The recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu underlines the persistence of what some call “populism”. Despite the Israeli Prime Minister facing imminent charges of corruption, the seriousness of which would have been the undoing of any normal politician, Netanyahu not only won the election, but his Likud party won additional seats in the Knesset.
In other countries, the persistence of populism remains as strong as ever. Despite the hype about the success of Turkey’s opposition in recent local elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains in steadfast control of the country and has significant support. US President Donald Trump also remains as strong as ever despite the release of the Mueller Report. Hungary’s Viktor Orban remains firmly in the helm and so does India’s NarendraModi and the recently elected Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Populists don't need to be right wing either. Just look to France and Emmanuel Macron holding steady in hisposition as President of the French Republic, and, despite facing a corruption scandal, Justin Trudeau still sits conformably as Prime Minister in Canada.
So let’s revisit the question of populism and try and understand what it is and why it persists.
Some argue that populism is an ideology, or, moreover, a “thin” ideology (like nationalism, Feminism and ecologism) and can therefore be hosted by other more defined ideological positions. I disagree. Populism does not have the same depth of so-called “thin” ideologies. However, the point that populism can latch onto the left or the right is an important one. I think the Australian academic Benjamin Moffitt gets it more or less right in his explanation of populism as a political style, a kind of repertoire. You might want to call it a performance (Max Weber also saw politics as a form of performance as well).
Indeed, one could certainly add that it's a form of political theatre where social media is the stage and soundbites within 140 characters are the actor’s lines. The populist leader, usually an archetype “charismatic” figure, likes to simplify policy and groups political life into “us” and “them” with appeals to “the people” against a particular group, nation or outsider. This may be the traditional elite, the supreme court, nefarious international forces or the hostile media. And as we have seen in numerous examples, it works.
But why does it work? Why do these messages resonate? Different scholars and commentators have offered a range of suggestions. Some say the rise of populist politicians is a reaction to economic recession. Similarly, others point to the spread of neo-liberalism, especially the discontent of those left behind. Others see it as a reaction to political correctness. Some attest that it is a result of the decline of ideological politics or the perceived failure of traditional elites to deal effectively with the problems of today, or perhaps ignoring it while it is plain sight to the general public.
My personal take is that populism emerges when large segments of a population feel that what was once familiar has become unfamiliar and strange, perhaps even unrecognisable. You might want to call it 21stcentury alienation. It is a very strong reaction to the speed of change which happens so quickly that people have had no time to adjust or pause for thought.
These rapid changes which make the familiar unfamiliar can be broad in range and can include urban regeneration and rapid demographical shifts within a given neighbourhood. They might include the pace of technological change and innovation or the closure of shops on the high street or the local factory or power plant. It might even be something as trivial as the imposition of metric units of measurements as required by EU regulation.
What happens when the familiar becomes unfamiliar and the political elite not only ignore your concerns but shut it out from mainstream discussion and instead insist that these changes are a good thing? Those who feel alienated develop a mythical nostalgia of the past and resent those who they perceive have contributed to their alienation.
When a charismatic figure emerges and purports to speak for the alienated, the resentment of this segment of the population is channelled into the support for the charismatic figure who claims to seek the rectification for the wrongs of the past. For Netanyahu supporters it is the error of the Oslo peace process, for Erdogan it is failures of the Kemalist elite to fully realise Turkey’s potential, for Trump it is anything Obama did. And the populist does this through performance in an appeal to the disenchanted for their support.
Populism emerges when the familiar becomes unfamiliar and a sizeable population becomes alienated from their own society. Is it any wonder that populism still persists today?
Last Monday, I had to make a difficult television viewing decision, either catch up on Homeland season 7 or watch Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu make a live appearance to make revelations about Iran’s nuclear programme? I chose the latter.
Bibi, as Netanyahu is known in Israel, is ever the showman. While delivering a Ted Talk style presentation, he announced to viewers that Israeli intelligence operatives managed to seize tens of thousands of top-secret Iranian documents from a previously unknown nuclear archive located in an unassuming neighbourhood in Tehran (wow!). A sprinkle of these documents was shown in Bibi’s presentation which the Israeli prime minister claimed was evidence that Iran’s top officials, from supreme leader to president and foreign minister, had lied to the international community when they insisted that Iran was not seeking a nuclear bomb.
This trove of information, argued Netanyahu, casts doubt on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which was concluded between Iran, the US, Russia, China and Europe in 2015 under the leadership of Barack Obama, the most fickle president in the history of US foreign policy until the election of Donald Trump, to reduce and monitor Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of sanctions. In other words, save the Islamic Republic in return for a nuclear deal. President Trump along with a slew of conservative politicians, academics and commentators have termed the agreement a bad deal, a “terrible” deal or the “worst deal ever”. It now looks that they have a point.
Some commentators, eager to save the JCPOA, and by extension Obama’s legacy, insist that there is nothing particularly new in these seized documents. They say that it is all hyperbole, rehashed information and that the deal is still a good one. They add that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was already aware of Iran’s attempt to weaponise its nuclear programme, and the documents are dated before the signing of the 2015 JCPOA. Moreover, the IAEA, as well as Europe and the United States all confirmed that Iran has been in full compliance of the deal and, so far, none of the captured documents seems to have contradicted these assessments. Move along, there’s nothing to see here.
Not so fast. Why such faith in an autocratic regime which has incessantly lied to its people from Ayatollah Khomeini’s hijacking the 1979 revolution with his hidden plan to install a constitution based on his political interpretation of the Shia concept of the velayat-e faqih with himself as supreme leader, to the stealing of the 2009 elections and the perpetual corruption which led many across the country to protest the regime a few months ago? Why is it so hard to believe that the same clerical regime that murders, steals, plunders, executes, tortures and imprisons its own people also lied to the international community and broke agreements, pledges and declarations?
And yes indeed, there is actually something to this cache of documents. Consider the following:
It is true that the IAEA, the CIA and other agencies had their suspicions that Iran was actively seeking to weaponise its nuclear programme and was conducting research into the design and construction of a warhead capable of delivering a nuclear payload, but ceased this project in 2003. But throughout this period and continuously until this very day, Iran’s political leaders denied that there was ever such a programme. However, the IAEA and CIA’s suspicions are now facts. Not only do we now know that Iranian officials had been lying, but they were also negotiating in bad faith, including their declaration before the 2015 agreement that Iran would reveal the full extent of its past nuclear work. The documents show that they have done no such thing.
Furthermore, the existence of this nuclear archive seems to have been unknown to the international community. Iran did not declare its existence to the IAEA either before the 2015 nuclear deal or after. Nor did Iran hand over its research into making a nuclear bomb. Instead it hid it. This in itself is a breach of the spirit of the JCPOA and may even be a violation of Articles II and/or III of the Non Proliferation Treaty. If Iran is indeed in breach of the NPT, then the JCPOA as it currently stands is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Finally, Bibi’s revelations create the very real suspicion that having negotiated the JCPOA in bad faith, Iran was essentially putting its nuclear weapon programme aside only to come back to it a later. Of course, defenders of the deal have countered that the P5+1 negotiated it with the assumption that Iran was lying, and in the words of President Obama it was based on “unprecedented verification”.
But when negotiating the deal, the international powers did not have such concrete proof that their Iranian interlocutors were brazenly lying. How can anyone now defend the laxity in regulating Iran’s ballistic missile programme or the JCPOA’s ridiculously naïve sunset clause which would allow Iran to enrich again after 15 years? No way Jose!
Although tougher than its critics like to admit, the flaws in the JCPOA are real. Obama did an excellent job in forming and executing a stringent sanctions regime which really crippled the Iranian economy and brought the regime to its knees. But the Obama administration underestimated just how successful it was. In 2012 and 2013 there were rumblings of protests in Iran’s major cities, alleviated with the 2013 election of President Rohani, a regime loyalist disguised as a reformer. While negotiating the deal, Iran was in a situation where it could not afford to be in Syria and Yemen, develop a nuclear programme and placate its restless population angered by corruption, inflation and unemployment. The very future of the regime was at stake. Obama and Kerry could have done better and should have done better
French and German heads of state have tried to convince Trump to fix not nix the deal and make additional supplementary agreements instead. These new documents give him leverage to do just that. He should take it.
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