In recent years, the usage of the term ‘Populist’ as an adjective for politicians has seen meteoric rise. Rarely do we now see a democratic country holding elections where the media has not labelled at least 1 candidate a populist. Many think the 2016 election of Trump fuelled the resurgence of populism while his 2020 defeat will have a reciprocal effect but evidence suggests otherwise. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change reports that between 1990 and 2018, the number of populists elected as leaders increased fivefold. 40 per cent of Asia’s population is governed by populist leaders; Modi, Duterte and Joko Widodo. Latin America’s 2 most significant states elected populists as well, Bolsonaro in Brazil and AMLO in Mexico. Their influence propagated all over Europe, governing 8 states. Nigel Farage and Bernie Sanders, even though are not the heads of state, continue to wield significant influence. This shift in world politics demands a new way of understanding the vulnerability of liberal democracy. For us to comprehend its detrimental effects, we must first understand the threat it poses.
The basic concept of populism is the claim of “us vs. them”. “We” (what the populist believe to be true people of the country) are the ones under attack by “them” (the enemy)
We must understand that the people’s grievances are very
well founded. Their infuriation and desperation is a byproduct
of a corrupt and unfair status quo. Competent, honest and a
realistic response to their concern is the only way forward
They implant a divide, blaming whatever crisis the country is facing on them. Banking on social divisions and crises is extremely important but if it fails to be severe enough, they exaggerate and even fabricate their importance. The crisis is then blamed on either the establishment, the elites or a cultural group (non-natives, ethnic minorities etc).
Most brazen examples can be seen in western right wing populists. Trump infamously blamed crime rates and the drug crisis on immigrants, going as far as to manufacture a border security crisis. Marine Le Pen utilises all 3 in her blame agenda; focusing mainly on immigrants as the cause behind the French security crisis. The irony of the French crying victim to unwanted foreigners entering aside, research by the University of Rijeka has proven “no statistically significant” correlation between immigration and terrorism in Europe.
Once the “true people” and the “enemy” is established; the will and the demand of the true people is absolute. Debates and conflict ceases to be policy vs policy but “right” vs “wrong”. Some go as far as to establish themselves as the saviour. Such rhetoric is common amongst populists, Trump was likened to King David with Silvio Berlusconi portraying himself as the “Jesus Christ of politics”. Nonetheless, their saviour rhetoric requires a crisis, preferred being economic.
Survey data and actual voting outcomes show economic insecurity is directly correlated to populist support, as stated by Economist Luigi Guiso. Recessions have a very tangible and immediate affect on people and their emotions. Populists seize this opportunity, manipulating the public to sharpen the divide. The general public’s ‘poor understanding’ of economics and ‘distrust of economic figures’ as reported by the Royal Economic Society, is taken advantage of. Seeds of distrust and hate is sowed among the populace. After all, how can they trust the same establishments and institutions which stood by as the crisis worsened? Populists manipulate this frustration and anger into delegitimising and antagonising their opposition. The hate rhetoric promulgates faster than ever due to social media, harming liberal democracy and the national harmony.
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to claim all populists are somehow malevolent and manipulative. It may even seem absurd to compare Bernie or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the rest of the lot however, their brand of seemingly benevolent populism is not inconsequential. Use of divisiveness or dissemination of fear do not apply to Bernie, he poses a different problem, the one of making promises you can’t keep.
Medicare for all and free education is excessively hopeful at best and an empty promise at worst. The hurdles would just be herculean, be it legislative or fiscal. Even progressives questioned the merits of his proposed policies with reports from the New York Times stating that Obama “convinced” him to drop out in 2020. As it seems even the audacity of hope has its limits.
Creation of excessive expectations pushes the people in pursuit of a pie in the sky, disorienting and derailing the nation. Unkept promises not only cause anti-incumbency but inculcates further divide and distrust of the system. As it appears, the cloud of the populist resurrection does not come with a silver lining. Even when the elected populists do not deal irreparable damage to liberal democracy or fray the fabric of society; they just prove to be incompetent in handling issues.
The recent pandemic contrasted the tremendous incompetency of populist leadership of India, US and Brazil with resounding success of Germany, New Zealand and Italy. The pandemic is also churning ‘the mother of all crashes’ according to famed investor Michael Burry, which was also echoed by the Buffett indicator hitting 205% (2008 financial crisis hit 150%) signalling a bubble. The looming crash will cause a larger populist resurgence. Combined with a record breaking migrant crisis, border disputes and severe international tensions; the state of the world appears grim.
In these circumstances, populists will only serve to exacerbate problems. Myopic policies, utopian promises bundled with their disdain for supranational organizations and topped with a disregard for liberal democratic principles create a difficult justification for an optimistic view. If the pandemic taught us anything, it is that opposing international cooperation and supranational organisations stand to be completely antithetical in fighting global crises.Political solutions such as forming coalitions against populists may work as seen in Israel against Netanyahu but the stability of the alliance, who’s only common agenda is “anything but that guy” is questionable.
We must understand that the people’s grievances are very well founded. Their infuriation and desperation is a byproduct of a corrupt and unfair status quo. Competent, honest and a realistic response to their concern is the only way forward.
Mahadev Ghosh is a twelfth-grade student.