Citizenship in the Age of Populism
Amid the rise of populism, citizens should stand up to authoritarian threats but be aware of their own actions.
In a way, this is just another airy op-ed ubiquitous in today’s media industry about the dangers of populism in the age of Donald Trump. Yes, our media landscape is more and more fragmented with news outlets for every taste, to which one can turn to when in need of self-affirmation. This is hence just another voice, stemming from the liberal side of the spectrum.
While this article is published by a nonprofit that features a “plurality of perspectives,” I expect the potential readership to lean toward the liberal spectrum. Labeling myself a liberal as well, and as acting-CEO of a welfare organization, I will thus try to speak to you from a common perspective.
Can Populists Govern?
Every populist movement of today needs to be seen in the context of populism’s contemporary success stories. The last few years have not been kind to liberals. Modern developments have seen the ascendance of the Tea Party and Trump in the United States; the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom; Front National in France; the Alternative for Germany party; Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarianism in Turkey; and Rodrigo Duterte’s rise in the Philippines, just to name a few of the most (in)famous cases.
There is one core assumption about populists and the nature of their rule: populist candidates are unable to govern.
At first glance, it is a clear contradiction for populists to criticize the government elite and then to become the government elite. If you are now in a position to alter the way things are run, should it not be you that is to blame if change does not come?
Here, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, and the subsequent neglect of the Leave campaign to take over responsibility, is case in point. In 2016, both Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson refused to assume positions that would have them directly negotiating the terms of their wished-for exit, creating the impression of them running away from responsibility.
Furthermore, populists are expected to bend to the necessities of official office. This implies that once election campaigns are over, the former candidates have to accept rules that limit their actions considerably. When Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency of the Philippines, observers expected him to back down from his strongman rhetoric, becoming more presidential—similar to the situation after Trump was elected in the United States.
Instead, to this day, Duterte continues to boast of his history of killing criminals himself, while Trump proceeds to attack those who beg to differ as being “fake news.” The US president has also not let go of his pet projects of a wall on the US-Mexico border and a travel ban for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. To divert attention could be one reason for Trump to continue his election campaign mode persona, as seen at various press conferences and, recently, at a rally with supporters in Florida—only one month after being sworn in as president.
There is thus no empirical evidence that populists are not able to govern. Instead, as their strong fan bases show, criticizing the system while actually being a part of it does not contradict itself, at least in the minds of supporters. Therefore, the rules that would normally limit a politician’s range of actions do not seem to apply to populist leaders.
Nevertheless, it is clear that democracy and fundamental civil rights are under fire from populism and its representatives, promising easy answers to complex questions and issues. The remarks of US Senator John McCain at the Munich Security Conference in February, and in a subsequent interview, underline this danger drastically.
How to Counter Populism
For liberals and humanists, the question is what to do and how to do it. There are three major points to think about.
First, it is our overly empathetic culture of interpretation that is ever present in liberal societies. We should be careful not to exaggerate, although the danger to democracy is obvious. By focusing too much on populist movements, media and civil society are indirectly supporting those whom they intend to keep in check. Giving them too much airtime, while simultaneously neglecting other important issues around the globe, does not help solve the problem.
Second, we must never lose faith in communicating with others who disagree with us. History shows that things tend to start to get ugly once people stop talking to each other. The famous phrase by Carl von Clausewitz, “war is the continuation of politics with other means,” describes the probable result. However, one cannot solve a dispute without debating the issue.
Finally, as innumerable social media attempts have shown, reacting to aggressive populist rhetoric with equal aggressiveness does not usually lead to the desired outcome.
Instead, it appears to be wiser to stay away from emotion and stick to the factual level with a certain amount of politeness garnering your statement. British author J.K. Rowling’s Twitter feud with Trump and some of his followers serves as a case in point.
Populists are not per se unable to govern, nor do they automatically become paper tigers once in office. Our responsibility as citizens—holding the most important title in a democracy—is to stand up for a way of political communication. We must look toward solving problems and integrating rather than excluding people. This, nonetheless, requires a combined effort. As disconnected individuals, citizens will not change anything. Coming together as a movement, the citizenry is the strongest power of our political order.
In other words, in order to avoid becoming paper tigers ourselves, we as citizens need to follow one of the basic principles on which today’s free societies are based: Treat others the way you want to be treated. In the context of dealing with populist movements, this translates into acting firmly but in proportion to the situation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc