Populism: The Bridge to Nowhere

It begins with the letter ‘P’ and it has snowballed in the recent years. I could not even find one article in the political section of the newspaper that is not about ‘it.’ and of course, I’m talking about Populism.

We commemorate the year of 2016, not only for the return of populism, in this context right-wing populism, throughout the West but also was a year of a tectonic shift in political landscapes. Brexit and President Trump were two possibilities that had previously been seen as, respectively, improbable and absurd. The pattern is clear. We saw the rise of this trend that put under the label of ‘Populist’ for the last one year: Wilders in Netherlands, Le Pen in France, as well as elected figures allegedly turning authoritarian, i.e., Orban in Hungary and PiS in Poland. If we draw a parallel to these unfolding trends, they have made their targets crystal clear: immigration, globalism, multiculturalism, political correctness, and also a non-stop criticism and skepticism to the institutions such as the European Union, IMF, Wall Street and NATO. They depicted themselves as a brave patriot who will save the people from the humiliation, national decline, and foreign predators.

Populism must be clearly defined and it should be applied as one of the concepts to understand politics. So, what is populism? This is not a textbook answer yet based on my observation of this movement as it has existed for centuries. Populism is a way of composing or appreciating politics. It works as an unorthodox approach, only because it takes almost zero forethought for the traditional form of making politics relates to specific contexts. You could argue that populism is simply the promotion of popular ideas in which elites oppose. You could think of it as a longing or movement to remove an establishment that has become ‘stolid’ to the people. But populism can also be defined as a worldwide revolt of the righteous people who think they are feeling disrespected, ignored, and oppressed by the political ruling class, social influencers for the governing class, and international economic power brokers.

 The idea of populism is of course ancient. Populism may seem like it has attained out of nowhere, but it has been on the rise and scattered throughout the history of global politics. Now, if we are talking about the academical definitions, I would recommend Cas Mudde’s Populism: A Very Short Introduction. It is a broad and comprehensive investigation about the concept of populism. In a nutshell, he says populism is a ‘thin ideology’ in that it “only speaks to a tiny part of a political agenda,” and populism only calls for “kicking out the political establishment, but it doesn’t specify what should replace it,” as Cas Mudde says.

Populism is an uncertain and opaque concept, but a political scientist like Cas Mudde does a great job by forming a standard approach to the subject and giving useful insights on how populism works. It is more about rhetorical strategy than ideology. Populists often obstruct the status quo, underlining the major issues of the population but never offering realistic or thoughtful solutions to those problems. Populists often use lies and falsehoods to claim that some elites have been selling them out and that only the populists can save the people. They twist
people’s valid fears in a way to say “I alone can save you.” They, not only prey on existing fears, but also create new ones by branding dissidents enemies of the people. To sum it up, populists succeed by giving a voice to real and legit grievances of the unheard. Populists are dividers, not uniters. They sow division, have no legitimate position, and instead they just provide simplified actions which may sound profoundly intelligent, but are no more than empty shells, because it is based on prejudice and lies.

Is there no real difference between left and right populism that so commonly held?

The rejection of the stale status quo and the mainstream parties that perpetuated it, did not merely advertise the far-right but also left-wing parties. While we put much of the burden to the right-wing populism from the beginning, the blindness of those people who could not spot the difference between left and right populism cannot also be overlooked.

The distinction between the right-wing and left-wing populism is vital. The rise of populism of any sort, undoubtedly, is the result of a long-term failure of policies that have lied as status quo. It’s rather a question and answer of focus. Although both apply the same principle – bringing together a crowd around a political idea to shape an ‘Us versus Them’ rhetoric – the concepts used to define these groups are different but not necessarily radicals.

Most of the parties and politicians who label themselves as anti-establishment are not just populists; they combine populism with other ideological features. Left-wing populists couple populism with some idea of socialism, think about Bernie Sanders in the United States, SYRIZA and Alexis Tsipras in Greece, JeanLuc Mélenchon in France or Chavismo in Venezuela; while the right populists combine it with authoritarianism and nativism to many.

For the right-wing populist such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage, they expressed their view in ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘In the Name of People’ or ‘Leave EU’ campaign. They have two targets: the elites and the scapegoats. They portrayed themselves as underdogs who fight back against the ruling elites or the establishment, in which they deemed as incompetent and corrupt. The scapegoats, of course, are the immigrants or ‘foreigners.’ Curbing the national identity of American/British people by excluding immigrants, refugees, and any other kind that is perceptible as ‘foreign’ for a sentimental idea. These are people who they deemed as the current set of groups who are “taking the native jobs, mooching off the native people hard-earned tax money and milking for every benefit they can.”

Although the exclusion is also present in the left-wing populism, they rather put the focus on the elites: international financial institutions, corporations, and the nebulously defined ‘neo-liberalism.’ For Bernie Sanders*, it meant “breaking up the big banks” and, for Pablo Iglesias of Spain’s PODEMOS, this meant defeating the Spanish political caste which has been only included two major political parties and offering a third-party solution. Unlike the far-right/right-wing populism, there are no scapegoats below. It does not traffic in race-baiting, which sounds quite noble. In the other hand, Italy’s Five Star Movement is difficult to distinguish as either left or right, only known by its anti-establishment, Euroskepticism, and anti-corruption aims. Even Macron, a third way-style politician that has triumphed, only did so by establishing a brand new party and pledging to “unite both sides and clean up the politics.”
*Bernie Sanders is still regarded as the left-wing politician instead of center-left Democrat. The US is further to the right of the European political scene. The context matters and I need to put things in their proper place.

Is It Here to Stay?

Populism, as a political philosophy, grows and dwindles in a cyclical fashion. It becomes more attractive when societies have undergone periods of economic, social, or other threats in which is perceived as status quo. It also repudiates when the economy improves for most people (in particular among the middle class and lower middle class – which is the largest portion of a developed society), or after a period of times when the change is slower and lesser people feel threatened by any changes.
Populism is commonly popular because it persuades people – that the less educated, simpler or uninformed in the society – are capable of running or controlling a sophisticated and modern government or institutions during complicated times. Sometimes we hear a famous cry for “running a government like a business.” which sounds reasonable to many; however, it just does not work, even if it is no more than icing on the cake.

A classic example is the case of Donald J. Trump, who despite has not demonstrated any of the personal, intellectual, or leadership qualities needed for the most important seat, prompted millions of Americans to disregard everything he said and did or had done and elected him as the 45th President of the United States. He boasts of ignoring his daily intelligence briefing about threats and perils in an unstable world. He flaunts his unknowingness to important matters and yet pays attention to myriad trivial ones. He flaunts his indifference to the rule of law, instead of countering every concern with his version of “trust me.”

Little did he know, when he was sworn on January 20th and started his journey, how difficult it was going to be. He has quickly learned that even the most complex real estate deals he has made, compared nothing and have nothing at all in common with trying to keep the US economy on track while reducing the income disparity in the States and responding to changes in markets for American goods because he is a key in renegotiating agreements. Trump-style presidency costs him politically; his approval rating plummeted in the early months and fell significantly.

Once again, populism has failed to deliver instant results. It was unrealistic to believe Trump’s plan for tax reforms, fiscal policy, and replacement for Obamacare would be achieved. When you launched personal attacks through Twitter’s 140 characters on both Democratic and Republican leaders, there will be less joint action in Congress to get, and your proposed policies are not getting enacted. It’s now clear to most people that the populists only concentrate on what they’re against, not what they’re for. Populism approach has been viewed as flawed and outlandish. For Trump to emphasize “America First” but also forcing China to drop its trade or commerce policies, reducing imports from Mexico, limiting immigration, and compelling American companies to hire Americans first are not going to walk in tandem. He seems to be unafraid to show his “America First” quest. In the G-20 meeting Germany, instead of the US leading such debates, setting the agenda and shaping the outcomes, Trump looked marginalized and invited a “bugaboo” of the US decline.

On the other side of the pond, populists are losing ground in Europe as the economic conditions have improved, especially in the Eurozone. Signaling that the anti-establishment politicians and Eurosceptic parties are losing momentum in which making the confidence level of investors are rising. Of more importance to the declines of the populism, the unemployment rate continues to fall in the Eurozone. In Great Britain, the Euroskeptic Tories, closeted Brexiteer Labors, and Nigel Farage cannot expect a fast and smooth Brexit deal. The economic declines may only happen when the UK does leave the European Union, making any grounds to sue the Leavers gets broader. In Italy, the Five Star Movements failed to reach the second round of voting for any of the major cities in local elections. Meanwhile, the uncertainty of no party securing an absolute majority in the parliament remains high ahead of the country’s next general election, which will be held next year.

Most of the European countries were oblivious to the rise of populism, but the shockwaves of Brexit and Trump’s election certainly got their attention. It seems the mainstream parties have regrouped and adapted in response to anti-EU and nationalist sentiments. There are countless other examples to show why this incoherent ideology fails; Greece’s SYRIZA – with their infeasible and inflexible ideas – who has sold its soul for power and Venezuelan crisis in which I would like to get to the bottom of that, but I’m afraid I have to discuss it on another occasion.

Before You Decided To Jump on the Populist Bandwagon…

I’m often asked how I politically define myself. I often swing my political view from progressivism to conservatism, but overall I’m politically middle of the road; only to take the best bits of each. I would like to begin by reminding everyone that one of the main characteristics of being a civilized and politically aware society is that we learn from history. We study the past to understand the present or future. Knowing that we learn from history, ask ourselves one thing: What does the history say about populist/anti-establishment movements?

Let me begin with Russia in the 1910’s. Some of you think the Bolshevik revolution sparked due to the loss of the World War I, but in reality, Russia had been like a powder keg waiting to explode: wages fell and high level of poverty which was also a product of Tsarist corruption, cronyism, and plain incompetence. In the midst of their desperation, Russians turned to Vladimir Lenin, the man who deposed Russian Tsar, ruined the Tsarist Russia to the ground and made the ideological foundation for the new state and society. Most of the Russians at that time had never read Lenin’s Communist Manifesto for a fair portion; they could not read at all or knew anything about communism, other than it was a system to take away the power of the corrupt establishment and free the workers from the evil capitalists. The Russian revolution was fairly a result of an antiestablishment movement.

Germany in 1930s was no different to Russia’s case. There was no single factor caused the collapse of the Weimar Republic, some of the netizens argue that hyperinflation that forced the Germans to pay ridiculous amounts of money in war reparations resulted in the downfall of the Republic. But, the effect of hyperinflation was indirect. The problem was solved in 1924, and the currency was stabilized in late 1923, nine years before the Nazis came to power. In fact, the German economy was on the rise till the Great Depression 1929. However, one certain thing that helped the Nazis in Germany was that the established Government in that land was weak. Germany was still smarting under the humiliation of its defeat in the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles, the loss of its colonies and lacked legitimacy and accountability. Riding into power with these weaknesses, Hitler castigated and frenzied the supports by exploitation of the ‘Master Race’ theory with the Jews as the scapegoat.
Hitler used campaign tactics that were 50 years ahead of their time. The NSDP or Nazi Party seemed dynamic, and the members appeared to be full of enthusiasm. How useful it was to have a minority at that time to lay blame as the country’s economic evils. The name of ‘national-socialism’ was to appeal to as many people groups as possible. With the word ‘socialism,’ a sunny progress, social justice, and working-class interests can be conjured up, while the Nazi settled themselves in a comfortable place in power and destroyed all the elements of democracy. The word ‘nationalism’ was mixed into a cup of racism, superiority, nativism, anti-Semitism, etc. The Nazis called themselves nationalists, in opposition to the communists, that they accused of being sold to the Soviets. It is an old strategy, adopting the language of your opponents one can attract the less politically astute to your side. It sounds like selling a lemonade (a drink, not Beyoncé’s album) as a ‘healthy’ option, while it is plain lying and evil. As they did with Lenin, Hitler’s supporters who also formed a personality cult around him, in which would largely insulate him from any criticism, had no understanding of the concept of National Socialism was; they were mad at the current system and demanded something new, and they surely got it.

The set of examples could go on forever, if you would like to know more, I recommend reading well-detailed histories about the various populist governments in Cuba, Latin America and Europe over the past 100 years. If you are the US history aficionado, also learn about the United States pre-World War I: the economic strains (The Wall Street crash, The Great Depression, etc.) and the founding of the great American fortunes (Roaring Twenties, etc.).

From the two examples above, most of the dictators went to power through the anti-establishment agenda. History tells us that those who despise the establishment, have to be prudent of what and who we support. Populism is like fire; it is what do you prefer: heat your house or burn down your neighborhood. History also tells us that things can always get worse. When you catch someone claim that things cannot get any worse than the status quo, you can guarantee he has no clue what is he talking about, just an empty shell. Besides being an antipopulist, I also happen to be an anti-screwing-everything-up-even-worse type of person, which is why I will never support a candidate just because they are antiestablishments. For those who are favoring or voting for the populists, might be thinking that the country’s constitution will stop them becoming a tyrant once they come or have come to power; that sounds like driving your vehicle and crash it into a thick wall to see if your airbag is working or the seatbelt is useful.

Populists feed on democratic dysfunction. The trend is not coming out of the clear blue sky. It could also be the fault of the current establishment to deliver the concrete achievements efficiently the way forward. However, there is one last common theme that needs to be highlighted: change. The Great Lady Thatcher spoke in one of her interviews in 2008 that her greatest achievement was the New Labour, “We forced our opponents (Tony Blair and Labour Party) to change their minds.” Lady Thatcher was certainly right that 18 years of Conservative government had made a history.

Last but not least, populism may dwindle for now, but overall, it will grow, although not a lot stronger and continue to exist in advanced democratic societies. In my view, it undoubtedly will continue to be an influential outlet for those feeling dispossessed, but the key question is how mainstream actors will respond to the call. If they wish to regain relevance, maybe it’s time to develop and change their minds once more. Populism is still here to stay.



~Anggi Raymond Pardede (M54) – Jakarta, Indonesia

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