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Populism: Back from the Margins of Global Politics

The return of populism to the forefront of global politics isn’t a shift of world order but does mark a turn in modern history. The world has seen a surge of populist activity in recent years, threatening to undermine democracy and liberalism in its best philosophical sense. The world must be reminded, however, that populism sniffs the air for fear and rides the tide against the existing mandate. As Winston Churchill said: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Back from the margins of the political spectrum, populism relies on the same issues and same types of voters from history, and liberalism is tested once again.

Since the 2016 presidential elections, the White House has brought populism and nationalism front and center of American politics, dividing the country and raising questions about the future of government as we know it. Equally dramatic is the state of affairs in Europe, where the far-right have increased hold in politics, from the Netherlands to Italy. In fact, there are more than 40 political parties described to be populist in Europe.

Populist authoritarians are already very much in power in Hungary, Italy and Poland, and have posed threats elsewhere. In France, for instance, the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen had captured a third of the vote against the now-elected President Emmanuel Macron. Even in the Netherlands, the anti-Islam Freedom Party became the second most powerful seat-holder in parliament.

In Latin America, the newly elected Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro is populism’s most recent hallmark. With a comfortable 55.2 percent share of the vote, Bolsonaro beat his center-left opponent using rhetoric such as his slogan: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.”

Not only is Bolsonaro outspokenly anti-LGBT, cares little about women and minorities’ rights, plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and weaken environmental regulations, he also vocally supports the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 when political adversaries were tortured and murdered. If Bolsonaro brings someone to mind, know that Bolsonaro became a successful politician by modeling after one person in particular.

Steve Bannon has taken the populist model he shaped in President Trump and has been globe-trekking like other celebrities, attending fan meetings, delivering speeches and interviewing with the press. Being fired from the White House and Breitbart last year have given Bannon new life.

Bannon’s foundation to unite Europe’s far-right parties called the Movement is ironically based in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union (EU) and flurry of diplomatic activities. Through the Movement, Bannon hopes to support Euroskeptics and populist groups ahead of the May 2019 parliamentary elections by providing policy and strategy advice, polling, and data analysis.

Populists today generally seize upon Islam and migration, two topics that “animate many conservative voters,” according to the New York Times. As a result, populist parties have called for more than 30 referendums on issues such as refugee relocation; most effectively disruptive has been the Brexit referendum in the UK. “The EU is based on compromise through diplomacy and [turns] political issues into technical ones,” the World Economic Forum stated. “[…] Referendums do the opposite, by politicalizing technical questions.”

So, what is populism? Bannon attempted to answer this during the recent Munk Debate, which brought on the motion “Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist not liberal…” What Bannon, an expert of circumvention, couldn’t answer, his liberal opponent, David Frum, said best: “It always begins by subdividing the people… some of the people are not ‘the people,’ they are ‘those people.’ Populism begins by dividing the country between ‘those people’ and ‘us people.’”

According to Quartz, several key points that makes Trump text-book populist include the following: “division of society into two camps, ‘the people’ and ‘the elites,’ the rejection of culture and knowledge in favor of instinct, the promotion of polarizing views, [and] a contempt for judiciary, military and political powers.”

Often spoken in the same breath with populism is fascism, which simply, is against democracy and is generally in favor of a one-party dictatorship, or a totalitarian state. Benito Mussolini was one of the first leaders of this political ideology prominent in early 20th century Europe during World War I.

Nationalism, on the other hand, in its purest definition is political independence in a country, often associated with patriotism. In its extreme form, it’s anything but that.

As President Macron stated on November 11 during the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I: “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism… By pursuing our own interests first, with no regard to others’, we erase the very thing that a nation holds most precious, that which gives it life and makes it great: its moral values.”

Populism first appeared in the US during the 1890s when the rural Midwest and South created the Farmers’ Alliance to voice discontent with the existing establishment on crop failures and falling prices.

Since then, the term populism has been applied broadly. Academically however, political scientist Cas Mudde’s description of populism as a “thin ideology” is increasingly being accepted. Being “thin,” populism is “merely… a framework: that of a pure people versus a corrupt elite.”

Existing cases of populism around the world show that the same issues attract voters. Earlier this year, Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement received 32 percent of the general election’s vote, doing particularly well in the south where chronic unemployment was rife and voters felt marginalized.

Back in the Brazilian example, Bolsonaro was elected during a time in which seven out of ten Brazilians reportedly had no trust in any political party, according to Time.

Today’s global political landscape is, needless to say, far different from the stability found during the post-World War II era, during which Western governments were either center-right or center-left.

What tipped the scale is largely due to globalization; like an unexpected growth spurt, the freedom of movement of people and goods, have brought on economic and social disruptions.

Displacement of tradition, income inequality and large-scale immigration have led to insecurity. To this point, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in a recent interview with the Economist, put populism in today’s context quite accurately as: “populism is simply a new way to imagine capitalism without [the] harder edges [of globalization]; a capitalism without its socially disruptive effects.”

Following President Maron’s statement on Armistice Day, where President Trump was noticeably absent, Chancellor Angela Merkel stated: “Close international cooperation… is the only way to overcome the horrors of the past and pave a new future.” It was a straining plea for politicians to meet in the middle, knowing that as a center-right, she would not be in the same political capacity come 2021.

Two weeks ago, Merkel announced that she would not be seeking re-election, signifying that far-right populists were gaining traction while major center parties were waning.

The resurfacing of populism in the global arena is certainly not temporary. It’s a wake-up call for the political center to “reinvent and reinvigorate… and defend liberal democracy, pluralism, and globalization” as stated by the Conversation.

Populism, as history has told it, is not a sustainable model. While currently a method of choice for discontent, being “thin” hardly gives it much back support for the long-term.  


Photo credit: World Economic Forum

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