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?
There are many embattled democracies in the world today, but How Democracy Die is primarily a book about America. It is a warning to Americans to never be complacent about their democracy, regardless of how robust and dynamic the oldest democratic constitution in the world may appear to be; the foundations of even the strongest of constitutions shake when an autocratic demagogue is committed to smashing the liberal democratic order.
In this book, Harvard professors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky examine international examples to illustrate how autocrats use legal means to kill democracy. Professor Ziblatt is a historian of Europe from the nineteenth century to the present day and Professor Levitsky focuses on Latin America and the developing world. You can’t get more qualified than that to write a book about how democracies die.
With the exception of its snowy neighbour to the north and its transatlantic Anglo sidekick, many who live outside of the US reside in countries where democracy has either died and been reborn, or is experiencing a difficult process of democratization. Others are witnessing the death of their own democracy in front of their very eyes. It is therefore imperative that Americans, regardless of their level of education, political views or social status, pay heed to the political histories of other nations in order to prevent the misfortune of others to be repeated in America. This is especially true while Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office. Sure, he was elected fair and square, but there are facets of his character and policies that raise alarm bells.
Borrowing and updating the work of Juan Linz, Ziblatt and Levitsky highlight four key indicators of authoritarianism. They are 1) rejection or weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game, 2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3) toleration of encouragement of violence, 4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including the media. Note that Trump falls into each of these four categories.
In recent times the death of a democracy is less likely to occur through a military coup or by a violent revolution. It’s not that there aren’t any good old-fashioned military coups anymore (Thailand, Ecuador), but it is increasingly the case that demagogues obtain power through the ballot box, and once there slowly but surely push democratic norms to the point of collapse in a bid to solidify power. Often this achieved by eroding the checks and balances needed in a healthy democracy through the combination of nullifying the legislative power of parliament, filling the judiciary with sycophantic or co-opted judges, attacking the critical media and delegitimising political opponents. Such has happened in Venezuela, Turkey, Peru, Argentina, Russia, and Hungary to name but a few. Then there is, of course, the examples of Germany and Italy earlier in the century. In the case of the United States, Ziblatt and Levitsky argue that over time America’s democratic fail safes have been eroded including party gatekeeping, institutional forbearance, self-restraint and mutual toleration. This has led to the situation of today. A US president who has no qualms about railing against the free press and calling for his political opponent to be locked up.
It is often said that history is doomed to repeat itself. Perhaps that’s true for those who choose to ignore the past. This is why a book like this is so important. Americans can no longer afford to be complacent.
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