Renaissance of populism: simplifying reality – #WordsAgainstPopulism

May 5th, 2021 12:47 pm

Kateryna Potapenko is a journalist and radio-host from Kyiv, Ukraine, who has been volunteering for WSCF-Europe since 2019.

Simple solutions to difficult questions – both left and right-wing populism seems to be guided by the same slogan: “keep it simple”. The renaissance of populism in the 21st century is often explained as a result of massive dissatisfaction with the actions of democratic parties, their political proposals, lack of response and lack of accountability. However, the peculiarity of the “new” populism is that it takes a very democratic form. After all, no one questions democracy, most of the populistic governments still call themselves democratic, while actually neglecting official democratic institutions – tolerance, respect for the opposition, freedom of speech etc. At the same time, populism is not equal to dictatorship, because dictatorship kills democracy at once. Meanwhile, populists use elections to justify autocracy. In this authoritarian understanding of democracy, goals are more important than processes. It is believed that the process can be neglected just to achieve greater goal – just like the governments that established totalitarian regimes did everything for this purpose.

In the classical rhetoric of populist politicians, there is a confrontation between the people and the elite. In most cases, through the image of a charismatic leader, they try to sell (and do it successfully) the simple thesis about “us” – the real people, and “them” – occupants of goods, which concludes with a statement that all troubles in the state are caused by the establishment. The first few things threatened with the arrival of populists are formal institutions (stigmatized as bureaucratic, corrupt, too complex), informal principles and norms and civil society (media, centers of education, NGO’s). However, populists do not even try to explain all the components of progress towards a better life. They reject most of the factors that affect the success of reforms. By offering simple recipes, they promise to free society from all the chains. And of course, only they will change the world with simple steps and return power to ordinary people. Nevertheless, this idea of “​​public will” is extremely dangerous, because at certain stages it rejects competitive ideas or alternative ways of solving problems.

Ideally, populists want to appeal to everyone and speak on behalf of everyone. But often there are groups of people who disagree with them and start criticizing. Then the logical and simple populistic answer is that they are traitors. It’s not so hard to find a whole arsenal of means to spread this idea, which ultimately only leads to polarization in society.

To infect a larger audience with their ideas, populists need direct methods of communication, because it avoids an analytical filter. Here’s where technologies come in. Leaders of the populist movement try to communicate directly (as we could see, for example, with Donald Trump, who used Twitter as the main tool of communication with his constituents). At the same time, there are attempts to discredit the traditional ways of communicating with society – the media.

While modern democracy protects human rights, including those of the minorities, the text-book (a.k.a. ancient Greek) democracy used in populistic rhetoric is the power of majority. And in the 21st century, it became easier to manage it. Technology makes it possible to control the majority and its emotions. That’s why traditional communication procedures are strongly denied by populists, because they rationalize emotions. Their main appeal is that since the elite do not represent the interests of ordinary people, we need to return to Athenian democracy but in a modernized form – to online referendums about…well…everything.

There is in fact the idea that the main reason for the rise of populism is that the world has changed while traditional, social and political institutions have not. They do not have time to respond to a huge number of challenges and have not adapted to the changed world. These challenges include the huge gap between rich and poor, climate change, the globalization of multinational corporations, the media, migration, and the replacement of people with new technologies. Moreover, the conditions for conducting political activity have changed. If previously the parties had to take root in society, develop regional networks, now with the triumph of populist movements they only need to have a direct channel of communication.

Thereby, it is difficult to offer a single recipe for what to do to avoid the harm of populism. Education and constant reminders are needed at all levels. It is necessary to adapt the school curricula, so that teaching develops critical thinking and multidimensional understanding. In addition, this requires political alternatives, support of church leaders, as much as a civil society that wants to acknowledge that it is in danger, which seems to be the only way out.

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