Of late it seems there is a shift underway in the more traditional bastions of democracy. Where once the West, in particular, could boast of pragmatism, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the Alt-Right in the United States along with the outcome of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom suggest that even the more robust democracies are now susceptible to the pressures of populism and nationalism.
One thing, at least, appears more certain. These can no longer be considered isolated developments or mere quirks of history. From the US to the Philippines, from India to Turkey and everywhere in between, and across much of Europe, the allure of populism seems higher than ever before.
There are those who feel such a shift is fueled by the proliferation of 'fake news' by various state or non-state actors. Surely the phenomenon, facilitated as it is by unprecedented growth in social media and internet access, has a part to play in this. But can this rise in populist sentiment worldwide be attributed solely to it?
Perhaps the roots of this shift are more systemic than it seems at first glance. Partially, at least, could economics be its underlying cause? We know much of the world has recently experienced an economic downturn to various degrees. For millennials in particular, as they come of age, holding the kind of job and owning the kind of property their parents did is becoming an ever distant dream. In the West especially, education no longer guarantees success.
The optimism of the 90s as the Cold War came to end also seems to have waned in the shadow of terrorism post 9/11. Instead came mistrust and paranoia, which in turn fanned the flames of xenophobia both in the East and the West. In the latter, for a significant segment of the population, this has translated into growing opposition to immigration and refugees. In parts of the former, such as India, Pakistan and some Middle Eastern nations, it has taken the shape of varying degrees of sectarianism.
In his book 'On Populist Reason', Ernest Laclau suggested populist tendencies emerged in society whenever its leadership failed to meet a significant number of public demands. As those clamoring for unmet demands band together and their calls for change reach critical mass, those vying for power find it more feasible to appeal to people's immediate sentiments, absurd or impractical as they may be.
So Trump promises to build a wall to prevent any of those 'pesky' Mexicans from coming in and right-wing leaders promise to 'free' the UK from the 'shackles' of the European Union without heed for the challenges that most recently resulted in Theresa May's resignation.
Duterte in the Philippines tells the US to sod off as he seemingly pivots to China. In India, after failing to deliver on economic promises, Narendra Modi plays on public sentiments for a comeuppance against Pakistan, bringing the world the closest to a nuclear exchange since the Cuban Missile Crisis. And in Pakistan, a new government faces embarrassment after being forced to turn to the IMF despite promises to break the begging bowl once and for all.
Hope and wish as people may, history does seem to suggest one thing. More often than not, populism backfires, it seems. Should this not, then, be a cautionary tale for leaders hoping to take advantage of mass unrest and dissatisfaction by promising the undeliverable?
One can but hope.
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Image: The Conversation