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Why worry about populism?

Why worry about populism?

Two weeks ago we had an interesting discussion in my friends circle on Erdogan and Hagia Sophia. The discussion had a healthy participation with an array of ideas and discussion points from history to current affairs. Many were blaming Erdogan to be a Populist, others a right winger, and a few others a right wing populist. For me, one word stood out distinct over the whole engagement - 'Populism'.

Turkey was a country under the craftsmanship of Musthafa Kemal Ataturk. He is often projected as the one who moulded modern Turkey out of Ottoman 'backwardness'. However, his vision of a developed Turkey failed miserably due to many of his impractical and anti-liberal ideas. His vision for his country was to produce a Europeanized state out of Turkey. He thought the cultural baggage of Turks would hinder his dream, hence he elevated the power of the military to safeguard his vision of a steel-stubborn 'secular' Turkey.

Contrary to his original vision, the post-Ataturk decades for Turkey represented dark ages of misery, invisibility and despair. The country witnessed multiple military coups, stagnated national GDP, peak unemployment and widespread corruption. The dream of her founding father to emulate and join Europe literally lay shattered by the use of wrong policies.

Then the story takes a U-turn in 2002. A former Istanbul Mayor, Rajeb Tayyib Erdogan, in 2001 reads an Islamic poem in a public forum, the 'secular' Turkey's police arrests him. Later, the party he establishes makes a landslide victory in 2002. Under Erdogan's leadership, Turkey rises to prosperity. The country marks multifold growth in almost every segment of economy in just a short 10 years. Turkey gets a rebirth. He, with his economic success, also brings in social reforms. He redefines and establishes the enlightenment version secularism of inclusiveness in Turkey. He takes himself and Turkey to newer heights, towards the original idea of a thriving modern society. Finally, Europe invites Turkey to hold membership talks.

The Hagia Sophia ruling in July 2020 to officially change the status of an ancient heritage building -- revered by Muslims and Christians alike -- to a mosque has triggered a global discourse. Greece, Russia, and Germany have raised concerns on this already. Intellectuals are referring to this as a short-term political tactic by the President to consolidate his losing vote bank. Is Turkey repeating history? Is the savior of the new Turkey transforming to be a Populist?

What is Populism?

In an ideal liberal democratic structure, a political party faces its electorate with solutions to their problems and a direction of leading the nation towards progress. A well detailed analysis of the problems, challenges and priorities of the people are done based on the host ideology (liberal democracy, socialism etc.) and rule of the land (constitution and institutions) to come up with a solution to move forward.

With centuries of living together, we humans have come from being nomads and tribals to subjects of monarchs and finally to the idea of democracy. Hence our problems and challenges are not simple and easy, they are complex and have roots in years of accumulated causes. And with passage of time, the complexity adds on, and hence our mammoth problems grow bigger and heavier. And therefore, a legacy socio-economic problem or a political problem of a society will obviously not have simple solutions.

The final piece of the equation in the political structure of democracy then is the political party's mouthpiece that speaks to the people about the solutions. The way-out to the problems of the masses is then prioritized per the political party's ideology and commitments. Political parties normally, but not necessarily, reach out to people with these solutions via the medium of a leader. The leader's role is the aesthetic and the psychological part of the game, that is, how effectively the message is taken from the party's whiteboard to the attention of the common man. Leaders are praised and celebrated mostly for the soft skills of influencing which helps the depth of reach to the people. In short, the formal platform's proposals get beatified with an able leader translating it to the language of the masses.

One catch or a loophole to the political element of democracy is here with this component of a leader: the idea of merely aesthetically attracting the electorates versus seductively mesmerizing the masses to overlook the facts and logic of the the whole scenario. The former being a popular leader and the latter, a populist.

When a populist leader boasts simple, but phony solutions for complex and convoluted problems of the society, people fall for it. The reason for this is explained by how our mind works. Our brain functions by seeking possibilities to be energy efficient, i.e. to think less, work less and hence conserve energy. Our tale-telling, story loving emotional mind adore lore that are quick, easy and simple to understand. On the contrary, the process of thinking about complex problems and analyzing factually for solutions require burning calories and hence is tiresome to the brain. A populist leader uses his 'charisma' to invest in this caveat of the human brain, to exploit and win people by blinding the masses by masquerading truth and facts, with one fix for many, quick, easy and fraudulent solutions.

Populism is defined as the decorative part of politics, and not to be confused with any full blown ideologies like Communism, Liberal Democracy, Socialism or Fascism.Hence academically populism could be neutral, right-leaning or left-leaning in nature. When it takes a political form, it moulds to shape depending on the host ideology it is founded on.

In summary, populism in broad, (left wing, or right wing, or neutral) and academically is a measure of how a leader of a party outperforms and nullifies the establishments of democracy. Populism is a disease or a shortcoming of the political side of democracy. Populism being concentration of power is essentially dangerous to democratic values. However, the version, right wing populism ( here in after RWP) is a grave threat not only to democracy in particular but society at large.

Why Worry About Populists?

Populist leaders (Rightwing populism in particular) are the trend of the modern democracies across the globe, and they don't presume themselves a misfit to the emergent right-leaning world. Nigel Farage of Brexit, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Narendra Modi of India, Marine Le Pen of France, Donald Trump of the US, Geert Wilders of Netherlands, Frauke Petry of Germanyand Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are good examples. Populism by nature is pro-democratic for its political component, but deeply anti-liberal in nature for anything beyond elections. That is the reason why Ruth Wodak, Professor of Sociology in Lancaster University, says it as the "Politics of fear".

An interesting example I followed was of Donald Trump, on how he successfully ditched a whole society to believe in the simple story of building a wall to be 'great again'. Trump, a conservative populist, but with Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller an RWP, in his election rallies kept on repeating the argument for a physical border wall. Though with his simple language and limited lexicon, he was very conversational and expressive with animated gestures; people felt him authentic and speaking as one among them. With simple repeated monotonous rhetoric, people chose this simple solution for their 'immediate' safety from a non-existent threat of Mexican migrants over an elaborate and detailed solutions to their existent and real social, civic and economic problem.

Why is RWP a threat today?

Populist leaders rise and their glory die with time. Max Weber characterizes the key ingredient of a populist leader as 'Charisma', "(it is) to be understood as an extraordinary quality of a person, regardless of whether this quality is actual, alleged or presumed". The Chinese communist leader Mao Tse Tung's staged swimming in Yangtze River to get back to the limelight of power from his shattered image of leading China to the disastrous famine of 60s is a good example to recall. Also in India, how a '56 inch chest' of Narendra Modi was the trump card to rise to power to fight the 'terrorist' Pakistan.

However , charisma is not immortal, it is a social status the disciples (the term 'bhakts' in Hindi makes a good fit here) attribute to their leader. With time, Charisma vanishes and the populist virtue disappears from the leader. Max Weber says. "…obedience is forthcoming only so long as people ascribe these (extraordinary) qualities to him, that is, so long as his charisma is the proof of evidence".

Today RWP centers around the personified politics of the charisma of its leader by heavily "media-tizing" it, not only through traditional media, but the new tool of social media as well. The RWP platform in India, the BJP, allocates a mammoth share of funds to its propaganda IT cell, to promote and retain the charisma of its leader. A report in The Wire Magazine says, for 2018 election campaign of Narendra Modi, out of its total expenditure of nearly 1Billion USD (which equals the previous 10 years of total expenditure of the opposition party on advertisements), half a billion was spent on social media for propaganda. (Source: The Wire, In 2019, Is BJP Riding a Modi Wave or a Money Wave?).

Why are political platforms spending more and more on social media? All this points to how social media really works. Social media algorithms are a way of sorting posts in a users' feed based on relevancy instead of published data. Social media prioritizes content watched by a user by the likelihood that they'll actually want to see more of it. The algorithm intrigues the user by feeding more and more, every time 'upping" the previous one by the flavor of the content. This algorithm essentially helps populists live longer, hence the humongous spending on social media by RWP platforms around the globe.

How do we fight RWP?

RWP in a nutshell is the call to go back to the 'good old times' of archaic rule by strong 'kings' and his fellow men. When in power, they either buy out the democratic institutions (eg. India) or bypass the liberal institutions of court, media and administration by referendums (eg. Hungary).

There is a hefty literature out there on how to defend and voice down RWP in a political environment, like:

1.Tactical political integration or Isolation

2. Embracing International platform of liberal democracies to voice against the illiberal RWP policies

3. Counter populist social media campaigns exposing the phony nothingness of RWP with alternative agenda

4. Extend the arms of local human rights organization to a global level to be the guardian for 'rights to have rights'

Beyond the top-down tactics, there also needs to be bottom-up strategy to eradicate this cancer. Ways to socially deconstructpopulism should be the way in that front.

1. Practice Democracy:It's to live and embrace the concept of democracy to its entirety, beyond just the political bloc of it. Assimilating and extending the value of democracy in our daily life and the platforms we engage is the way for it; our family and friends circle, work, community associations, religious associations, sports associations, and political association etc.

2. Promote Democracy:The famous Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says (Democracy as Universal Value, 1999), "… one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century is the gift of democracy to the world". Though it is accepted as a political norm globally today, the same is practiced and understood at different levels of maturity. The giant shift of understanding that the electorate need to have is their very participation in the rule itself. The understanding that, unlike kingdoms, it's not a chosen leaderwho is appointed, but an elected official. An elected official wholly behaves dutiful to his master, the voters. And a populist chosen leader, will only be responsible for himself.

3. Practicing and promoting democratic values are the key thoughts to socially -- and hence politically -- deconstruct the threat of populism and fascism from a grass root level.

Back to Erdogan and Turkey: Erdogan was not a populist to begin with, unlike a populist leader who grabs power by being so. He rose to power legitimately by the nature of his able leadership and tangible outcomes. He became popular in the true sense of democracy by being the central figure of development and prosperity to Turkey.

In July 2016, the military staged a coup and it almost worked. Erdogan effectively rallied people to fight the military and restore parliament. This was another milestone in the history of Erdogan becoming more popular and accepted by all sections of the society, the religious and also the non-religious factions. With this, he was getting celebrated as the icon who re-instated values and institutions of liberal democracy from the remnants of the populist Ataturk era.

However, then he takes another turn, he veers away from the sphere of democracy and moves in to the territory of being a populist. More than 100,000 journalists, academics, politicians and military officers get arrested since the coup attempt; critics say anyone opposing the regime is targeted as supporters of the coup, and many thousands still remain in detention to date. In April 2017, Turkey passed a referendum that gave sweeping powers to the President, from budget to appointing judges to dissolving parliament, to extending his own term.

Over all these developments, Erdogan is losing his ground with rising disapproval rating and dissatisfaction by his base. Hagia Sophia may be an iconic identity for the Turks, however the very idea of investing efforts by the state on a non-issue and animating it to be a prime priority cause concerns. Though well-known for his strategic and well thought decisions, Hagia Sophia seems to be a short-term tactic to re-consolidate his vote base. Turkey has so many itching issues on hand, i.e. GDP fall, soaring unemployment, and many more. However the easy solution for Erdogan was to re-instate Hagia Sophia. I see a typical charismatic leader's mesmerizing spell here, of blinding the electorate with a fake euphoria.

This excitement will be short lived politically for Turkey. However, there is a long term global backlash that is to be worried about, from all the corners of the world against this move. Greece, Russia, Germany and many EU countries have raised their concern and may be waiting to be taken up with the EU parliament. Contrary to the view of Istanbul being the crosswalk and a live museum of tolerance and accommodation of many cultures and traditions, this decision might now be a triggering point provoking Islamophobia and for more RWP leaders emerging in Greece, Germany and beyond.

However, one thing needs to be made clear, I also had my friends comparing Erdogan with Narendra Modi of India. The Indian Prime Minister is part of a right-wing organization (the RSS) that has strategic goals of transforming India into an exclusive Hindu State (similar to the idea of Nazi or Zionist states). Modi is an example of a Right Wing Populist threat to the world, where a dangerously toxic ideology of right wing extremism gets normalized, promoted and implemented with a populist leader. Erdogan on the other hand is not an RWP, but a sprouting populist. He is treading this new terrain by cutting ties with democratic values and liberal institutions. To close this analysis, I would say, Hagia Sophia is not a strategy of a visionary, but a tactic of an emergent Populist.

(The author is a technocrat working in Canada)

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TAGS:ErdoganDeep ReadPopulismRight Wing Populism
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