Populism in Contemporary Politics: The US Experience - By Talmiz Ahmad

Populism in Contemporary Politics: The US Experience - By Talmiz Ahmad

The word "populism" has recently entered the lexicon of modern-day politics, having been declared "word of the year" in 2017 by Cambridge Dictionary. And yet, though widely used to describe a variety of political systems and experiences, there is little consensus about what it actually means and in which scenarios it can be accurately applied.

As of now, it is used to describe such diverse movements as: Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Bernie Sanders' presidential candidacy against Donald Trump in 2016, Corbyn's leadership of the British Labour Party, and the global Occupy movement, on the Left; on the Right it embraces the National Front in France, and leaders such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Erdogan of Turkey, whose rhetoric and policies range across the political spectrum.

Populism an ideology?

The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde in his paper of 2004 was the first writer to attempt to define "populism" in terms that would embrace its diversity. He said it was not a fully formed ideology like socialism or liberalism but was a "thin ideology" that consisted of just some core beliefs. These were, one, that there was a conflictual divide in society between "the people" who were "good" and the "elite" who were essentially corrupt, self-centred and out of touch with the needs of the "people".

Two, that all politics should be an expression of the "general will", a set of desires, needs and aspirations of "ordinary people". Populist movements are thus steered by promoting the interests of these ordinary people against the "establishment" that is made up of the elite. The founder of the National Front Jean Marie Le Pen explained this in these words: "I will give voice to the people. Because in a democracy only the people can be right and none can be right against them." He presented "people" as an undifferentiated mass, with no divisions or diversities between them.

On similar lines, Trump at his inauguration in 2017 said: "We are transferring power from Washington DC and giving it back to you, the people. The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country." Thus, he neatly separated citizens from the establishment. The American historian Michael Kazin explains these quotes by seeing populism not as an ideology or even an identity but as a "mode of persuasion". He refers to populism as "a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilise the former against the latter".

This politically neutral approach to understanding populism has been challenged fiercely from the left, mainly by Belgian writer Chantal Mouffe and her late husband, Ernesto Laclau. Starting from the premise that all politics is essentially conflictual and expresses antagonism between "we" and "they", they argue that an existing socio-political order reflects a temporary status quo even as its antagonists seek to change it by working together with other similarly-minded opponents; when successful, they create a new socio-political order.

Those who benefit from the existing status quo do not wish to see it change; they resist change by attempting to discredit or even demonise the proponents of change. This resistance may work for some time; but as the number of people seeking change increases as they feel that the political leaders are increasingly distant from them, then change becomes irresistible - and politics becomes real politics or populist politics.

Wellsprings of populism

Thus, right-wing and left-wing populism agree that democracy is an ever-shifting competition in defining the "we" and "they" of the political order; there are deep differences between the protagonists on both sides, but they do not demonise the other or go to war against the other. Mouffe and Laclau are uncomfortable with giving ideological labels to these competitions, even the "thin ideology" one proposed by Cas Mudde. They fear that undifferentiated debunking of all populism would discredit the left and open the doors to institutionalising right-wing populism.

These concerns are very real since today the pejorative view of populism is largely coloured by the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, that is strongly nativist and racist that speaks of "real citizens", which upholds notions of national and ethnic "purity" and demonises immigrants and minorities. This has led political scientists like Mudde to argue that such politics is not populism but merely a camouflage to cover "nasty nativism" that has little to do with genuine popular concerns and interests.

Early American conservative politics

Though populism as part of political theory is still in its infancy, some American scholars have been attempting to explain its origins and contemporary expressions in their country. They have traced the origins of populism in the US to the early opposition to the New Deal proposed by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940s that saw the emergence of big government. In the 1950s, this evolved into fears of rapidly growing government that was infiltrated by communists, liberal intellectuals, wealthy celebrities and journalists - all of them enemies of free American people.

These conservative activists gradually took control of the Republican Party that in the 1960s produced George Wallace as its presidential candidate. Rightwing populism now exuded overtones of religious revivalism, ultra-nationalism, antagonism towards minorities, and resistance to social and cultural change.

These conservative forces, while robust, remained largely ineffective; mainstream US politics was marked by a "de-regulatory consensus" that rejected racism, celebrated sexual liberation and the feminist movement, and accommodated gay rights. Inclusion, diversity and multiculturalism were the buzzwords of this bipartisan social and cultural revolution. Globally, after the Cold War, US politics and business also adopted globalisation - global trade and global capital markets. George Bush Sr. reflected this commitment when in 1990 he called for "open borders, open trade and, most importantly, open minds".

Ronald Reagan played a pioneering role in shaping modern conservative populism by describing the "liberal culture elite" as threatening the finances, values and even the safety of the people. Through the 1980s and 1990s this acquired a strong racist undertone as well. The rise of Trump is thus the product of a long Republican tradition of right-wing populism, backed by a conservative media establishment and overt racist and anti-intellectual appeals.

Scholars point out that the ground for contemporary populism was prepared by economic, cultural and political factors. Globalisation meant loss of jobs for the American working-class as the domestic manufacturing base shrank and moved eastwards to Asia. Again, rapid social change meant largescale immigration that was seen as threatening national identities. These concerns began to be increasingly expressed against mainstream politicians who were viewed as distant from the people and unaware of their frustrations.

The 2008 economic crisis

The "elites'" response to the 2008 economic crisis confirmed to the people their deepest suspicions of contemporary national politics that had no place for their concerns and interests - here they saw billions of dollars of public money being given to bailout profligate banks and financial institutions, while millions of ordinary people lost their jobs and their homes.

This economic crisis of 2008 generated two populist responses in the 2016 presidential campaign - Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right.

Sanders was a self-declared democratic socialist who sought the Democratic Party nomination. He disliked Wall Street, called for big banks to be broken up and bankers jailed. He had great appeal for those below 30 years, who conveyed to pollsters they liked socialism more than capitalism. He fanned anger against the bailout; in 2015, he said, "We need to do everything to create millions of good-paying jobs and raise the wages of the American people. It is now time for the Fed [Federal Reserve, the US central bank] to act with the same sense of urgency to rebuild the disappearing middle class as it did to bail out Wall Street banks seven years ago."

The response to 2008 from the right emerged in the unlikely shape of Donald Trump. Adam Tooze, in his book, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World, notes that Trump is "recycling" earlier narratives - the animosities of civil rights desegregation of the 1970s, the boorish conduct of bond traders from the Manhattan party scene of the 1980s, and generally the responses to cultural transformations of the 1970 and 1980s, but now directed at new enemies, China, Islam and undocumented Latino immigrants.

During the presidential campaign, in July 2016 Trump described an America confronted by terrorism, violence and chaos, with 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records terrorising and murdering innocent Americans. He spoke of an economy in which household incomes were down more than $4000 per year since 2000, manufacturing trade deficit had reached an all-time high, infrastructure was falling apart - all because "big business, elite media and major donors had all conspired for decades to rig the system".

He said he stood against this elite conspiracy and would fight for the "neglected, ignored and abandoned ... the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice". He promised, "to put America First. Americanism, not globalism will be our credo". Thus did populism triumph in the US.

The Trump phenomenon

In his book, The Global Rise of Populism, Benjamin Moffit has described the following traits of the populist leader:

  • He perpetuates a state of crisis and always positions himself on the offensive
  • He is in a permanent campaign mode, all the time projecting himself as anti-establishment
  • Most of his messages are made up of negatives: anti-intellectual, anti-elite, anti-politics
  • Expresses dislike for the constraints of modern democratic government - the separation of powers, the independent judiciary, the mainstream media, which are described as elite and obstructing the realisation of the will of the people - and revels in asserting authoritarianism
  • Projects ultra-patriotism
  • Is remarkably adaptable, even being able to project anti-people policies as beneficial to them
  • Above all, he exhibits his anti-establishment posture and contempt for mainstream politics through "bad manners", what scholars refer to as "insult politics"

Donald Trump as president has displayed every one of these traits. He has employed inflammatory rhetoric to exploit anxieties relating to immigration by prioritising border security and highlighting - inaccurately - the "caravan" of migrants, many from the Middle East, marching towards the US border from Central America. By focusing on the insecurities of his white support base, he has created a sense of deep anxiety among them and presented himself as their committed saviour, referring to the "beautiful wall" as his most evocative campaign promise.

He has displayed his contempt for intellectuals by saying: "Our country is being run by very stupid people", thus seeking to distinguish their global vision from the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people. His "American people" are narrowly defined to include only those who back him, while others are depicted as weak, unpatriotic and not "real or true" people. His most effective messages to his people have been:

  • "I will defend you"
  • "My job is to look after your interests"
  • "America is for Americans"
In terms of using bad manners in public, Trump has been relentless, continuing the abuses of the campaign trail into the presidency. He uses mocking, insulting and sexist language against all opponents, domestic or foreign, while pandering successfully to his support base that revels in these insults.

But the most remarkable aspect of the Trump presidency has been his ability to continue his pose as champion of the ordinary working class Americans against the elite even when, as noted by Paul Krugman, his administration has been "relentlessly anti-worker on every front". Krugman refers in this regard to his tax, health and labour policies. His tax cuts have benefitted large corporations, while doing little for ordinary Americans. His opposition to Obamacare has raised insurance premiums by 20 percent, while his labour policies have removed several protections from workers relating to exploitation and injury.

At the same time, Trump has openly flaunted his own wealth: attacking the "elite", Trump said, "we've got more money and more brains and better houses and apartments and nicer boats... They've been stone-cold losers, the elite. Let's call ourselves the super elite". Commentators have explained that Trump's core support came not from white-working class or the truly poor; it came from those who fear they will lose the status they already hold. They are the ones who believe that whites, men and Christians are being discriminated against and the "American way of life" is under threat.

Uncertain future for populism

As 2019 dawned, some commentators began to suggest that the appeal of populist politics might be ebbing in the West. Max Fisher, writing in New York Times in January, noted that while populist leaders continued to fan a sense of crisis, both immigration and terrorism - which had helped to push populism to the forefront of western politics in 2016 - are waning as crises; populists have experienced electoral setbacks in Germany, the US and even Poland, affirming the declining appeal of the right.

While populism does not face imminent demise, the absence of crises is reducing the allure of hard-line policies. Thus, Fisher notes, even while Trump is flogging the wall as a matter of supreme urgency, illegal immigration has continued its ten-year decline, while terrorist attacks have also receded into the background. A more buoyant economy in the US is reducing concerns relating to immigrants taking away jobs.

Again, while Henry Olsen in the Washington Post sees a "counter-revolution" to populism globally, what he is anticipating is a move away from the traditional two-party system. This had earlier limited the choice before electors, making them move to the right, towards the party they disliked least. Now voters seem to be shifting to the centre-left by shunning strident anti-immigration parties, while still uncomfortable with many of the progressive policies of the left.

Amidst sweeping global economic, social and cultural changes resulting from technological transformations, globalisation and migration, the world is seeking a new socio-political order that Mouffe and Laclau had spoken of. Perhaps, populism has had its day and will slowly fade into the sunset.

Amb. (Retd.) Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat and holds the Ram Sathe Chair in International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.

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