The alternative far-right and its troublesome rise have been fuelled by populist ideals. Populism can be defined as a political ideology which showcases hatred against a powerful elite and believes homogeneity to be beneficial to the functioning of the society. Populism is characterised by a use of rhetoric and often involves spreading misinformation. While populism can exist on both ends of the spectrum – ranging from left-wing to right-wing populism, the rise of the alternative right including instances of rising white supremacist ideas, calls for protectionist and anti-immigration policies, especially in western liberal democracies is what concerns us for the purposes of this article.
Reasons behind the rise of populism
To counter populism, we must counter the reasons that led to the rise of populism. One of the main reasons has been economic inequality – it gives leaders a foundation to base their populist ideals on and comes with a section of the population that is extremely frustrated and can easily subscribe to the aforementioned populist ideals. This is similar to what happened in the United States of America when Donald Trump was elected as President. He used the idea of the political elites ruling the country to garner votes. This idea can be summed up very well through a quote from his inaugural address, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”
Secondly, populism is characterised by a call for homogenizing societies. This stems from disapproval of pluralism and people with lower educational levels are more susceptible to believing anti-immigration ideas. Populist leaders often pretend to address the whole nation but often are referring solely to their supporters. They refer to their supporters as “we the people” or some variation of this. These leaders can tend to alienate one or more particular groups in order to demonize these groups and portray them as “the other”. Usually, these groups are immigrants, people of colour or gender and sexual minorities.
Main characteristics of populist leaders
The wide spectrum of populism and the geographical diversity of populist nations can make it difficult to identify who is a populist leader. Every leader who refers to the nation as “we the people” doesn’t automatically become a populist leader. Populist leaders can be characterized by their two things – the first being the alienization of a certain sect of people. As described above, populist leaders can only rise to power if they have a group – either external, but mostly internal to their countries – that they can demonize. Europe has seen an increase of negative portrayals of immigrants in populist advertising.
Secondly, populist leaders will often believe in a radical centralization of power – they use speeches which make them seem God-like. Populist governments have one central figure whose charisma and revolutionary capabilities are presented as the saviour from the continued oppression of political elites.
The Threat and the Solution
Populist rhetoric and the marginalization of communities can pose a serious threat to democracy. Populist rhetoric is often spread through misinformation which undermines the transparent workings of a government. Populism often fuels much more dangerous political mishaps in our societies. Perhaps the most dangerous example of this is Europe in 1930s. Hitler’s populist tendencies included villainizing Jews, the disabled and every “non-Aryan” person, along with charismatic and larger-than-life speeches. Populism fuelled fascism and right now it is fuelling the alternative far-right in western liberal democracies.
Populists vehemently oppose experts or more specifically scientific professionals. Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University writes in The Guardian, “Populists are not by definition liars. They are only committed to one particular empirical falsehood: the notion that they, and only they, represent what populists often call “the real people” – with the implication that other politicians are not only corrupt and “crooked”, but traitors to the people, or, as Trump has often put it, “Un-American”. This is very characteristic of populists – creating “the others” and differentiating themselves form this. Not listening to scientists and the educated strata of the society can have grave consequences – such as the half-baked response of the American government in dealing with the coronavirus.
The solution to populism lies in solving the issues that cause it. Economic inequality and anti-immigration ideas are issues that go beyond the sphere of one country. While domestic attempts to combat these are necessary, they are not always effective when you have a populist government that benefits from these issues. Moreover, these issues are highly affected by events of globalization, international trade and migration. Hence, the nature of these issues makes it such that international cooperation becomes necessary.
The United Nation Secretary-General, António Guterres said that multilateralism is the key to combating populism. While this is certainly true, the international community has several more concrete things they can do. Pushing for the elimination of corruption and curbing the spread of misinformation is crucial. Corruption plays a huge role in keeping populist leaders in control. The principles of the United Nations Convention against Corruption can be applied in the discussion surrounding populism. Secondly and perhaps most importantly, populism can be curbed by educating the general public on the ideas of democracy and pluralism. The biggest strength of populist leaders is the insecurity or lack of awareness of citizens that they exploit. In this sense, if people are educated on the principles of democracy and moved way from set ideas of homogeneity, it can make populist leaders a rarer phenomenon.
Populism can cause the eradication of democratic principles. Populists come to power through acting on the weakness of the people and their lack of awareness. If we are to counter populism, we have to make the people aware of the aforementioned democratic principles and promote pluralism. However, while populism is combated, the negative effects or consequences of populism needs to be dealt with. Countries need to include disadvantaged groups in political discussions, such as by changing methods of representation. Calls for radically anti-immigration policies need to be disregarded especially in a time when so many countries are plunged in internal conflicts.