) demonstrated that populism was the anchor of the policy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Hindutva (Hindu versus Muslim) policy. Although India’s democracy can botch, given its multiple problems, many cast doubts on the “greater democracy” because of discrimination and violence against minority groups. Ironically, India is viewed favorably by the West for its military and economic weight, its anti-Muslim agenda, and its democratic facade. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal as well, as small powers in South Asia, are affected by authoritarian tendencies and a disaffection with the way democracy works.
Turkey, Italy, Eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovenia are followed on the authoritarian path by many other countries, where authoritarian tendencies are undeniable due to a loss of confidence in liberal Western-style democracy.
Psychologically, the power of nostalgia in nations grows stronger when economic and social circumstances become difficult. It’s easy to say that people need to embrace the new realities and work for workable reforms. Yet most mainstream parties have failed to do so, at least not convincingly. Instead, they bicker and fight with each other and see the rise of demagogues as a solution to their problems – not a threat to their nations.
Today, as in the 1930s, we see the inability of the dominant parties to respond to serious challenges. In the so-called “new Europe” of human rights and democracy, economic aid and investments from former communist states are seen as more important. For the countries of the Balkans, entering the European Union (EU) is a tortuous and time-consuming process with hundreds of strict laws and regulations. Unsurprisingly, China is more welcome as an investment partner because it does not raise ethical questions. Ukraine, recipient of Chinese aid, had for example described 2019 as “the year of China”. Likewise, Greece, Italy, Spain, Albania and Romania have sought Chinese investment in the construction of ports, railways, dams and other infrastructure, unimaginable with the EU or United States. China provides money while Russia gives strategic direction to increase its influence. Moreover, China is not as motivated as Russia – but the leadership of the former party is not too bothered by public opinion.
(The author was visiting professor, Department of Defense
and strategic studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad; Department Chairman, IR Department, NUML, Former COMSATS Advisor and Chairman, Islamabad Policy Research Institute)
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021