Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
In the wake of the coronavirus epidemic and global economic recession, later followed by the Russian-Ukraine war (February 2022 to date), democratic norms are seen to be declining throughout the world. There is animated debate on the phenomenon of populism and its main variants. Populism holds that common people are ‘pure’ versus the ‘corrupt’, exploitative and self-seeking elite. Fledgling democracies face emerging threats. These threats emanate from accusations of foreign meddling, electoral fraud, identity issues, poor governance, refugees, and conspiracies that form the populist’s staple rhetoric. This bears implications for democracies in many countries.
Democracy gets emasculated when illiberal (often populist) figures win elections and use the state to weaken the opposition. Populist forces led by their leaders have resulted in recent years in authoritarian forces rising in Brazil, Hungary, Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent. Populist strongmen have subverted democratic governance, contributing significantly to ‘democratic recession’. Broadly, then, the argument reinforces the fairly standard view that the political right currently poses a great threat to democracy, at least in the short term.
In truth, most politicians of all persuasions employ some degree of discursive populism, even haltingly, in their narratives. This sometimes acts as a corrective to the ills of democracy and brings forward new actors and issues in governance. Furthermore, radical populists pose only a limited threat to democracy if they are electorally marginal or lack a committed base that will stick with them through policy changes and personal or political scandals. But populism can become problematic when it becomes aggressive or when public support for it grows widespread and intense. It can become a cause for worry if it disturbs normal civil life and leads to acute intolerance, violence and heightened civil unrest.
Globally, populists are likely to subvert democracy. In Europe the most unwelcome form of populism exists on the right against immigrants. Thus, not only are they more capable of electing their leaders into power, they demand or at least countenance an angrier, more full-fledged brand of populism from these leaders. This confluence of factors, not merely greater electability, makes right-wing populism a bigger threat to democracy in the west today.
Besides populists of many genres, non-populist forces may also gain prominence in future. Forecasts, albeit speculative and highly fraught, project that there is growing evidence supporting the possibility of a strong performance by the Green and Liberal parties in the European Union (EU) elections. While street fights between opposing populist camps threaten democracy, so does a status quo in which most alienated, dissatisfied sectors of the population belong (or flock) to one side of the partisan divide. Rising anger and grievances on inflation presage political instability.
II. Different Paradigms
There are nearly as many formulae for defining the concept of populism as there are books, papers and treatises on the topic. The formulae however, tend to fall within, or at least near, three interpretive models.
A. The European Model
The first one might be called the European model because it derives mainly from the European context and that is where it is often applied. This is also the simplest and most direct of the definitions: populism is the nationalist politics of hate. This is a definition provided, for example, by Georg Lukacs who, from his vantage point as a historian of the European carnage of the 1930s and 1940s, used the term broadly. Lukacs experienced the nationalist hatreds of war close at hand in his native Budapest before departing Hungary for the US in 1946, where he began a long career writing about the European catastrophe. Lukacs wrote of the dangers in the “popular sentiments” unleashed by democracy, sentiments that led to national hatred – that is to say populism – and which were widespread “almost everywhere” during the long 20th century. Hitler “was a populist,” he argued, and so too were the US populists of the 1890s, whom he described as “American national socialists of a kind”. It is unclear how influential Lukac’s ideas have been, but the basic structure of his claim of populism-as-nationalism is at least widely reflected in the commentary of journalists and analysts on both sides of the Atlantic. The designator ‘populism’ serves as shorthand for nationalistic passions, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racial and religious bigotry, and often also carries the connotation of demagogy, authoritarianism and political intolerance. In this usage, it is unnecessary to mention the family resemblance with the nationalist hatreds unleashed in the inter-war years that produced National Socialism, the Holocaust, and global war. Yet, as in Lukacs’s jeremiads, it is the unspoken assumption in the editorials and commentaries about the populist danger.
B. The Latin American Model
Then there is the Latin American model, whereby populism has presented an inclusive alternative to exclusive structures of power. In the name of the people, under conditions when formal liberal democracy has represented the narrow politics of oligarchs, populism has expanded political space to include workers, the poor, and the marginalised. In places, populism has also involved a more racially inclusive politics, especially regarding the indigenous and black communities of the Andes, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. Another feature of the Latin American formula has been the key role played by the charismatic leader, e.g. Juan Perón of Argentina and Getúlio Vargas of Brazil in the mid-twentieth century. Populism has represented personalised politics that has tended towards a type of authoritarian rule that has recurred on the Latin American scene. This type of politics might also be described as Peronism, after its best-known practitioner. For the Argentinian social theorist Ernesto Laclau, populism carried the promise of radical democracy, a path towards the “widening horizons” of social mobilisation and political transformation.
Federico Finchelstein offers a variation on the theme, insisting that populism is neither fascism nor an egalitarian form of democracy, but an authoritarian form of democracy that rose from the wreckage of fascism in post-war Argentina. As such, populism has played its democratic role, but with its reliance on a messianic leader and its repressive tendencies it also poses a global danger. “Born at the Latin American margins,” Finchelstein warns, populism has “moved to Washington, DC,” and is “now threatening the future of our democratic times.”
C. The US Model
This brings us to the third and most perplexing of the models, i.e. the US model in which populism reveals itself as a ‘shape-shifting phantom’. In its classic iteration, this takes the form of a narrative about the People’s Party (or Populist Party) of the 1890s, which originally pursued progressive and leftwing politics, but which in the second half of the 20th century, re-emerged as right-wing bigotry and intolerance.
This is the narrative associated with the historian Richard Hofstadter and an influential group of mid-twentieth century social scientists concerned with the social psychology of mass movements. In the work of Hofstadter and like-minded intellectuals, the anxieties, misplaced fears and irrational delusions of the late 19th century populist farmers served as the fountainhead of America’s politics of unreason, demagogy, authoritarianism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and narrow-mindedness. In his 1955 work, The Age of Reform, Hofstadter performed a remarkable act of alchemy by finding a way to transform the leftwing populism of the 1890s into the “illiberal and ill-tempered” and “cranky-pseudo-conservatism” of 1950s McCarthyism. He claimed that the one “soured” into the other. This claim continues to have wide influence among journalists, pundits, and even within some of the social sciences. It has been absorbed into the European and Latin American interpretive models. Lukacs, for example, cited Hofstadter to describe Joseph McCarthy as “the quintessential populist”. Similarly, Finchelstein maps the Hofstadter claim onto his own historical narrative. The historian Alan Brinkley described The Age of Reform as “the most influential book ever published on the history of twentieth-century America”, but this says more about the class prejudices of Hofstadter’s readers and their notions of the psychological afflictions of working people than it does about the veracity of Hofstadter’s thesis, which has been thoroughly dismantled. Walter Nugent, Norman Pollack, Michael Rogin, C Vann Woodward among many other scholars in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that Hofstadter’s claims about the populist roots of McCarthyism were ahistorical, exaggerated, and otherwise unfounded.
Yet Hofstadter’s shape-shifting phantom continues to haunt. In part this is due to the efforts to keep the kernel of Hofstadter’s argument while discarding what is clearly not verifiable in the historical record. Thus, for example, in his 1995 book, The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin accepts that in terms of ideology or politics there was no direct link between the populism of the 1890s and McCarthyism of the 1950s. Rather, populism and McCarthyism shared a common “mode of persuasion”, a language or style that Kazin claims offered both hope and menace across two centuries of US history. He defined populism as “a language whose speakers conceive ordinary people as a noble assemblage”, and who seek to mobilise the people against their “elite opponents”. Leaning on Kazin, the journalist John Judis, in his recent offering The Populist Explosion, has given this language uncanny global power. Populism, he claims, “is an American creation that spread later to Latin America and Europe.” More specifically, according to Judis, populism is an invention of the leftwing People’s Party of the 1890s that not only gave life to the American rightwing after WWII, it was also ‘transported’ to Europe in the 1970s where it took the form of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s French National Front and other rightwing movements.
These three continental models, providing three different historical narratives, are to a considerable degree incompatible, even in their most generalised form. However, to move from the general to the specific makes the problem of definitions that much more acute. In the Latin American case, for example, the charismatic or messianic leader is the norm; in the case of the People’s Party and a number of other supposedly populist movements in the US, there was no such leader. Rural militias dedicated to fighting federal central authority are claimed to be symptomatic of US populism.
Latin American populisms, as Laclau reminded us, were urban-based and “essentially state populisms, trying to reinforce the role of the central state against landowning oligarchies.” The list of such fundamental differences in characteristics is a long one, and causes a series of obstacles to those who continue to insist that populism represents a useful general category of analysis. Accordingly, the number of characteristics that supposedly define populism keeps growing shorter, more indefinite, and more tentative. And, as it turns out, the contradictions of definition have so far at least proven insurmountable without a strong dose of the alchemy provided by the US model.
III. Coping with Populism
How to cope with emerging genres of populism? Populists and their variants have their defenders and critics. Many factors have coalesced to whip up the phenomenon of populism: stagnating economies, coronavirus and the slowdown of supply chains. Instead of indulging in polemics, there is a need to educate through the media the hard empirical facts. Efforts should be made to avoid rhetorical and emotive language that leads to more partisanship. Efforts should be made to educate by fact-based, reasoned logic. Another strategy should be to promote greater interaction within major political parties by dialogue and discussion at the grassroots level. Abstaining from blaming others and use of moderate and convincing language could be helpful.
The answer of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to populism, as alluded to in the title, may not be feasible, given the varying contextual perspectives of populism and their respective consequences for democracy. For instance, populism witnessed in industrialised western nations is different from Latin America, South East Asia or South Asia. In the US or the Nordic nations, it carries a trademark of racial attacks against immigrants and minorities, alleging that traditional ways of life embedded in Judaic-Christian norms are under threat. The immigrants and minorities are often used by politicians as scapegoats for real socio-economic issues that need attention. Hence populism, which aims at the true realisation of democratic principles such as good governance, equity and the rule of law can be considered a boon for any democracy rather than posing a threat. After all, both populism and democracy establish and uphold the same principle of ‘people’s power’. Populism is called the ‘child of democracy’, and if it does not veer towards extremism, it can prove a boon rather than a bane.
IV. Conclusion with some musings
Liberal democracy is not the end of history. Everything human beings experiment with is subject to erosion, contingency and change. Liberal democracy can be fragile, threatened, and in need of repair and reform. Democracies are being challenged today by populists, which reflects a deep malaise. The crisis of market-based liberalism requires a richer and more varied human experience than the prevailing image of Homo Economicus, technology cult and unbridled economic growth that are legacies of the 19th century crass self-interest, creating disadvantaged, angry people and socio-economic disparities. However, democracy is intrinsically strong to a greater extent than any other political form: it has resilience for innovation and self-correction. Not only do real liberal-democratic institutions protect citizens against tyrannies and concentrations of power, they also provide mechanisms for channelling grievances and unmet needs into reforms.
To be sure, this power of self-correction is not always enough to prevent liberal democracies from crumbling under pressures. For example, during the 1920s and 1930s the combination of public stress and strong undemocratic movements proved to be irresistible, especially for newer democracies. Yet the analogy between those decades and the current situation obscures more than it reveals for today’s economic ills pale in comparison with the Great Depression of the 1930s and present autocratic regimes lack the ideological attraction that fascism once espoused.
Still, one cannot be complacent and deny the current ills of liberal democracy that are getting deeper and more pervasive. Surmounting them will require intellectual clarity and sagacious political leaders who are willing to take risks in serving the long-term interests of their people. Human choice, not historical inevitability will determine liberal democracy’s fate. For now, democratic publics want policy changes that offer hope for a better future. Left unmet, their demands could evolve into social discord, populist upsurges or regime changes.
Many of these measures may not help if primal causes, i.e. poverty, rising inflation, inequitable distribution of wealth, poor governance and immigration remain unaddressed. Even in the best of circumstances voters yearn for a better life and remain somewhat dissatisfied. That is why governments come and go through periodic elections. Populism springs from democracy but if it does not go overboard by accentuating the socio-economic cleavages it can be beneficial.
Cas Mudde, the Argentinan scholar, has defined populism as a loose set of ideas that share three core beliefs: anti-establishment, authoritarianism and nativism. Here populism emphasises faith in the wisdom and virtue of ordinary people and embraces resentment against existing authorities. Populists display authoritarian leanings and favour direct democracy by opinion polls and plebiscites that are above institutional checks and balances.
Populists come in all shapes and sizes, spanning the economic and political spectrum. They take advantage of a similar set of conditions to gain power: during sustained weak economic conditions they take advantage of a policy logjam where consensus is difficult, giving rise to the ‘need’ for a strong leader. Increasing inequality, channelling the rage of the masses against the ‘establishment’, causes voters to be polarised emotively against wealth gaps or xenophobia.
On gaining power, populists share many core beliefs and goals: they always claim to work for the ‘people’, promote nationalism as a social glue necessary to take difficult steps, and exhibit a general disregard for debate and disagreement. In addition, populists almost always follow protectionist economic policies.
The above economic explanation is not completely valid, as populism has also risen in several of the most egalitarian, best educated (e.g. Sri Lanka) and most secure societies in the world (e.g. Sweden and Denmark). An alternative explanation is a thesis based on cultural backlash. This theory predicts that support for populism will be stronger among those holding traditional cultural values, which mostly comprise the older and less educated groups of the population.
Classical populist economic policies include protectionism, nationalism, infrastructure building, increased military spending and often, capital controls. However, we no longer live in the classical world of the 20th century. The advent of the internet has changed the structure of economies, consequently altering the political economy of populism.
In the 20th century, authoritarians tried to control the media to ‘manage’ the narrative. Without exception, the press in countries ruled by populist regimes were sponsored and controlled by the state. In the 21st century, the press is countered by spreading so much information that people don’t know what to concentrate on, or by propagating misinformation whereby trust in the media is eroded. The internet also allows for greater monitoring and control of people. However, it is hard to see how the values that drove populism in the early years will yield similar results today. Unlike past populists, a new world vision (decidedly wrong in retrospect but modern when judged by their time), the current crop of populists are revisionists in their outlook, pointing to a better past. As an illustration, Vladimir’s Putin’s Russia looks back to the Soviet (or even Czarist) era as a time of Russian greatness; Indian leaders point to a mythical time when India was the proverbial ‘golden bird’ in Vedic times (all knowledge residing in the Vedas) and the Islamic World to past Islamic glory.
All in all, the success of regimes countering populism depends on sound humane education, reasoned debate, infrastructure development and use of technology for economic success. Protectionism and infrastructure building in future may not create the jobs that they did in the 1930s. In summary, due to incipient socio-economic stresses, the negative effects of climate change and an uncertain shifting global political order, the phenomenon of populism will most likely continue to pose a challenge but this challenge can be manageable with prudent policies based on digital technology, an interconnected world and prudent leadership.
The writer is former Adviser, Centre for Policy Studies, COMSATS, Islamabad, former President of Islamabad Policy Research Institute, and ex-Head Department of International Relations, NUML University, Islamabad