Understanding populism as a new political vogue
The new liberal credo has turned out to be empathy with masses who elect authoritarian parties and politics. I could be the first to champion that attitude of understanding the reasons behind popular choices rather than condemning majorities as “deplorable.” Moreover, I share popular resentment against so-called “liberal elites” and their pseudo progressiveness. Nevertheless, the new politics of empathy runs the risk of dismissing the reasons behind the rising charm of authoritarian politics.
First of all, it is not just the choice of angry majorities that pave way for the rise of authoritarian politics and politicians. In most cases, especially in the case of non-Western countries, it is the co-option of economic elites and liberal intellectuals who are responsible. In most of the cases, economic elites choose to turn a blind eye to authoritarian tendencies when their vested interests are served by such parties and politics until it is too late to reverse the process.
Besides, it is not a new phenomenon if we remember the circumstances of the rise of authoritarianism and then fascism in post-World War I Europe. Then, right wing extremism like Islamism and ultra-nationalism were bestowed as remedies against communism and in fact, against all shades of leftist and labor movements in the Cold War era. “The politics of protest” have severely been suppressed for long by Western allied regimes in the name of fighting the “red danger.” It is how ultra-nationalism, nativism and Islamism turned out to be the only alternatives to channel popular resentments in many non-Western countries.
Later, as of the late nineties, anti-Soviet movements in Eastern Europe have been cherished as the rise of “democracy and civil society” only because they were anti-status quo ante and they proved to be pro-Western. Nonetheless, soon non-communist authoritarian regimes replaced communist ones in those countries. The same is true for so-called color revolutions since they turned sour in each and every country they occurred in.
Finally, the Arab Spring not only ended up with political failures but also led to tragedies in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. In the case of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, color revolutions and Arab Spring, the native and Western liberal intellectuals did not only delude themselves but also polished those movements as democratic upheavals being “anti-establishment.” Then it was too late to acknowledge that anti-establishment politics are not all democratic by definition. The liberal fallacy also played into the hands of authoritarian politics elsewhere, especially in Muslim countries as long as “moderate Islamism” was thought to be a panacea against the status quo ante.
In the case of the recent rise of populist anti-democratic surge in Western countries, it may be the opposite that liberals’ neglect of popular resentments enforced populist politics. Nevertheless, in Western countries too, the shortcomings of the Cold War in the past and of the era of neoliberalism should not be dismissed as political factors. The rising trend of the politics of multi-culturalism as against universal values has also played its part in provoking not only resentment but also Western varieties of nativism.
In short, the invitation to understand the populist choices rather than snubbing it may sound very agreeable and human to some extent but it may also work as a political disguise when it reduces populism to the choice of angry majorities without reference to the political history behind that choice.