Professor Brian C. J. Singer, a Senior Scholar at Glendon College, York University in Toronto. Photo: Erdem Kaya

Prof. Singer: Populism’s thin ideology renders performative truth

“Populism tends to exploit democracy’s symbolic resources to the point of their possible implosion, potentially resulting in a transition towards either authoritarian forms of political rule or increasing ungovernability, even civil war. This is less likely to happen when the populist movement arises from the bottom up and retains both its internal divisions and a critical distance relative to its leaders.”

Interview by Erdem Kaya

Professor Brian C. J. Singer is a Senior Scholar at Glendon College, York University in Toronto. He is the author of two monographs and numerous scholarly articles and book chapters in both French and English, covering a range of topics in philosophy and social theory, especially French social and political thought.

In this series of interviews on populism, Professor Singer asserts that ideology supposes a relation to truth, as it seeks to justify a given socio-political order and its corresponding power. But to the extent that populism entails a “thin” ideology or, possibly, no ideology, its relation to the truth of external reality can be dramatically diminished. In such a performative truth, one can ignore or oppose the facts when the facts appear contrary to the truths that people claim for themselves. A lightly edited transcript of the conversations follows.

There is much debate in the populism literature as to how to define populism. But you come up with a particular definition that speaks of a loose and symbolic “logic” while drawing on Marcel Gauchets argument. Could you clarify how you define populism? 

It is a bit of a fool’s game to seek to define populism empirically, as if one could establish a set of traits that all discourses, movements, and governments must have in order to merit being called “populist.” There is a necessary, minimal definition that opposes “the people” to “the elite” — particularly the political elite. But almost every democratic government (and many that are not properly democratic) claims to govern in the name of the people, and most opposition parties (and even some parties in power) claim to be against an existing political elite. In other words, this minimal definition, however necessary, barely distinguishes populist from non-populist regimes. 

Of course, the claim to oppose the people to an elite can be made more or less adamantly and understood more or less literally. There is, thus, a “populism light” that remains merely rhetorical and a “populism heavy” that promises or threatens much more than just another change in government. Concerning the latter, reference is made to what I would call democracy’s founding “primal scene,” when “the people” overthrew an aristocracy, monarchy or dictatorship, and established a democracy—though here the reenactment of the primal scene would occur within an already existing democracy, however discredited the latter may be. 

It Is a Fool’s Game to Define Populism Empirically

In this sense, such a “populism heavy” appears as a revolution, not of democracy, but within democracy, a revolution achieved by an election, thus a “revolution without a revolution,” but introducing its own torsions. In speaking of this reenactment of a “primal scene,” I am suggesting that populism draws on democracy’s most fundamental symbolic resources, insisting on the rule of the demos, the idea of the people as sovereign, a people whose power is absolute, the source of all legitimate powers. 

In drawing on such symbolic resources, populism can initiate a far-reaching, if loose, symbolic logic, as it seeks to translate the imperatives that result from this appeal to the sovereign people. Who are the people that are being appealed to? Clearly, not people in their empirical diversity, but a people formed discursively with purportedly distinctive traits. And what does it mean to represent such a people when the very existence of political representation threatens to divide the representatives from the represented and thus betray the people? And in the appeal to the people, is one conjuring up a sovereign constitutive power that, no longer held in reserve, is actively opposed to the constituted powers associated with government institutions? To what degree is one seeking to overturn the institutional mediations that seem to distance the people from the immediacy of what is said to be their will? 

When speaking of a loose symbolic logic, one is referring to tendencies to respond to such questions in certain coherent ways. But whether a given “populist” movement or government so responds very much depends on the context and whether that context supports, and how it supports, such tendencies. This is why it is a fool’s game to define populism empirically in accordance with a delimited set of defining characteristics. 

Crowd of people walking on the street of Moscow. Photo: Anton Gvozdikov

To follow up with Gauchet’s work, how do you understand the difference between “the political” and “politics” and with the rise of populism, how do you explain “the revenge of the political” in terms of the socio-historical dimension? 

The distinction between “the political” (le politique) and “politics” (la politique) is used by other thinkers besides Marcel Gauchet, though often with different nuances. “The political” exists in every society, as every society has to, as it were, establish sufficient distance from itself in order to identify itself as a specific society, to describe and reflect on its order, coherence, and values, and to act on itself as a coherent whole. In pre-modern societies, this place at a distance entails a reference to the divinity or divinities, or some cosmic principle—in short, to a heteronomous power that transcends those humans who live in that society. With modern societies, there is a movement towards establishing an autonomous human power—that is, to individual and collective self-determination.  For Gauchet, this movement is away from all figures of transcendence towards a totally disenchanted world.  

In my view, this claim must be qualified. First, because we still speak of, and indeed argue about, values such as justice or truth that speak to the socio-political order not so much as it is, but as we would like it to be—values that, therefore, transcend society as it presently exists. And second, because the reference to a sovereign people, which exists in the singular and is said to have absolute power (at least within its own frontiers), does not refer to an existing, empirical people. The reference is to a power that is simultaneously above and beneath society, both within and without; within in the sense that it is composed of those who live (and sometimes who have lived or will live) in that society; and without both in the sense that, as a power, it is established less by the people than it establishes the people as a people, and in the sense that it still corresponds to the distance from society presented by “the political.” In this regard, the sovereign people can be said to bear an immanent transcendence; it carries more than a whiff of the sacred. 

The term “politics,” in contrast to “the political,” is deemed exclusive to democracies, both because in democracies power, being autonomous, politics occurs largely “within” society, and because, even as it is “within,” it is only one sphere of activity amongst several, each with its own set of institutional mechanisms and norms. It should be noted that often—though less in the case of Gauchet—“politics” is seen, relative to “the political,” as less oriented towards “transcendent” matters, being more concerned with the often rather dirty struggle for positions of power.  

The expression “the revenge of the political” is Gauchet’s. His argument, which is not without merit, is that in the last fifty years, the economic sphere (with neo-liberalism) and the juridical sphere (with the emphasis on charters of rights) has eclipsed the political, seemingly rendering democratic politics increasingly impotent and irrelevant. Populism appears as a reversal of this situation, as the return of politics with a vengeance. Suddenly the stakes of politics have been raised enormously. But the degree to which populist politics then seeks its revenge on neo-liberal economics and individual rights claims is contestable, at least relative to the United States. Donald Trump’s economic policies could be described as “neo-liberalism in one country,” and his supporters refused to wear masks or socially distance themselves in the name of their individual, constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, effectively blocking a political response to the pandemic, with the tragic results that we are all aware of.

Former US President Donald Trump at rally in support of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach who is the Republican candidate for governor in Topeka Kansas, USA on October 6, 2018. Photo: Mark Reinstein

The Chances of Populism Returning iEven More Brazen Form in the US Are All the Greater

In this respect, what are the characteristics of American populism that distinguish it from the European brand? 

There are three characteristics that I would like to note:

First, right-wing populism in Europe today appears very much a reaction to (in some cases the threat of) increased immigration, particularly from the Islamic world. In American right-wing populism, the opposition to immigration cannot be separated from America’s original racial divide between whites and blacks (and, to a lesser extent, the indigenous population). Trump’s reference to Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” is a perfect example of condensation, these epithets having been used against blacks for centuries.  Thus, in Europe, populism claims to be preserving Europe from a recent external threat. In the United States, where blacks, not to mention the indigenous populations, have existed on American soil before most whites, one faces a problem that is not recent and cannot simply be projected outwards. The “race problem,” with its dynamics of backlash and what Jeffrey Alexander calls “frontlash,” has dogged the United States from its beginnings. This renders the definition of the people at once more contested and more fraught.

Second, the American right has long traditions of anti-government folk libertarianism, which Trumpism has only exacerbated. This is why, to allude to the previous question, right-wing populism in the United States appears opposed to the welfare state, whereas in Europe, notably Eastern Europe, populist parties have expanded the latter, if selectively, to benefit their supporters. And this is why the response to the pandemic was politicized in the United States in the name of the defense of individual liberties. Trump, who, one must remember, is a germaphobe, made a calculation—which was correct in itself but politically disastrous—that his supporters would balk at mask-wearing and social distancing. Right-wing parties in Europe, by contrast, can draw on much more centralist and openly authoritarian traditions. 

And third, the United States has a two-party system. Until recently, populism appeared limited to third parties (e.g., those of George Wallace or Ross Perot), so it seemed unlikely that it would gain political power. But once one of the two parties became populist, its success could be all the more complete, particularly to the extent that it succeeded in dismantling the system of checks and balances. By contrast, in most of Europe (the exceptions being Hungary and Poland), populist parties can hold government positions, but as part of a multi-party coalition, which neutralizes at least some of their influence. Because the United States remains a two-party system, the chances of populism returning, and returning in even more brazen form, are all the greater. 

“Populist discourse often seems to swing between claims to a more direct democracy and a barely disguised representative despotism.”

Regarding Michel Foucault’s “power and knowledge” approach, where the two were almost echoes of each other, you argue in your recent article for a new approach—namely, “separation of power from knowledge.” How does this separation occur? Could you elucidate it a bit more?

In pre-democratic Europe, monarchic power was modeled, if at a distance, on the divine power, which was said to be all-powerful and all-knowing. In this sense, monarchic power did not separate power from knowledge, and as such, was tasked with maintaining truth—at first, the truth of religion and then the suppression of untruths through censorship. The struggle against the latter by the Enlightenment supposed a different understanding of the relation of truth and power: where truth does not have its source in power; where power does not (or should not) regulate the production of truths; and where, at times, truth should speak to (i.e., oppose) power.

When Michel Foucault sought to bring power and knowledge together, it appeared scandalous, another of his anti-Enlightenment moves. But note that he brought them together not in the visible domain of political power but in the relatively concealed domains where power was hidden by expertise and woven into non-political institutional practices.  

For those interested, I have written two articles with Lorna Weir, in which I discuss Foucault’s claims concerning “knowledge/power” with reference to democracy as a symbolic regime (in European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2006 and Thesis Eleven, No. 94, 2008). In these articles, we argue that the separation of knowledge and power at a political level is not a “screen” covering over what is really happening, but a condition for, but also a limit on, the sorts of things that Foucault examined.

You also indicate that the separation of power and knowledge cannot be absolute. What makes this separation unstable? 

When one claims that the people are sovereign, the claim is that their power is absolute (within the limits of the nation-state), not that their knowledge is absolute. On the other hand, the claim that the people are absolutely separated from knowledge (i.e., that they are congenitally ignorant and irrational) is an anti-democratic trope. Democratic discourse must defend itself by establishing a weak relation between the people and truth, if only in the longer term, by speaking of some notion of moral virtue, common sense, or public opinion, often attached to some pedagogical project.

Even populism claims that the people understand the truth, the truth of who they are, and what is required to preserve their sense of themselves and their well-being. Thus, if the people claim something to be true (e.g., that crime rates are rising despite data demonstrating the contrary), then something must be taken as if true. There is another, more practical reason why the separation cannot be absolute, though it applies not to the people but their representatives. If they are to be at all effective with regard to their ends, the latter must have some knowledge of the environment in which they are acting. Again, even Donald Trump, despite his apparent disdain for much scientific expertise, listens very carefully to one set of experts, those who are versed in the “techne” of winning elections.  The Cambridge Analytica affair, which supposed a sophisticated knowledge of psychological modeling, as well as the digital world, was a demonstration of how far right-wing populism is willing to go in this direction.

Authoritarian Leaders Appear Less Intent on Speaking the Truth

In explaining the fusion of power and knowledge under monarchic regimes, you state that “representation renders present what it represents” to point to how representation itself shapes and gives meaning and form to the real world. So, “what is represented” loses its positive existence, and “representation” becomes the only reference point. Do you think such a fusion of power and knowledge can serve a new modern and secular form of apotheosis of the representative leader? I mean the authoritarian-leaning leaders that remain or expected to remain in power for life with nearly unlimited powers and turn into a kind of savior “god-king” in the eyes of the supporters since they are the ones not necessarily representing divinity like the monarchs of the middle ages but becoming reality itself and speaking “the truth” in spite of the establishment. 

When stating that “representation renders present what it represents,” I have in mind, amongst other things, the concept of sovereignty, including popular sovereignty. The latter does not represent that which already exists independent of its representation; it refers to the people’s symbolic, not its empirical, existence. Thus, it is wrong to think that such representation is exclusive to democracies. But in democracies, if we follow Claude Lefort’s discussion of “the empty place of power,” the political representative can never fully embody the place of power held by the sovereign people.

The question here, however, concerns secular, non-democratic forms of power. In the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, the leaders sought a fusion of knowledge and power but had to seek their knowledge in this world, that is, in representations that represent what is present in the real world, in this case, the laws of history, whether given by a “racial science” or by “scientific materialism.” (Xi Jinping in this regard claims a form of such fusion, as his thought is now capitalized and incorporated in the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party and mentioned in the preamble of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China).  The problem, of course, is that, in the end, actual events tend to give the lie to the sciences that claimed to know and master them.

Aleksandr Dugin, Russian political analyst, strategist and philosopher, in a press conference in Bucharest in 2017.

It is noteworthy that the populisms of the “post-truth” era appear to oppose science and scientific truths rather than claiming to speak in the name of a superior (pseudo-)science.  Today’s authoritarian leaders appear less intent on speaking the truth, at least relative to an external reality, than one undercutting not just claims concerning reality that they see as threatening—they seek to undercut the very existence of that reality as a horizon of possible knowledge. One thinks of the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing is Real and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Whether such a strategy is possible in the long term is another matter. Even Putin references, at least for local consumption, the neo-fascist, Aleksandr Dugin, who sought to revive the notion of an “eternal Russia” as the third Rome.

You argue that Ernesto Laclau’s concept of a “constitutive outside” obscures the arbitrariness of the populist representation, and you criticize his singular emphasis on political rhetoric and disregard of populists’ truth claims, such as the definition of the “real people” and “the enemy.” How do you think the representatives’ truth claims shape the relation of the people to the truth?  

The problem is not with Ernesto Laclau’s idea of a “constitutive outside,” which implies that the meaning of a term is given by its relations with other terms. And Laclau is quite aware that a “constitutive outside” introduces a degree of arbitrariness in a term’s meaning, as the latter changes with a change in that outside. The problem is that the “constitutive outside” is understood in terms of simplified semiotics based on binary oppositions, such that the “constitutive outside” appears opposed, and thus as a threat, to the “constituted inside.” In other words, the sense of “the people” is defined by its enemies, and if one wants to change that sense, one can find new enemies. What Laclau does not state is that when the “inside” is constituted by its enemies, the sense of the “inside” hardens and thus loses its arbitrariness, at least in appearance.  

A more complex semiotics would understand meaning as given “diacritically,” but that implies only a web of differential terms. Canadians define themselves as “not-Americans” without seeing Americans as their enemies. At the same time, Canadians see themselves relative to other peoples, as well as in relation to values that they are supposed to have, geo-historical adaptations they are supposed to have made, traditions they are supposed to keep, and so on. It is all really quite complex, fluid, and subject to constant questioning and revision. Of course, if Canadians were single-mindedly focused on an enemy, as in times of war, the sense of being Canadian would be simplified, not to say rigidified, and all questioning would be discouraged. Populism often entails a focus on an enemy for precisely these reasons. 

For Laclau, politics is about the formation of a people, that is, the formation of its identity as a people, and in the manner just criticized. In truth, most of the time, politics is not about the identity of a people but about different policy options. Most Canadian elections are not about who we are as Canadians, certainly not directly. Politics is only about the identity of a people when that identity is (or is made to appear) under threat and cannot, therefore, be backgrounded. In seeking to foreground the appeal to the people, to its identity as a people, populism often exploits such a sense of threat.  

“Populism often claims an identity between the people and their representatives, but a complete identity would render one of the two terms redundant, either the representatives (as the people could speak directly) or the people (as the voice of the representatives would be the more than adequate substitute for the voices of the people).” 

Still, Populism Is Not Able to Entirely Fill the Place of Power

In this context, could you also clarify how we should understand the interplay between “the empty place of power” and the populist claim of appealing to the people? 

When Lefort claimed that democracy implies an “empty place of power,” he meant that those who held power, the powerholders, held it only under the sufferance of the people who may well decide in an election to “throw the bastards out.” Suppose the people, as the sovereign, can be said to hold the ultimate power. In that case, the representation of their power is necessarily uncertain, as the people and the will of the people are “introuvable” and “immaîtrisable”—that is, they can never really be determined (both because it is divided and changeable) and thus can never be mastered. 

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro poses with anti riot police agents after cast their ballot in Rio de Janeiro on Nov. 29, 2020.

The loose symbolic logic of populism seeks to reduce the emptiness of the place of power without, I would argue, being able to fill it entirely. This requires two moves. First, a move to lessen the indetermination of the people, such that the identity of the people, its purported character, appears more determinate. This often entails a rhetorical division of the people into those who are the real, genuine, or authentic people and those who are not. The second movement concerns the reduction of the division between the people’s representatives and the people themselves. Populism often claims an identity between the people and their representatives. However, a complete identity would render one of the two terms redundant, either the representatives (as the people could speak directly) or the people (as the voice of the representatives would be the more than adequate substitute for the voices of the people).

Thus, populist discourse often seems to swing between claims to a more direct democracy and a barely disguised representative despotism. And when a populist movement is clearly identified with its leader, there is a tendency to suppress divisions, not just between the representatives and the represented, but divisions within the representatives and within the people—divisions that ensure the “openness” that is characteristic of a functioning democracy. Still, populism cannot entirely fill the place of power, at least in so far as the populist leader can still be overturned in an election and cannot embody the will of the divine, the principles of truth or justice, the laws of history, and so on. 

Then it comes to the question of the relationship between populism and post-truth politics?

Populism has been described as having a “thin ideology.” Beyond the claim that there is a crisis of political representation, which opposes the people to their political (and other) elites, the definition of populism requires no other content. Of course, any given populist movement may borrow an ideology (Chavez in Venezuela borrowed from socialist ideology, Bolsonaro in Brazil draws from the ideology of the military dictatorship of the late sixties and seventies). Ideology supposes a relation to truth, the truth of an external reality, though one whose relation is distorted, as ideology seeks to justify a given socio-political order and its corresponding power. 

But to the extent that populism entails a “thin” ideology or, possibly, no ideology, its relation to the truth of external reality can be dramatically diminished. For the only truth with which it is concerned is that of its appeal to the people, to its sense of identity, and to the symbolic wounds that nourish this sense of identity. And such an appeal can be powerful in a very literal sense, for it conjures up the sovereign, the power at the base of all power. Now, note that this appeal “renders present what it represents,” that is, it presents its own truth, at least to the extent that it resonates with those to whom it appeals—such resonance being precisely the measure of its veracity. In effect, one is dealing with a performative truth, one that can ignore or oppose the facts when the latter appears contrary to the truths that this people claims for itself. Indeed, given the fragility of the identity of the people, opposing the facts that threaten it cannot but appear to strengthen its truth claim.

Having said this is a form of “post-truth politics,” how can democratic societies fight against conspiracy theories that, as you stated, present the world as totally opaque but potentially totally transparent? 

There is a sense in which one cannot fight against conspiracy theories, particularly what Muirhead and Rosenblum (in A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy) characterize as contemporary conspiracist theories, which thrive on mere assertion and repetition — these theories too are, in a sense, performative. One cannot argue with claims that, by virtue of their refusal, both facts and any logical criteria cannot be disproved. And attempts at the regulation of social media and the public sphere more generally, however desirable, will have only limited effects and can potentially be quite dangerous. 

More promising, at least in the middle to long term, would be efforts to improve civic education (thus providing greater political literacy regarding democratic institutions, their strengths, but also their weaknesses). And such education should examine how to judge the validity of an argument, realizing that arguments can be more or less true and some conspiracies are genuine. Still, the problem with contemporary conspiracism is not primarily epistemological but “psycho-social.” In this respect, there are certain things that one should not do, such as rub salt in the symbolic wounds. Attempting to demonstrate to people that they are deluded, ignorant, immoral, racist, etc., is liable only to cause them to double down, as such demonstration only threatens an already embattled and fragile sense of self. In truth, conspiracy theories bear on a more general topic. 

Claude Lefort spoke of democracy as dissolving the markers of certitude. Sometimes and for some people, the degree of uncertainty appears, or is made to appear, unbearable, particularly when things are not just going one’s way, but when they no longer appear to make sense, leaving one feeling totally alienated and disoriented—“a stranger in one’s own land.” This is when matters appear totally opaque, and one reaches for the magic formula that would render them entirely transparent. A functioning democracy is one that enables and, indeed, teaches people to live with a certain level of uncertainty. This, however, supposes that they also live with a level of certainty sufficient to allow them to believe that they can work and struggle for a better future. 

“At the level of political form, populism tends to exploit democracy’s symbolic resources to the point of their possible implosion, potentially resulting in a transition towards either authoritarian forms of political rule or increasing ungovernability, even civil war.” 

Is it correct to demonize populism at all? Isn’t there any argument that populist movements truly raise? For instance, almost all populist movements claim to speak on behalf of “the people” rather than “ruling elites” and “bureaucrats,” as this argument intrigues the masses. And the record of ruling elites so far is not so promising all around the world. 

Populism supposes a crisis in political representation, which often reflects a larger, “organic crisis.” In this respect, it is a response to a failure, or a perceived failure, of the ruling elites and their policies. Populism today, both in its right and left-wing versions, is generally a response to the failures of neoliberalism and globalization. Of course, a response can be progressive or regressive. Here, I believe, one must distinguish between political content (the different policy options) and political form (which plays at the level of what I am terming “loose symbolic logics”).  

Bolivian president Evo Morales participates in the traditional Aymara New Year ceremony in Tiwanaku, Bolivia on June 21, 2019. Photo: Radoslaw Czajkowski

As populism is “thin,” it can deploy very different political contents, some of which may be progressive. The People’s Party in late nineteenth-century America prepared the way for the Progressivism of the early twentieth century; the classical Latin American populism of Peron in Argentina and Vargas in Brazil, but also of Morales and MAS in Bolivia (to take a more contemporary example) certainly improved on the oligarchical regimes that preceded them.

My argument is that, at the level of political form, populism tends to exploit democracy’s symbolic resources to the point of their possible implosion, potentially resulting in a transition towards either authoritarian forms of political rule or increasing ungovernability, even civil war. This is less likely to happen when the populist movement arises from the bottom up and retains both its internal divisions and a critical distance relative to its leaders. Such was the case with the original People’s Party and, it would seem, Bolivia’s MAS, assuming it succeeds in sidelining Evo Morales. 

“We are living in a period where the future appears in crisis.  Contemporary right-wing populist movements play on this, presenting a vague reference to a better past, with few concrete policies to confront the problems posed by the future as, to quote Hartmut Rosa, conservatives no longer believe in conservation, liberals in progress, and the left in the Revolution.”

There Are Convincing Ways to Fight Populism

A handful of scholars and a small number of NGOs that favor a free world strive to fight against rising populism despairingly. Their outreach efforts do not appear to resonate among the masses since populist movements are discrediting “elites.” Do you think a convincing way to fight populism exists?

There are, to be sure, convincing ways to fight populism, as evidenced by the fact that populist movements and governments often suffer defeat, most recently in the United States. Here I would emphasize two points. First, one needs to struggle to maintain the integrity of democratic institutions. Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the last election only failed because members of the Republican Party in key states and key positions chose to defend democracy as a set of rules and processes over the wishes of their party’s leaders. These people are presently being purged, even as the parties in Republican states are seeking to change the rules of democratic functioning. This is extremely worrying. At the same time, I realize that elections are generally not won at the level of the defense of seemingly arcane democratic norms.  

Second, one must acknowledge the failures that led to the rise of populism while offering alternative and ultimately more credible solutions. This often requires a critique of earlier policies and of those who advocated them; it may entail the rise of new parties or at least a considerable circulation of elites. We are living in a period where the future appears in crisis. Contemporary right-wing populist movements play on this, presenting a vague reference to a better past, with few concrete policies to confront the problems posed by the future as, to quote Hartmut Rosa, conservatives no longer believe in conservation, liberals in progress, and the left in the Revolution.  

Trumpism, in particular, seems to present itself as a sort of survivalism (both individual and collective) in the face of an increasingly dangerous world. The alternative must reconstruct a vision of a future, a better future, one that brings us together. The alternative must also reconstruct the institutions that enable us to feel not just that the future is being reconstructed but that we can actively contribute to that reconstruction.

You argue that the division in knowledge—I mean the differences between the “instrumental” knowledge of the representatives of people and the “substantive” knowledge held by the people—is a potential point of vulnerability for populists. What do you think is the best way to widen and make use of this division in knowledge for the fight against populism?

Nobody likes to feel that they have been hoodwinked, particularly by politicians. But some have invested more in the con than others and will find it easier to divest themselves of its more fantastic elements (which they never really believed in). However, they may still remain with the party because everyone they know identifies with the party, and they hate the alternative.

On the other hand, for those who reveled in—and felt empowered by—the con, it takes a particular inner strength to admit one was blind to what was going on. In this regard, what is happening to the right-wing militias in the aftermath of the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, is illuminating. Clearly, many now feel that they have been duped: the fantasies of QAnon proved to be just that, fantasies; the politicians in whose names they felt were acting ultimately condemned them, however ambivalently; they now feel exposed to the “deep state’s” retribution; and in the case of the Proud Boys, there are doubts about the loyalty of their leader.

As a result, some are clearly drifting away, and one can imagine that a few of these will find careers as “deprogrammers” of hate groups. However, some are reinvesting themselves in the same sorts of narratives, but without, as it were, the semblance of an official stamp of approval. In other words, they are fragmenting, moving further underground, and dreaming ever more desperately of the Great Reckoning. One can use this division in knowledge between instrumental and “substantive” forms—and between the representatives and whom they represent—to fight populism, but the results will not always be happy.

Who Is Brian C.J. Singer?

Professor Brian C. J. Singer is a Senior Scholar at Glendon College, York University in Toronto. He is the author of several books and of numerous book chapters and articles. Singer’s first book, Society, Theory and the French Revolution(1986), presents a fascinating reading of the period of the French Revolution (1789 –94) that sheds new light on the revolutionary imaginary of the period and its heritage. His most recent book, Montesquieu and the Discovery of the Social(2013) offers a new reading of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. It uncovers the multiple ways “the world’s first social theorist” defined and used “the social” and the important implications of Montesquieu’s work for our own time. This interview mentions an article of his that recently appeared in Thesis Eleven on March 9, 2021.

Celebration of the Labour Day in Prague, Czech Republic on May 1, 2017. Banner is illustrating democracy as a leaf bitten by caterpillars with names: Putin, Kaczynski, Orban, Babis, Trump, Fico. Photo: Jolanta Wojcicka

Prof. Heinisch: The end of liberal democracies is possible

Prof. Reinhard Heinisch has predicted we will likely see more illiberal democracies, which build from the top down, as in Hungary, or populist democracies, which are built from the bottom up. He has underlined that the institutions in Western Europe and the United States are strong against the populist onslaught; however, the rest of the world is prone to populism’s dangers.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading experts on populism, Prof. Reinhard Heinisch, of Salzburg University, has argued that the end of liberal democracies—or the dawn of illiberal democracies—is possible. Prof. Heinisch has predicted we will likely see more illiberal democracies, which build from the top down, as in Hungary, or populist democracies, which are built from the bottom up. Heinisch has underlined that the institutions in Western Europe and the United States are strong against the populist onslaught; however, the rest of the world is prone to populism’s dangers. “Outside Western Europe and North America, where these institutions are less well entrenched, we have seen the biggest backsliding in the quality of democracy,” he said. Prof. Heinisch also criticized European Union (EU) for not taking necessary measures in a timely manner.

The following are excerpts from our interview with Prof. Heinisch.

Why do you think Austria has been the cradle of populist and far-right parties? Is it about culture, politics, or what? 

There were two main factors: to recover from civil strife and WWII, Austria created the ultimate consensus democracy—to the point that elaborate power sharing mechanisms between the two major parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, dominated national politics for over 40 years. Their complete control of all political institutions—and even civil society—resulted in power cartelization, influence peddling, and political nepotism. This, in turn, provided the initial raison d’être for the radical-right Freedom Party to style itself as an anti-system, protest party fighting corruption.

The second factor is sociocultural: The forebearers of today’s Austrians considered themselves largely German. The experience of Nazism—and the need to distance the country from its German past—left Austrians with a highly ambivalent and insecure national identity. Often local customs, lifestyle, and widely shared sensibilities serve as superficial substitutes for a deeper understanding of what it is to be Austrian. To be a “real” Austrian often just means to like and do certain things and not others or to look and behave a certain way. Cultural outsiders and immigrants challenge these ideas and force Austrians to confront their own ambivalent identity. Political operators can effectively appeal to this sense of cultural insecurity by claiming that Austrian culture is under threat. Austrians also have a selective view of their past, often glamorizing the imperial legacy but exorcising the darker chapters. External criticism has in the past led to a rally around the flag that was exploited by populists. 

In your article with Fared Hafez, you argue that right-wing populism has changed Austria’s political approach to Islam. In what ways did these changes occur? Can you please elaborate?

Austria had very tolerant and liberal political approach to Islam going back many decades. While this was in part a consequence of Austria not having a [large] Muslim population, this also did not change once the share of guestworkers and immigrants, especially from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, substantially increased the population. Also, a number of terrorist attacks in and around Austria carried out by Middle Eastern commandos in the 70s and 80s never resulted in a discussion about Islam. Even after 9-11, this was essentially not the case. Only the radical-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) mobilized against Islam in the 1990s, opposing the construction of mosques and minarets, raising the issue of headscarves and foreign imams, and constantly associating Muslims with terrorism and the subversion of Christian civilization. Gradually this language was picked up—especially by the Christian Democrats, who adopted an anti-Islamic discourse and aim to pass new legislation directed against what they call “political Islam.” Under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the Christian Democrats moved substantially to the right in an effort to steal voters away from the Freedom Party.

Islam has been one of Austria’s official religions since 1912, yet it is so alien. What is the correlation between the rise of populism and Islamophobia?

Islam is the third largest religion in Austria, ahead of Protestantism, and the fastest growing. In Vienna’s largest district, the name Mohammed was the most popular name for a baby-boy in 2020. In general, the Austrian [Muslims] population has grown substantially in recent decades (by about 20%) resulting in sizable increases of both foreign residents (18.5%) and Austrians with an immigrant background—for Vienna, this percentage is 34%. 

Activists of the identitarian movement Austria block the access-road to the border from Hungary to Austria at Nickelsdorf on October 17, 2015. Photo: Johanna Poetsch

Immigration and asylum also mean increases in the Muslim population, which is now 8% of the total population but highly concentrated in certain areas. At the same time, we have seen a general decline of traditional Austrian religions, which has prompted traditionalists and the radical right to frame the issue of immigration and asylum as a battle for national identity and culture. The extent to which populism is an ideology framing politics as an antagonism between corrupt elites and dangerous outsiders on one hand and the virtuous people of the heartland on the other, allows populists to score political points by portraying Muslims as the “cultural other” who pose a threat to the “heartland,” whose identity and way of life is in need of defending. Immigrants—especially from outside Europe–are the most palpable sign of global change in everyday life and can be easily framed as a danger and scapegoated by populists, whether in Austria or in the US of Donald Trump.

Francis Fukuyama in his famous article The End of the History claimed that liberal democracy had won, and it [liberal democracy] would spread all over the world. Yet today we see a surge of populism and populist parties. What went wrong? Why are illiberal democracies gaining ground, in particular in Central Europe?

Like all complex developments, this one is multicausal and represents a confluence of developments. First and foremost, there is a loss of political legitimacy of established institutions and parties who have committed failures of representation. A growing number of people have the sense that vital decisions affecting their daily lives are made by unaccountable elites in far off capitals, in opaque international institutions and trade organizations, in Brussels or some boardroom. These policies may in and of themselves be efficient, rational, and in the long-run economically beneficial, but for countless people the consequences are disruptive, divisive, and feel at best technocratic. 

Second, globalization and the spread of sociocultural liberalism resulted in traditionalist and parochial backlashes. We may not necessarily agree with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, but most of us clearly underestimated the ability of political actors to mobilize on the basis of identity and construct identity narratives. 

The third cause is technical in the sense that new forms of electronic communication and the internet have resulted not only in competition at a global level but also in raising both expectations and fears. Whereas the former may induce merely discontentment or a willingness to migrate, the other breeds resentment. In times of change that induce distress and pressures to adjust, people crave stability and a return to the status quo. This is when authoritarians and populists can excel by promising order and thus a modicum of protection and safety. Populists are change agents who promise that in the future, the present will be more like the past, a familiar place where the community was whole, and everyone had their place—Make America Great AGAIN. In Eastern Europe, the return to a rose-coloured past is precluded by the negative historical experience, so populists construct an imagined and idealized national destiny, be this a hyper Catholic Poland or an ultraconservative and authoritarian Hungary that has moved past its Trianon trauma.

The integration of economies and the creation of large markets created new forms of competition and winner and losers…

Yes, this is an important aspect in global or integrated markets: the economic winners can uncouple themselves from the local economic losers. As a result, the experience of two groups within the same political system become detached from each other. In Austria, wages—especially of male workers in certain blue-collar jobs—have experienced significant stagnation. As such, they [blue-collar male workers] become susceptible to populist politicians scapegoating immigrants and purportedly uncaring elites. In Austria, the radical-right, populist Freedom Party has been the dominant blue-collar party going back to the late 1990s.

Looking at the huge surge of populist leaders all over the world, shall we start talking about “the end of liberal democracy” and the “dawning of illiberal ones”?

I think both are possible, and we are likely to see further increases either in illiberal democracy from the top (cf. Hungary) or populist democracy from below (unchecked majoritarian dictates through clever mass mobilization). However, as we saw in the US and also in Austria when populists were in government (2017-19), in long established democracies, institutions are quite durable and sticky. Despite Trump’s best efforts, he was unable to bend election officials, the courts, and the media to his wishes. It is the institutions of liberal democracies and the roles of individuals therein that give me confidence in the durability of democracy. Outside Western Europe and North America, where these institutions are less well entrenched, we have seen the biggest backsliding in the quality of democracy. 

Facing a huge boom of populism, do you think the European Union has taken necessary steps to counter it? Fidesz has left the EPP only yesterday!

Clearly no! Democratic institutions are not set up to fight democratically supported parties and groups operating from within democracy. This is what makes populism both so effective and dangerous in that it plays within the rules of democracy. Populists are responsive but not responsible actors; however, democracy generally rewards responsiveness more than responsible action. The EU especially often acts responsibly by being measured, deliberate, and bringing in diverse interests but this is precisely what gives it a bad reputation in the eyes of those who see only their own interests, favour quick but simple solutions and focus on headlines and messages.

In the cases of Hungary and Poland, there was a clear failure of imagination on the part of the EU. Brussels and the member states would have had to take actions much sooner and much more decisively. They would have had to imagine effective mechanisms that work even if more than one-member state decides not to play by the rules and that result in automatically suspending the offending member countries. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived action by EU member states against Austria in 2000 because of its inclusion of the radical right in the government backfired badly and spooked the EU later, when forceful action would have been warranted.

Nested dolls depicting world autocrats Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Recep Erdogan on the counter of souvenirs in Moscow

Populists usually and inevitably fail because they do not know how to govern. However, there are some populist leaders—like Erdogan, Orban, and Putin—who have kept power for a long time. How can their long stay in power be explained

This thesis of success in opposition and failure in government, which is the title of my most frequently cited article, needs to be qualified. There is something in the DNA of populists that makes them a poor match for running governments because populists are fundamentally voter-seeking in their strategy; thus, their operation and organization, their candidate selection and campaigning, is geared toward maximizing votes. This means they simplify and overpromise and ignore policy talent and policy expertise in favour of popularity and charisma. This catches up with them in government.

However, this is mainly a problem when populists need to interact in government with non-populists, such as in coalitions with mainstream parties (Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, etc.) or with strong democratic institutions (the US). There, populists either fail or are sufficiently tamed/mainstreamed that they have little lasting effect. However, where they end up in complete control of government and where institutions are weak, they are able to dominate the discourse and reframe the issues, engage in conspiracy theories, and explain away their own failures as the result of the machinations of “fake news media” (Trump) and “corrupt elites” (think of Orban’s campaign against George Soros). This is why successful populists try to change the rules (election laws, the constitution, the composition of high courts) to give themselves more control. Orban, Kaczynski, Erdogan, and Putin are each in their own way good examples. Trump was trying hard to do likewise but failed this time.

What will replace eventually failed authoritarian populists? Liberal democracies or harder dictatorships?

This is hard to say. Social scientists are not good at predicting the future as we do not have hard data on what will come next. Even successful authoritarians such as Erdogan, Putin, or Orban differ from a more totalitarian system like China in that power in the former is highly personalized. Take the person out, what happens? These are all not young men (Trump included). While the formula for power is clear, it is still not easily transferrable because in each case leaders also require personal attributes that make them successful—successful populist leaders were each able to convert certain personal abilities and strengths into political power, and they will each leave a certain vacuum that may result in wars of the Diadochi. Venezuela, with the transfer of power from Chavez to Maduro, is the most successful example. Personalized power that is neither dynastic nor based on a police-state like structure is hard to preserve when leadership changes. We would expect that after the leader’s demise, these systems will revert to flawed liberal democracies prone to seeking populist answers to political problems when needed, so that at some point the cycle may start again.

Are there any tested successful ways to fight against populist leaders and populist movements? Will they keep gaining ground? 

As argued above, my answer revolves around liberal institutions. I know this is unpopular, because these days it is all about grassroots activism and mobilization against political evils, and people often do not trust institutions. But my concern is that mobilization can go in different directions, and, of late, we have seen a lot of mobilization against Coronavirus measures where neo-Nazis, populists, people waving rainbow flags, and leftists were all marching in lockstep. Conspiracy theories come in all stripes, and people who are convinced that they are right and need to do what they need to do to save the planet or save something will ride roughshod over those standing in their way. Strengthening liberal institutions is an important antidote by providing sufficient funding for courts, prosecutors, and the justice system, for shoring up media independence and investigative platforms, for training civil servants, for supporting NGOs and watchdog groups, for strengthening parliaments to increase staff and boost the policy expertise of MPs, to fortify election systems and enhance the democratic accountability of social media platforms. Politically, we know that a so-called cordon sanitaire—that is the ostracization of populist actors—has worked to weaken their policy influence (e.g., the Vlaams Belang in Belgium) whereas adopting populist policy positions by mainstream parties may strengthen populists in the long run because it legitimizes these positions. As populism is a multicausal phenomenon, the answer is also multicausal—there are no silver bullets.

Some argue that populism has, to a certain extent, a democratizing aspect in terms of increasing democratic participation. Do you agree? When do you think populist parties/actors start to pose a danger to democratic values?

There is good empirical work on this by two of my former students, Robert Huber and Christian Schimpf, who have shown that in opposition, populism can have a democratizing effect by bringing into the political arena new or politically marginalized groups (this was especially the case in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc.). Populists also successfully draw the spotlight onto existing problems and democratic corruption (Austria, Italy, France) or on policies that were quite unpopular but hard to change within the existing political system (Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, etc.). There are also scholars who persuasively argue that politics and political systems require conflict and choices between opposites and that in late capitalist liberal democracies, all this has vanished. By reintroducing conflict into the political system, populism serves a purpose. However, we have also seen that once in government, especially when they are not controlled by checks and balances, democratic quality suffers, and corruption goes up substantially. So, if populists gain too much power, they do pose a danger to democratic values, which was clearly on display in the US following the relentless campaign to overthrow the outcome of the last election and culminating in the storming of the US Capitol.

Who is Reinhard C. Heinisch

Reinhard Heinisch is Professor of Comparative Austrian politics and also Head of the Department of Austrian Politics in Comparative Perspective at Salzburg University. His main research interests are comparative populism, Euroscepticism, and democracy.

He is the author or co-author of numerous publications including Understanding Populist Organization: The West European Radical Right (Palgrave 2016), Political Populism; A Handbook (Nomos/Bloomsbury 2017) and Populism, Proporz and Pariah: Austria Turns Right (Nova Science 2002). Other publication appeared in West European Politics, Democratization, Comparative European Politics, and others. He is currently co-editor of a special issue of Comparative European Politics on Populism and Territory as well as contracted for a book with Routledge on the same subject.

 

The post-technology dystopia/utopia of series such as Tribes of Europa appeals to purity impulses that may be heightened in the age of COVID-19, when “somehow people feel that their societies now are unsafe for them” and this anxiety can fuel “regressive populist movements”.

Everybody Wants to Be ‘Origines’: Nativism, Neo-pagan Appropriation, and Ecofascism*

This paper explores the tensions that emerge in neo-pagan media and practices, when they appeal not only to far-right enthusiasts but also to those with a left-leaning, environmentalist bent. New Age appropriation of Indigenous cultures and the anti-human temptations of ecofascism further complicate the picture. Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods.

By Heidi Hart

Introduction: Primeval Streaming

In the Netflix series Tribes of Europa, a group of post-apocalyptic survivors has retreated to the forest, where they live “happily” and “in harmony with nature,” to quote the opening voiceover (Netflix, 2021). These “Origines” live protected, or so they think, from the other tribes warring over the former European territories, decimated by an unexplained global and technological meltdown in 2029. The sudden crash of a drone-like object in the forest drives the series’ central conflict, resulting in heavy bloodshed between the Origines and rival tribes. 

The Origines call their forest home “Refugium,” fear another tribe called “Crows” (a name that would carry obvious racist overtones in the US), and utter lines such as “We are the voices of the forest, the blood of the earth, and the breath of the wind.” These lines ring painfully close to Blut und Boden Nazi rhetoric. The Origines’ unironic use of the word “Heimat” is also problematic, in light of the Nazi fetishization of that term, for all the critical cultural work around it in the decades of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or reckoning with the past, in Germany (Krug, 2018). In one of the opening scenes, the young protagonists’ dancing to a contemporary indie rap song gives a sense of forgetfulness of that past, as does the series’ Game of Thrones-like aesthetic of violence and torture (see Gjelsvik and Schubart, 2016)

According to series creator Philip Koch, the “shock” of Brexit led him to develop this dystopian-utopian fantasy (Scott, 2021), with its “ruin porn” (Riley, 2017) of abandoned concrete structures and geodesic dwellings in the woods. The idea of a destroyed European Union certainly haunts the series, but on a deeper level, it echoes back-to-nature fascinations on both the political right and left, especially in a time of ecological collapse. The nativist idea of retreating to one’s roots, to an imagined state of Indigeneity, or to an impossibly “virgin” wilderness (see Solnit, 1994: 52) may seem like a 1970s hippie fantasy and is certainly nothing new, but it has gained traction as ecological anxiety and COVID-driven outdoor adventurism have led more privileged humans to bake sourdough, take to the road in converted vans (Anderson, 2020), and watch screen fantasies of a simpler life in the woods. 

This paper explores the tensions that emerge in neo-pagan media and practices, when they appeal not only to far-right enthusiasts but also to those with a left-leaning, environmentalist bent. New Age appropriation of Indigenous cultures and the anti-human temptations of ecofascism further complicate the picture. Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods. 

The Real Barbarians?

COVID-era Netflix offers another pagan fantasia to viewers more or less confined indoors. Like Tribes of EuropaBarbarians is informed by Game of Thrones and the recent explosion of “Viking TV.” This series also valorizes forest-dwelling as Heimat and, in its real-life historical setting, portrays the Romans as vicious colonialists who not only demand unreasonable tributes from their Germanic neighbors but behead and crucify them as well. Blonde tribal teens appear as innocent, playful, and fierce when necessary. They joke about human sacrifice and fear the wolves on the outskirts of the forest, a repeated motif that comes uncomfortably close to contemporary anti-immigrant rhetoric blaming the “wolf” of fairy-tale infamy in Germany (Bennhold, 2019). A key moment occurs when the young heroine Thusnelda takes the heraldic eagle from the Romans, making it a tribal icon – with its inevitable future on the German flag. 

The invading Romans come across as the “true” barbarians here, fitting paradoxically into liberal, post-colonial critique as much as they do into nativist, pro-Germanic narrative. Meanwhile, the series’ torchlit ceremonies and marches recall atavistic Nazi aesthetics, as does its “primeval forest” or “Urwald” setting, not far from that of the 1936 propaganda film Ewiger Wald, or Eternal Forest, which has found a new generation of fans on white supremacist websites. Both that film and the Netflix series focus on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, a weighty historical moment for the German far right (see Winkler, 2015). Though Barbarians writer Arne Nolting claims that part of the series’ goal is to reclaim this material, Teutoburg Forest remains a pilgrimage site, and the battle that took place there is “an ideological rallying point” for white supremacists (Rogers, 2020). German Studies scholars have expressed concern, via social media threads (see Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum, 28 October 2020), that this series also promotes essentialist thinking and toxic masculinity. 

Some neo-pagans claim that, although their Germanic ancestors (literal or figurative) may have beaten back the Romans in 9 A.D., they have long been a “conquered people” (Lindenschmidt, 2015) under Christianity, and their practices constitute anti-colonial resistance. Combined with the idea that “when they destroyed paganism, Christians made exploiting nature possible” (Kaplan, 2016: 27), a Romantic inheritance with appeal to the ecologically conscious left, especially in light of many evangelical Christians’ support of Trump in the US, neo-paganism’s ideological tangle remains complex. 

Martin Heidegger.

Roots and Purity

Concepts of ancestral “roots” and “unspoiled” countryside have a long and tangled history, too, especially in German culture, and not just because of these ideas’ appeal in stereotypically xenophobic, rural communities. The still-influential philosopher Martin Heidegger, an unapologetic member of the Nazi party, extended his love of the literal forest to ideas of rootedness in language and existence itself, “not simply a rootedness in the soil, in the past, or in the tradition from which one ‘views’ the world” but “something concealed, mysterious, and chthonic whose meaning lies hidden beneath the surface of the earth” and that validates the “destiny of a Volk” (Bambach, 2003: 19). His quasi-poetic wordplay shows a fascination with etymology as a depth-seeking practice: where is a German word’s most profound origin, and what does that mean for a nativist sense of identity? In his 1951 “Bauen Wohnen Denken,” Heidegger traces the German verb “bauen” (“build”) vertically back to the Old High German (and Old English) “buan,” or “to dwell in one place;” he then relates this word horizontally to “ich bin” (“I am”), linking dwelling with Being itself (Heidegger, 1977: 324-325).

This close link between home and existence, and the fascination with what lies underneath the ground, continues to surface in German literature and film, and not always with ill-considered tribal forest scenes. For example, novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s critically sensitive take on the Heimat problem, Heimsuchung (Visitation or Haunting, 2008), treats historical trauma in a way that reverberates in one piece of land over centuries, with particular attention to the years during and after the Second World War (Goodbody, 2016). The philosophically informed and ecologically terrifying Netflix series Dark invites viewers to ask why a cave in the woods can have such a strong pull, and how much damage humans can do to each other once inside it. 

One writer responding directly to the toxic aspects of Heidegger’s nature-driven thought is Elfriede Jelinek, best known for her unsparing critiques of Austrian “whipped cream” culture and the violence it sugarcoats, for example in her novel Die Klavierspielerin or The Piano Teacher (Hanssen, 1996). Jelinek’s 1991 spoken-text play Totenauberg (its title a play on the name of Heidegger’s Black Forest cabin) includes an “old man” character (Heidegger) and a “middle-aged woman,” meant to stand for Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who was Heidegger’s sometime lover and, in what gave their relationship an excruciating twist, a Jewish antifascist who, with her teacher Karl Jaspers, coined the term “banality of evil” when writing about the Nuremberg trials (Diner and Bashaw, 1997).

Totenauberg is not just a dialogue between these two historical figures, though, as Jelinek also includes skiers and other performance athletes, some hunters and men in Tracht (traditional Bavarian dress), and even a few cheerleaders. As the “old man” laments that nature has simply become an image for those who consume it (in a statement foretelling today’s outdoor selfie culture), the other nature enthusiasts lay their claims to “authentic” enjoyment of the woods and mountains (see Jelinek, 1991: 25). This text shows, uncomfortably, how outdoor recreation can be as much about ego as eco-awareness, and how concerns about the purity of that enjoyment cross conventional political lines. 

Mad vikings warriors in the attack, running along the shore with Drakkar on the background.

Current Nativist Tensions

In our present moment, the appeal of purity culture across the political spectrum (from the vegetarian “QAnon shaman” who helped to storm the US Capitol to left-leaning consumers of organic-only foods), can lead to a strange nexus of virtue and violence, onscreen or otherwise. Adherents of “conspirituality,” a blend of New Age beliefs and conspiracy thinking, include anti-vaxxers on the right and left as well. The post-technology dystopia/utopia of series such as Tribes of Europa appeals to purity impulses that may be heightened in the age of COVID-19, when “somehow people feel that their societies now are unsafe for them” and this anxiety can fuel “regressive populist movements” (Richards, in Haslam, 2021: 8).  

Recently in North Carolina, a group belonging to what the Southern Poverty Law Center has termed “the neo-Völkisch hate scene” (Ball, 2021) purchased a church building, causing anxiety and pain for their Black neighbors. Claims of “ennobling” pagan practices rooted in white European heritage, along with an ideology of “healthy, active lifestyles” and rules about racial purity (Ball, 2021) are painfully familiar in a part of the US that is deeply split about reckoning (or not) with its own racist past. Fans of Wiccan culture and “Viking rock” bands such as Wardruna may argue that neo-pagan fascinations are not in themselves dangerous, but the agendas of groups like North Carolina’s Asatru Folk Assembly (Ball, 2021) show how thorny such attractions can be.  

In Norway, a recent self-examination by a Viking re-enactment blogger has caused intense debate. After years of cultivating craft skills and appreciation of pre-Christian culture in Scandinavia, Ingrid Falch found herself implicated a few too many times in right-wing propaganda. “Unfortunately,” she writes, “blood and swords sell more tickets than cooking and spinning wool. Better keep it speculative, cheap and easy – reproducing the stereotypes making sure that ‘most people’ won’t see the difference between you and the Q-shaman” (Falch, 2021). For all the efforts to puncture too-earnest Norse aesthetics with humor, as in the Norwegian TV series Norsemen and Ragnarok, this “beast I can’t control” has led Falch to leave the re-enactment community. The resulting online repercussions have been brutal at times, often reinforcing ideas of white supremacy and misogyny associated with neo-pagan culture (Falch, 2021). 

Collapsing beds situation for Corona Virus patients. Medical staff work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for COVID-19 multiple patients inside a special hospital in Bergamo, on November 11, 2020.

Problems of Appropriation

What about Indigenous fantasies relating to cultures not one’s own? In the US, wealthy suburbanites have been purchasing Dances with Wolves-style tipis ever since that film appeared in 1990. A recent manifestation of this trend is the use of traditional tipis as “après ski” pods for COVID distancing (see Compass Rose, 2021), which often leads to exactly the opposite effect, as libertarian business owners make free with Native traditions for entertainment. On the other end of the political spectrum, shamanic training groups, Vision Quest trips, and festivals such as Burning Man have long attracted educated, left-leaning whites (Aldred, 2000). “White guilt” over several centuries of Native genocide and oppression may contribute to this phenomenon, but much of the attraction seems to be toward spiritual nourishment in an age when religion is often associated with right-wing politics (Olomi, 2019).

In Germany, a generation raised on Karl May’s Western adventure novels has contributed to ongoing romanticization of Native American culture (Schumacher, 2020) that may seem innocent of right-wing politics but fosters damaging stereotypes. In addition, what many “Indian hobbyists” in Germany may not know is that Nazi researchers studied US discriminatory policy toward Native peoples in order to hone the 1935 Nuremberg Laws (Miller, 2019). Meanwhile in southern Sweden, Wild West fascinations have become more complicated, as a theme park called High Chaparral became a camp for 500 Syrian refugees in 2015 (Loewinger, 2017).

White appropriation of Native symbols and rituals is of course different from European seeking of ancestral “roots” in the primeval woods, but it is equally problematic. A drum circle intended for specific cultural or medicinal purposes, for example, can become an excuse for vague trance-like experiences when used in a New Age setting, and shows disrespect to the very Indigenous practices it takes as inspiration (Johnson, 2020). Adrienne Keene of the Native Appropriations project has created an open call for Indigenous voices to address this issue, with additional attention to cultural practices in the COVID era and in relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement (Keene, 2020). As Mark Rogers has put it, “Everyone wants to be an Indian, but nobody wants to be an Indian,” referring to Paul Mooney’s comment about “everyone want[ing] to be Black” without the “experience of being part of that culture” (Rogers, 2014, 2018).  

Debate is ongoing in the US about sports team mascots named for Native peoples, or using racist nicknames (National Congress for American Indians, n.d.); traditional clothing imitated in fashion, such as feathered headdresses (Wood, 2017); stereotypes in Hollywood films, from Pocahontas to one-dimensional warrior figures (Little, 2021); appropriations in the classical music world, as in quoting or imitating traditional songs stripped of their cultural purpose (Davids, 2019); and academic writing about Indigenous topics without consulting those who know them best, an issue of concern outside the US as well (Arbon, ed., 2010). With the regenerative agriculture movement gaining traction around the world, Indigenous voices are also speaking up about the need to give credit for soil restoration practices where it is due, and to reconsider value systems driven more by “commodification” than by the land itself (Mangan, 2021).

Ecofascism and “Avocado Politics”

To return to the problem of purity culture, back-to-nature advocates across the political spectrum often cite a wish for “unspoiled” wilderness (Cross, 2018), meaning outdoor spaces free of others except themselves. Especially in the age of COVID, this wish has resulted in what is now termed “wreckreation” in the American West (Wilkinson, 2020), with overcrowding and trash becoming increasingly problematic, though the political stakes for public lands protection are very real (Hart and Soyer, 2021). As an avid hiker in the mountains where I live, I admit to getting up at 5 a.m. to walk my favorite trails without the noisy, selfie-obsessed crowds I have come to resent – and this reminds me, uncomfortably, of Heidegger’s comment in Elfriede Jelinek’s play, about his own resentment of nature becoming only an image. I have felt smug triumph when reading about quieting oceans during the pandemic, and I have laughed at recycled satire about overpopulation and climate destruction (The Onion, 2011)

In a more innocent time, I might have been a deep ecology adherent, following the ideas of Arne Næss about the natural world as more than “natural resources” and about the need to acknowledge human-nonhuman interconnectedness. These ideas do in fact permeate most ecological discourse in academia, with reference to Donna Haraway’s metaphor of tentacle-like entanglements among species. While I draw on this thinking in my own work in the environmental humanities, I am also aware of the dangers of wishing for a post-human utopia, however tempting the overgrown cities Alan Weisman evoked in his 2007 book The World Without Us. For all my own selfish wishes to have a mountain trail to myself, my long study of Nazi nature-cult thinking has made me wary of ideologies that promote purity and idealistic “harmony with nature.”

Ecofascism, the belief not only in racial but also in environmental purity, posits that the world really would be better off without us – or at least without the darker-skinned climate refugees a warming planet will increasingly push out of their homes. This nexus of ecological and racial purity, an ideology that also fosters “deep” connections with the natural world, complicates conservationist thinking, as young activists are discovering amid the hype surrounding COVID-era planetary recuperation (Newton, 2020). What this ideology ignores, too, is that the first wave of climate refugees is the wealthy, who can afford to flee the California wildfires or rising coastlines in Florida (Bakkalapulo, 2018), and as “climate gentrification” (Hu, 2020) pushes marginalized people further away from affordable housing.

Though many deep ecologists disavow far-right, eugenics-driven thinking about population reduction for the planet’s sake (Drengson, n.d.), that movement’s tendency toward oversimplified ideas of purity, depth, and harmony has contributed to ecofascism insofar as it ignores political misuses of “nature” in the past century. Murray Bookchin (1999: 203) expresses it this way: “Vital as the idea of “interconnectedness” may be to our views, it has historically often been the basis of myths and supernatural beliefs that became means for social control and political manipulation.”

Likewise, immersive ecological artworks and “primeval TV” series such as Tribes of Europa can promote a feel-good sense of environmental connection, rather than encouraging activism that takes environmental racism into account, too. 

Over the past decade, ecofascism has become a draw in far-right recruitment, linking deep-ecology ideas of humans as “parasites” with its own anti-immigrant sentiment (Lamoureaux, 2020). White supremacist shooters from Christchurch to El Paso have also identified as ecofascists (Lawrence, 2019). In Austria, “avocado politics,” in which brownshirt ideology hides in green political agendas (Gilman, 2020), has led to an unlikely alignment between the center-right People’s Party and the Greens. Austrian agitator Elfriede Jelinek’s work seems as urgent as ever, with its uncomfortably close-to-home portrayals of right-wing immigration policies (Dege, 2016). Her Heidegger- and purity-culture critique Totenauberg would be a timely piece to revisit as well.

Conclusion: Contamination, Curiosity, and Reciprocity

While back-to-nature idealism can certainly foster environmental care, it has a dangerous side, too. Narratives such as the currently popular series Tribes of Europa and Barbarians promote a nativist vision of paganism that veers close to the “blood and soil” ideology of Nazism. Purity culture in eating and recreating, along with the seeking of “unspoiled” nature, however understandable, can feed this ideology across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, appropriating Indigenous cultural practices works as a wishful-thinking kind of nativism that bypasses the real experiences of Native peoples who have suffered oppression and genocide. And as deep-ecology values spill over into ecofascism, this form of environmental activism becomes not only anti-immigrant but also anti-human.

How to untangle the toxic threads that have found their way into ecological consciousness, from Martin Heidegger’s nativist philosophy of “rootedness” to today’s Viking re-enactment controversies? One approach is to allow for what some environmental artists call “contamination,” the practice of refusing purity in one’s work in order to accept that the planet is irrevocably compromised and, at the same time, to salvage what is left. Some artists work intentionally with waste and pollution, as in John Sabraw’s work creating pigments from contaminated streams in the UK (Surugue, 2019), while others, as in the Parallel Effect group’s recent Vigil for the Smooth Handfish, work with rituals for grieving a planet already in collapse (Audrey Journal, 2020).

In more practical terms, many conservationists are becoming less focused on restoring an “ideal” state of nature and more concerned with managing the messes that already exist. Emma Marris’ book Rambunctious Gardens (2011) has won an enthusiastic following but has created controversy, too, as it goes against conventional wisdom about removing non-native, invasive plant species. At the same time, Marris outlines concrete practices for rewilding and assisted migration, such as building wildlife bridges over highways. Climate adaptation thinking has its dangers, too, in terms of normalizing catastrophe; as Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright (2018: 71) have noted, “simply to claim that ‘society must adapt’ is to represent social responses to climate change […] in a way that makes these adaptations seem natural and functional.” That said, the crisis at hand does not allow the luxury of wishing for a pristine future based on an imagined, “harmony with nature” past. 

An ethos of planetary care that does not fall into nativist or purity thinking requires critical evaluation of environmental media (even in the form of Netflix entertainment!) and of one’s own attitudes (the wish to have the forest to oneself, for example). One aid in this can be learning about Indigenous approaches to land and culture without disrespectful appropriation. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), written from her dual perspective as a botanist and as an Indigenous woman learning about her own heritage, has become a guide for environmental thinking that views other species as kin but does not sentimentalize those relationships. Curiosity and humility are key, so that humans can ask, “Who are you?” instead of “What is it?” (Kimmerer, 2013: 42) and can appreciate what we see and hear without needing to own it (see Robinson, 2020).  

In many Indigenous cultures, reciprocity is also essential to co-regulation with the land. One way to express this is to ask for consent before entering a forest, logging it, or building a home there, a practice Native communities in the US are now asking others to honor, especially as oil and gas interests threaten traditional lands (Danesh and McPhee, 2019). In more personal terms, reciprocity can be a form of gratitude. As Kimmerer puts it, “What could I give these plants in return for their generosity? It could be a direct response, like weeding or water … Or indirect, like donating to my local land trust so that more habitat for the gift givers will be saved” (Kimmerer, 2020). If nativism is a kind of narcissism, critical curiosity and reciprocity can break the mirror we humans seem to want to project everywhere, and so that we can see the world around us as a subject, not the object of our deep, dark forest dreams. 

(*) This article follows up on topics of neo-paganism in the Feb. 3 commentary “Music and the Far-Right Trance,”calling critical attention to nativist themes in entertainment media, problems of cultural appropriation, and ecofascist strains in environmental activism. 

References

Bambach, Charles. (2003). Heidegger’s Roots: Nietzsche, National Socialism, and the Greeks. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Biel, Janet. (1999). The Murray Bookchin Reader. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Erpenbeck, Jenny. (2007). Heimsuchung. Frankfurt a. M.: Eichborn, 2007.

Gjelsvik, Anne and Rikke Schubart. Editors. (2016). Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones, and Multiple Media Engagements. London: Bloomsbury.

Heidegger, Martin. (1977). Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper & Row.

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1991). Totenauberg. Hamburg: Rowohlt. 

Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Mann, Geoff and Joel Wainwright. (2018). Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. London: Verso.

Marris, Emma. (2013). Rambunctious Gardens: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. London: Bloomsbury. 

Richards, Barry. (2021). “Leaders.” In: S. Alexander Haslam, Editor, Psychological Insights for Understanding Covid-19 and Health. London and New York: Routledge.

Robison, Dylan. (2020). Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Solnit, Rebecca. (1994). Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape of the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press.Winkler, Martin M. (2015). Arminius the Liberator: Myth and Ideology. Oxford: Oxford 

Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras gives press conference of 81st Thessaloniki International Fair in Thessaloniki, Greece on Sept. 11, 2016. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

Anatomy of a Populist Speech

Abstract

In January 2021, two party leaders in the Greek parliament debated the government’s handling of the Covid-19 epidemic. This made possible a detailed analysis of the populist argumentations of one of the speakers. His basic method was the repeated use of arguments that were “true” but irrelevant to the matter at hand. Other “methods” were accusations made out of context, mixing up issues, deriving generalities based on singular cases, ignoring certain aspects, and making unfounded insinuations. Analysis of these discursive aspects contributes to our understanding of populist discourses.

Keywords: Populism, demagogy, populist discourse, discourse analysis

By Hercules Millas

Usually, one feels that one is confronting populism when one hears a particular kind of discourse. There is a palpable sense of deceit and demagoguery. In this article, I will try to show that populist argumentation is basically composed of a “plethora of irrelevant true arguments,” even though it may or may not include other methods such as lying, silencing, and the like.[1]

The opportunity to study a populist speech in detail was given to me when I listened to a debate in the Greek parliament between Prime Minister Kostas Mitsotakis and the leader of the main opposition party, Alexis Tsipras. Mitsotakis leads the New Democracy Party, and Tsipras heads Syriza (united left and environmentalists). The debate took place on 15 January 2021 and on the topic of the Greek government’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic and its performance in addressing the crisis. My study focuses just on the debate between the two leaders, excluding the arguments advanced by other political parties in the Greek parliament.

Mitsotakis presented graphs and statistics showing Greece’s performance in handling the Covid crisis relative to other European countries. The comparative approach demonstrated that Greece had been relatively successful in coping with the pandemic, at least until the day of the debate. I was curious to hear the opposition’s counter-arguments. I tried to put myself in Tsipras’ shoes. It occurred to me that the opposition leader had two alternatives, either to acknowledge the government’s positive performance or to claim the opposite. Tsipras had little choice but to pursue the latter, given any opposition leader is “compelled” to hold the government to account. Thus, Tsipras’ only option seemed to be a refutation of the argument of Mitsotakis by all means.

I foresaw a populist counterattack and decided to take notes of the arguments. Later, I found the complete debate on the parliamentary website, and I transcribed it.[2] I had ample time to carefully examine the arguments and the counter-arguments and decipher Mitsotakis’ and Tsipras’ “methods.” The leaders spoke five times in total. After an initial speech from the prime minister, all the other party leaders presented their views; a second round followed, with Mitsotakis assuming the final right of reply. Mitsotakis spoke for a total of 89 minutes and Tsipras a total of 94 minutes.

I summarize Tsipras’ argumentation—which I will discuss in further detail below—as follows:

  1. He mentioned many “truths”—that is to say, situations and evaluations that nobody can deny or oppose. Usually, this kind of argument is known as “truism.”
  2. He shrewdly used his body language (and style of address) to support his arguments.
  3. He repeated the same accusative and pejorative characterizations against Mitsotakis.
  4. He “returned serve” to accusations launched at him to get even.
  5. He condemned successful government initiatives as failures on the ground that they could have been “even better.”
  6. He used the technique of irony, insinuation, silencing, and arbitrary, debatable views as valid assumptions.
  7. He asserted general conclusions based on isolated singular events.
  8. He associated unrelated situations to reach conclusions.

1 – Mentioning various self-evident “truths”

This tactic composed the basis of Tsipras’ argumentation. The truisms had nothing to do with the agenda of the debate — namely, the policies vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic that were followed (or ought to have been followed) by the government and their consequences. The first big part of his speech included the following: “We experience a pandemic… the Greeks are facing problems … we should be showing solidarity… the politicians are usually hypocritical and express extreme views … citizens lives should be the main concern of everybody … we should help those who are fighting on the front-line of the epidemic … one should learn from one’s mistakes… we should face reality … tomorrow looks problematic … all of us should do something about the situation… ideological prejudices may result in death …”

Tsipras elaborated at length each of these logical, self-evident, and widely-accepted arguments, but they were not supported by corresponding examples of government action (or inaction). These truisms could have been voiced by any politician, in any country, and under any circumstances. Nobody could object to these comments. Why then did Tsipras voice them?

The answer is that they proved useful since populism is addressed to the sentiments of the listeners. The citizens who follow a debate pursued in this manner and are short of critical thinking see and listen to a person who is clearly espousing some basic, sound principles; they feel that they share the same principles with him. They see somebody who thinks like them and who has the same sensitivities. He is for the needy; he sees the same social problems, and so on.

That the other side does not speak in the same way or repeat the self-understood realities is usually interpreted as indicating a lack of “sensitivity” and an inability to act accordingly. In this sense, populist argumentation is very effective. Probably, the strongest point of this discourse is that its refutation is impossible simply because all arguments are true—they are, in fact, truisms.

During the rest of his speech, Tsipras adopted this approach many times, re-iterating a similar set of “arguments,” “proposals,” “warnings,” and “advice”: “One should accept and learn from one’s mistakes … due to the lockdown, retailers are facing problems … the timing of an action is important … delays have a price … many of our compatriots are dying … vaccines should belong to the people … we should face reality … one should not be pedantic … one should take the initiative… we should discuss the issues between us … vaccines save lives … the economy faces problems … people are losing their jobs.”

 2 – Body language and style of address

The shrewd use of body language while speaking is not unique to populism and is, in fact, a common feature of all rhetorical debate. Yet, since populist conclusions are not related to inductive reasoning but to emotional insinuations, the body language and the style of the orator are of particular importance. All politicians have this in mind, and they pay attention, not so much to the consistency and sense of their arguments, but to the appearance of the speaker—his posture, his self-confident style vis-à-vis his opponent, and so on.

Tsipras often appeared as being ready to compromise and to come to terms with Mitsotakis for the sake of the common good while simultaneously accusing Mitsotakis of ill-will to the point of insult, as I show below. Tsipras also often appeared shocked and exasperated with Mitsotakis’ policies and actions. A couple of times, when Tsipras referred to well-known numbers, facts, and examples, he declared, “these are not my numbers, not my sayings, but yours; they are numbers from independent agencies… This is not something that I say; scientists all around the world are saying it … It is not us who say that, but the media worldwide.” This is all redundant as it could hardly be otherwise. Facts, data, and statistics cannot be “somebody’s” —they have to be from a reliable source. It suffices to mention the source. Utterances of the kind “these are not my numbers but of the X source” is an unnecessary, excessive emphasis that seeks to create a favorable impression on the unsophisticated listener.

3 – Repeated pejorative characterizations

Many derogatory accusations against Mitsotakis accompanied Tsipras’ speech. The following phrases were used as general characterizations: that Mitsotakis has ideological prejudices, believes himself to be omniscient, has no sense of responsibility, is detached from reality, lacks awareness of reality, is in favor of the elite, and is in favor of exploiters. In addition, words or their derivatives directed against Mitsotakis by Tsipras included arrogance, hypocrisy, complacency, indifference, unclear mind, carelessness (2 times), negligent, obsessive, slanderous, unserious, divisive (2 times), incompetent (3 times), irresponsible, vulgar (returning the same expression used earlier by Mitsotakis), without dignity, and liar. All these were heard in a speech that lasted 90 minutes.

This tactic serves a purpose. The listener watches a speaker who is against all these vices, which means—logically—that he is exempt from these. Since Tsipras is so much against ideological prejudices, arrogance, and the like, this should mean that they do not apply to him.

This approach is the other side of the “repeating of irrelevant truths” mentioned above. The mentioning of many “truths” works in favor of the speaker’s image, which is enhanced. Derogatory characterizations work against the image of the Other; the opponent’s image depreciates.

4 – “Returning serve” against accusations

Anyone familiar with Greek political life over the last decade will notice that the above-mentioned negative characterizations present a peculiarity. Some of them are new utterances in Greek political life, having been first used against Tsipras and his political party. A closer look at the above accusations recalls that there is a process of “returning serve” against adjectives that have been used lately against “us” (in this case, Tsipras and Syriza). Some of these are the following:

“Having ideological prejudices” — this was originally used against Tsipras for his leftist ideological vision. “Arrogance” was once used to characterize Tsipras’s harsh accusations against the Right. Tsipras’s wish to change the “right-wing” policies of the European Union was cast as a “lack of awareness of reality.” His anti-liberal stand has been called “obsessive,” and his policies in dealing with the EU were labeled “incompetent.” Finally, Tsipras has been called a “liar” for going back on promises that he would not follow the EU’s instructions and “memorandums.”

The use of such language is a strategic choice. By “returning” the accusations with the same wording, the “charges” are neutralized, and Tsipras gets even. As mentioned, many of these characterizations were used in the past against Tsipras and regarding some of his actions and policy decisions. Now, they are “returned,” mostly out of context. This is a way to counter-balance attacks. Probably it is reckoned that this kind of a symmetrical counterattack will cancel out and nullify the accusations recently addressed toward “us,” thus cleansing the record of them. The repeated use of some accusative adjectives also nullifies their worth through superfluous repetition. All in all, the method can be seen as a psychological and political defense mechanism.

5 – Things could have been “even better”

This is another “true” argument that cannot be contradicted. The best performance could have been better. An Olympic champion can be criticized for failing to run a little faster and break a record. Mitsotakis demonstrated by graphs and statistical analyses that Greece had a much lower death rate per 1 million people relative to other European countries. He said that it is a macabre and sad endeavor to talk about people who have lost their lives, but that still, in general, Greeks have followed the rules and done fairly well, comparatively speaking. Mitsotakis showed a map of Europe with the national death rates indicated by different color codes; Greece and Finland were colored the same, sharing the lowest death rate in Europe at the time of the parliamentary debate.

Tsipras resorted to comparing Greece to the unreasonable benchmarks, not comparable cases. In fact, he compared Greece’s record to that of other countries only once — when he noted that Greece had experienced the worse economic recession in Europe due to Covid-19. He said: “Greece in this field is the last in Europe. You may say that this is due to the epidemic. All countries are experiencing an epidemic but not the same impacts. These are the comparisons that one has to take into consideration.” In all the other cases, he was adamantly against any “comparative” approach, unless it was to compare Greece to “the hypothetical condition.”

In all the other cases, he used the conjunction “if” as a conditional. “If you had taken some more precautions… if you had made more tests… if you had put more busses into circulation… wouldn’t we have fewer deaths?” At some point, Tsipras said: “If, if, if, if, I can use many ifs of this kind.” And, actually, he did. This is a common trend of populist argumentation: good outcomes could always have been better.

6 – The use of irony, insinuation, silencing, and debatable views as valid assumptions

Defense mechanisms operate rather unconsciously and as automatic reflexes in all debates, not just in populist discourse. For example, some facts are “forgotten,” and others are unduly emphasized according to the purposes of the speaker. These tactics operate to complement the populist approach.

Irony involves humor or sarcasm. It is an indirect way of expressing criticism. It is also an accusation that is difficult to respond to since it is not openly stated. Usually, it is a sneaky way of voicing an attack that would not be possible to bring to the fore otherwise, either because it cannot be documented or it is ethically not permissible. In sum, it is difficult to answer an ironic statement for two reasons. First, the criticism is not openly stated, and any effort to counter it implies that one accepts the accusations —namely, that “what is insinuated concerns oneself.” Secondly, the accuser may hide himself behind the pretext that he is simply “making a joke” and that his opponent lacks a sense of humor.

Tsipras, for example, was ironical and “humorous” when he attributed the sentence “coronavirus is not contagious in the buses” to his opponent. Meanwhile, he overlooked or obscured what Mitsotakis had really said —namely, that the government had increased the number of buses to control congestion. Tsipras jokingly said that somebody living on the island of Lesbos had been required to go to the island of Limnos to be vaccinated. In contrast, it was in fact claimed by others that the person concerned had given Limnos as his home address. He was also sarcastic when he asked rhetorically, “how many deaths do you need to accept that you have been unsuccessful?” A probable answer of the kind “how many deaths do you think would make me successful” would sound macabre and counterproductive for Mitsotakis. So, the sarcasm was ignored.

An example of assuming characteristics—the validity of which first needs to be proven—is when Mitsotakis is presented as the proponent of the “elite,” of the privileged classes, and of his immediate environment. This was repeated quite often by Tsipras, placing himself “on the side of the needy.” This supposedly diametrically opposite social status of the two leaders is presented as self-evident. That there is no need to prove the accusation makes it even more persuasive: it does not need to be proved because “everybody knows it.” This is the vicious circle of truth.

It was insinuated (because it could not be demonstrated) that Mitsotakis has said that “the pandemic cannot be managed” or “God will help us in that.” In both cases, it was not made clear precisely who had said these things or when and where they had been said. For these accusations, one may use the term “lies.”

There were various cases of arbitrary characterizations: “You are working in favor of certain social groups … you are in favor of the elite … you are against the social security system (and in favor of a privatized one) … you have not recruited new personnel into the hospitals (that Mitsotakis had, in fact, announced the opposite was ignored) … you only support private interests … some of us cannot pay the €500 fines handed out for violating the restrictions you impose while others go to Dubai to celebrate Christmas (inferring that those heading abroad are in the same camp as Mitsotakis—the “elite,” and the “neoliberals”).

Naturally, the political programs of the socialist Tsipras and center-right Mitsotakis differ. Moreover, each part has its self-evident facts and truths, which form its respective ideological framework. The “truths” of each are valid within each group, and the supporters of each group perceive the arguments of their leader as rational and understandable. Each argument, however, needs to be documented and proved when presented to the other side, as it was in the case in the parliamentary debate. Therefore the “numbers” that Mitsotakis presented were more persuasive to the third-party listeners, whereas the “arguments” of Tsipras were persuasive only to his in-group. Actually, no single personality can be the conclusive judge of a reality for everyone.

7 – Conclusions based on isolated events

The method of reaching conclusions based on an isolated case of secondary importance is an everyday phenomenon. It usually starts with a saying of the kind, “let me give you an example…” That is to say, a single example is considered enough to prove a case. If there is some bad guy in the village (in a family, a city, a nation, etc.), the whole community can be blamed. This is the way stereotypes and prejudices operate.

Tsipras said, “you vaccinated your own families, and if we had not made it an issue, you would have continued doing that.” But how many families were they? Were they really going to continue with the vaccination?

On the other hand, Mitsotakis presented numbers, statistical analyses, and graphic presentations. Tsipras demonized these because they impair the stereotype, i.e., the populist story. The listeners who are unaccustomed to numbers do not see the populist approach anyway. The single “typical” example is more persuasive to many people (How can one be sure that an example is “typical”?).

During this debate, Tsipras said: “If you feel content saying ‘the pandemic cannot be managed’ [without evidence this was ever said] and if you make macabre comparisons of the dead, as you did a while ago mentioning the percentages of the dead, then you will never learn anything from your mistakes.” And again, “4,500 deaths! The people mourn for their fathers, their grandfathers, grandmothers, for their wives. Furthermore, the government, instead of trying to limit the pandemic, tries to find refuge in the statistics.” Or, “The dead people are not statistics; they are human beings. When you say that the numbers are positive in comparison to other countries, the families that at this moment feel the pain of their losses will not feel any better.”

That many people mourn is true. It is also true that the “good numbers” are not a consolation for those who feel the pain of their losses. One may add that the people are also worried; they are concerned for the coming days, anxious about the future, etc. Naturally, the sound management of the pandemic cannot rule out the pain that comes with a single death.

Is there, however, anybody who would disagree with the above? Don’t all politicians see what is happening? Here, one sees the same tactics: various “truths” that are irrelevant to the debate are repeatedly mentioned, all addressed to the listeners’ feelings. On top of this, the populist, through rhetoric, makes an effort to demonize the numbers. And that is because numbers are difficult to cope with. They give a clear picture of the situation. Tsipras tried to “discredit” the numbers since he could not reject them.

The sentence “the dead are not statistics; they are human beings” is devoid of meaning. It is voiced either because of ignorance or as a conscious choice, as demagoguery. Statistics and human beings cannot be compared; they are heterogeneous categories. Statistics are tools that humans use and, like photographs, depict some situations. They may be about heart attacks or traffic accidents in a country. The numbers themselves are not heart attacks or accidents; they only give information about these. Similarly, the statistics about the pandemic inform us about the pandemic. I feel embarrassed to be in a position to try to demonstrate what is self-evident!

The numbers and the statistical information on 15 January, the date of the debate, showed that among the 30 countries of Europe and in the case of Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants, there were only three countries that were in a better situation than Greece: Norway, Finland, and Iceland. These numbers change every week, but in general, Greece managed the pandemic reasonably well. This is not a consolation to the people who have lost loved ones, but it is a consolation to many Greeks that feel that they do not belong to the unfortunate countries that had many more losses. The demonizing of numbers is a way out for populists but does not serve self-awareness.

8 – Associating unrelated situations to reach conclusions

This method is basic for populists and is, to boot, an ancient technique. There is an ancient Greek story known as the Paradox of the Court or Protagoras’ Paradox. It is said that the famous sophist Protagoras took on a promising pupil, Euathlus, on the understanding that the student would pay Protagoras for his instruction after winning his first court case. After finishing the course, Euathlus decided not to enter the legal profession but entered politics instead, not paying Protagoras for the lessons. Protagoras decided to sue Euathlus for the amount owed.

The teacher argued that if he were to win his suit, he would be paid his money. If Euathlus were to win, Protagoras would still be paid according to the original contract because Euathlus would have won his first case. Euathlus, however, claimed that if he won, then by the court’s decision, he would not have to pay Protagoras. If, on the other hand, Protagoras won, then Euathlus would still not have won a case and would therefore not be obliged to pay. The question then is, which of the two men is right?

There are various versions of this story and many more uses of its hidden demagogy. There are actually two distinct cases that are shrewdly combined to reach the desired end. In the first case, Protagoras loses; in the second, he wins. The student simply repeats the first trial, in which he wins, avoiding mentioning the possible second suit. It seems as if history is being repeated—in the same land—in the parliamentary debate of 15 January 2021.

Tsipras said: “According to Mitsotakis, nobody asked him to take more austere measures in Thessaloniki where there were a high number of virus cases, whereas the local authorities had warned him.” Mitsotakis answered that he had said, “Nobody among the opposition in the Parliament had warned him.” At this point, Mitsotakis seems to be correct. However, Tsipras answered back, saying: “The opposition cannot tell the government what to do since the relevant information is not in its possession.” Now it seems that Tsipras is correct, and consequently Mitsotakis wrong!

The approach of Tsipras was to introduce new issues to the initial claim, which was simply “what Mitsotakis had said.” In so doing, he first stated that the opposition could not tell the government what to do since it does not control the situation, and second, he indirectly accused Mitsotakis of (naively) expecting the opposition to propose what the government should do. Tsipras is right in both these new issues. And by this approach, the initial argumentation is bypassed. The changing of the agenda is used repeatedly in populist discourse.

An assessment

1 – Populist speech is characterized by arguments that are “true” (truisms) but irrelevant to what is being discussed; by the merging of various unrelated issues; by the repetition of negative characterizations against the opponent and by some other “auxiliary” techniques such as silencing, irony, insinuations, “tools” which are used in almost all debates. “Lies,” per se, are secondary. Examples of all these were presented above.

2 – The populist discourse is both difficult to notice (to recognize) at first glance and very influential. In the case of populist politicians, this technique is a powerful tool precisely because populist speech is hard to distinguish, but also because the messages are addressed to the unconscious part of the human intellect, to the feelings. This article is written hoping that it will help the receptors of the populist speeches be more ready to understand what is being done.

3 – The populist approach presented above differs from demagogy and lies due to its social dimension. Populism is a term that presupposes two components: The addressor and the addressee; the populist agent that propagates the populist views, speeches, promises, hopes etc., on the one hand, and a group of audience, followers, and believers that share the populist messages as a social group, on the other hand. In other words, for the listeners who do not believe in the populist leader, orator, etc., the populist person is only a charlatan, a demagogue, a liar. In connection with this, it is understood that the way to cope with populism is not limited to fighting the populist agent. Improving the ability of the listeners’ comprehension is also needed. The opposition should not be directed to the addressor only but to the addressee, too. Intelligent persons with critical thinking skills are the best barrier against populism.

4 – Finally, all the above are about the techniques that populists use, the tactics, and the methods. What populism actually produces is a different topic. Still, in the above example, we see some of the “essence” of the populist worldview, understanding, ideology, or whatever other names one may see fit to describe this phenomenon. We see:

  1. A Manichean world of good (“us”) versus the negative, the dishonest, the unpatriotic “other.” This is done mainly on an ethical basis.
  2. Socially, the supposed divide is between the “people,” the in-group, “us” versus the “elite,” the rich, the out-group. It is a quasi-class divide.
  3. The out-group beyond the national borders are the foreigners, the leftists, the Jews, the enemies of “our” country (if the source is politically right-wing and conservative), or the imperialists, the capitalists, and the neoliberals if the accuser is a leftist.
  4. In the last resort, the whole endeavor leads to a world of strife, nationalist stereotypes, and widespread othering.

[1] This article does not aspire to define populism. It is a case study of a special discourse which, as a working hypothesis, here is called populist. This discourse is characterized by a special technique which, if it is encountered repeatedly in other cases, too, it may shed light on “populist argumentation.” 

[2] See: https://www.hellenicparliament.gr/Vouli-ton-Ellinon/ToKtirio/Fotografiko-Archeio/#7fb5d5dd-3f51-4456-8432-acb1015ed39d. Or see: hellenicparliament.gr. 

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro speaks in an act to support to Assembly Constituent in Caracas, Venezuela on May 23, 2017.

Nicolas Maduro: A populist without popularity

Lacking personal charisma and booming oil revenues, Nicolas Maduro has struggled to obtain his predecessor’s popular support and failed to legitimize his rule at the polls. Instead, Maduro consolidated his power through sharing it with elites and the military. Externally, the country’s social, economic, and political environment has contributed to the growing perception among international actors that the regime is becoming ever more authoritarian and unstable.

By Imdat Oner 

Latin America has long been a fertile political landscape for populist leaders. Argentina’s Eva Peron, Peru’s Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, Brazil’s Getulio Vargas, and Ecuador’s José María Velasco Ibarra are all well-known populist leaders. For these politicians, populism was a viable political strategy, one they used to mobilize people against the “elites” on their way to obtaining and retaining power. Claiming to be the embodiment of the “pure” people, Latin American populists have rejected checks and balances that would limit their power, which they view as derived from the people’s will.

A second wave of populism has taken root throughout Latin America with the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Kirshner in Argentina, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. They mainly rose to power amid the rising sentiment against neoliberal policies. Adopting an anti-American discourse and anti-neoliberal approach, these pink-tide leaders have continued the region’s populist tradition. Like their predecessors, these new populist leaders appeal to the excluded masses by mobilizing against the establishment and promising better lives for their supporters. 

The rise of Chávez in Venezuela has especially inspired academic studies of populism, which is known as one of Latin America’s most enduring political traditions. Elected on the promise of ending neoliberal economic policies and corrupt politicians, the late President Chávez ruled Venezuela from 1999 to 2013. His movement, Chavismo, drew heavily on the charismatic populist connection between his leadership and the people. While he was planning to remain in power until 2021 (La Tercera, 2008), he passed away at the age of 58 after a long battle with cancer. Following his death in 2013, Nicolas Maduro – in full, Nicolás Maduro Moros – came to power as Chávez’s handpicked successor. Maduro, Vice President under Chávez, was sworn-in in April 2013 as Venezuela’s interim President until new elections could be held. He inherited the leadership of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela; PSUV) and announced he would be the party’s candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. 

Designated by Chávez as his political heir, Maduro narrowly won the election. Despite a less favourable international situation and complex domestic socio-economic conditions, Maduro committed himself and his regime to further authoritarianism, to solidify his hold on power. Under his administration, Venezuela has been an emblematic case of severe democratic erosion while suffering a major economic and humanitarian crisis. This paper will seek to introduce a detailed profile of Maduro and his place within the region’s populist politics.

Maduro’s Background

Born in 1962 into a family that had heavily engaged in leftist politics and labour movements, Maduro followed his parents’ footsteps and began his political life in the student union during his high school years (The Guardian, 2013). His educational career is murky. Several records indicate that he could not finish high school (Cola, 2018). The most well-known fact about Maduro’s early age is that he worked as a bus driver. In those years, Maduro was actively attending labour union activities. He got involved in politics through leftist groups such as Rupture and the Socialist League (Dobson, 2018). At 24, Maduro moved to Cuba and attended a one-year course at the Escuela Nacional de Cuadros Julio Antonio Mella, a political training centre run by the Union of Young Communists (Oropeza, 2013). He trained to become a professional revolutionary (Naim and Toro, 2018). His connection with Cuba at this young age would later play a critical role in his regime’s survival.

Maduro was long part of Chávez’s inner circle. His first connection with Chávez dates to the early 1990s. Maduro participated in the 1992 military coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez, which was led by Chávez (Oropeza, 2013).After the failed attempt, Chávez was sent to a military prison; Maduro campaigned for his release (The Guardian, 2013).Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, led the legal team that worked to get Chávez freed. Since the beginning, Maduro and his family were among Chávez’s most faithful supporters. 

Maduro’s strong ties to Chavismo and Chávez have been critical factors advancing his political career. Maduro slowly but surely climbed the political career ladder.

The former presidents of Cuba, Raul Castro (L) and of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez (c) and Nicolas Maduro (R) in Cumana, Venezuela on April 17, 2009.

Maduro’s strong ties to Chavismo and Chávez have been critical factors advancing his political career. Maduro slowly but surely climbed the political career ladder. First, he took an active role in founding the Fifth Republic Movement, initiated by Chávez ahead of the 1998 elections. After Chávez’s successful rise to power in 1998, Maduro became part of the Constituent Assembly, which drafted the new Venezuelan constitution. Then, he served a long string as a deputy at Parliament. He was re-elected in the 2005 parliamentary elections and became the President of the National Assembly. One year later, Chávez appointed him Minister of Foreign Affairs. The former bus driver was the longest-serving minister at this post during Chávez’s reign (Alarcon Deza, 2014). In 2012, shortly after Chávez’s victory in the presidential election, Maduro became Vice President. Before leaving for surgery in Cuba in December 2012, Chávez picked his long-time loyal confidant as his successor. In his last public appearance, President Chávez described Maduro as “a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work, for leading, for handling the most difficult situations” (Chuck, 2017).

Is Maduro A Populist Leader?

Jan-Verner Mueller (2013) has raised a critical question: “Can populism thrive without a genuinely popular and charismatic leader?” It is generally accepted that populist leaders derive their legitimacy and authority from the people and their popular support. Claiming to have the people’s support, populists believe in popular sovereignty as manifested by regular elections and referenda representing the people’s will. Put simply, this has never been the case for Maduro. First of all, Maduro was appointed by Chávez as his successor. While carrying out his role as interim president, he ran for office in special elections convened in April 2013, in the wake of Chávez’s death. Maduro had neither Chávez’s charisma nor his support. Calling himself “the son of Chávez,” Maduro narrowly won the election against opposition leader Henrique Capriles by a mere 1.5 percent. Compared to other populist leaders, he has grown deeply unpopular since his election. 

Lacking Chávez’s charisma, Maduro has been unable to enjoy the level of popular support Chávez did. Shortly after he assumed office, his job approval suffered amid rising economic problems, including hyperinflation, devaluation, and rampant poverty. Among the populace, there was a growing distrust of the Maduro government. According to Corrales and Bergen (2016), there was no single indicator of governance that improved under Maduro, and he was perceived as the weakest president in Venezuelan history. The existing problems pointed to significant losses for Maduro and his party in upcoming elections. Reliable polling indicated that Maduro’s approval rating stood below 25 percent before the end of 2014, and around two-thirds of the country believed that he would not be able to complete his first presidential term (Reuters, 2014). These numbers make more sense when put in context and compared to his predecessor’s approval ratings. Since Chávez first came to power in 1999, his party, The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV), has dominated Venezuelan politics. During the Chávez era, PSUV won every election, both presidential and parliamentary. And remarkably, Chávez won his last election, in 2012, by 11 points and enjoyed a 57 percent approval rating just before he died (Corrales and Bergen, 2016). 

Maduro’s low approval rating suggests he lacks a unique feature of populist leaders: charismatic appeal. As Carlos de la Torre has written, in hyper-personalistic regimes, charisma cannot be transferred to a handpicked successor (De la Torre, 2017). As Maduro lacks personal charisma, he constantly invokes Chávez’s memory and legacy to capitalize on the latter’s genuine popularity among the people. Before he was elected in 2013, Maduro overwhelmingly relied on his predecessor’s political capital and legitimacy to gain the people’s support. Maduro and party followers strongly endorsed the slogan of “Chávez lives! The struggle continues! Always fighting for victory, Comandante!” (Angosto-Ferrández, 2016). Although Maduro sought to emulate Chávez’s tactics and style, his fierce rhetoric without strong charisma failed to galvanize Chávez’s electoral base.

Maduro’s low approval rating became more evident in the 2015 parliamentary elections. The electoral coalition of the opposition parties, called Mesa de Unidad Democrática, (Democratic Unity Table – MUD), won a landslide victory against the ruling party PSUV. The result was a record 74 percent turnout, with 58 percent of voters supporting the opposition and only 42 percent supporting the government (Neuman, 2015). PSUV lost control of the assembly for the first time since Chávez came to power in 1999. The opposition achieved a three-fifths majority, which enabled them to pass laws, censure, and remove government ministers and the executive vice president.

Despite lacking charisma, Maduro has displayed one classic trait of populism, by framing Venezuela’s struggle as the “pure” people against the oligarchs. A recent study from the Global Populism Discourse, which identifies populist discourse in the speeches of world leaders, labels Maduro as “very populist” on the basis of speech analysis (Lewis et al., 2019). Like his predecessor Chávez, Maduro’s discourse permanently seeks to divide society into two separate groups and explicitly articulates an existential struggle between them. The discourse mostly revolves around confrontational rhetoric, framing politics as a zero-sum game between the people and the conspiring elite. Similar to other populist leaders, Maduro treats his political opponents not as competitors but “enemies of the homeland” to be defeated (Rodriguez-Garavito and Gomez 2018). Rhetorically, he portrays himself as a victim, even at the height of his power, blaming domestic or foreign elites. Ultimately, the populist discourse aims at legitimizing the use of any means to stay in power.

The dismantling of Venezuelan democracy, which started under Chávez, was a long and gradual process. While Chávez used populism to entrench his power and consolidate a competitive authoritarian regime in the country, Maduro scaled up to full-blown authoritarianism in the face of eroding support for his government. 

The members of the Venezuelan resistance protested against the Maduro government in Caracas, Venezuela on April 26, 2017.

New Authoritarianism Under an Unpopular Populist Leader

Even though Maduro differs from other populist leaders in terms of lower popular support, he shares another commonality with them: posing a danger to liberal democracy (Hawkins and Ruth, 2016; Weyland, 2013). After inheriting a hybrid regime, Maduro followed a playbook left in place by his predecessor. The deepening socio-economic crisis and increasing domestic instability have increased pressure on Maduro. To maintain his power, he has become more radical, adopting authoritarian tactics on several fronts, including weakening state institutions, undermining checks and balances, polarizing society into two camps, and stacking the playing field against his opponents.

The dismantling of Venezuelan democracy, which started under Chávez, was a long and gradual process. During the Chávez era, Venezuela was governed by a semi-authoritarian regime, with extremely weak democratic institutions and skewed checks and balances. While Chávez used populism to entrench his power and consolidate a competitive authoritarian regime in the country (Corrales and Penfold, 2011; Levitsky and Loxton, 2012), Maduro scaled up to full-blown authoritarianism in the face of eroding support for his government. As a Freedom House (2017) report indicated, under the Maduro administration, Venezuela gradually transitioned from a “partly free” democracy into a “not free” authoritarian regime. As Maduro’s support has waned at home, the executive branch increasingly engages in traditional authoritarian practices to consolidate political power and eliminate any efforts that would threaten its survival. Facing internal and external crises, the Maduro administration has adopted all sorts of repressive measures, including undermining state institutions, arresting opposition leaders, and suppressing the press (Corrales, 2015: 44).

In this respect, the parliamentary elections in 2015 became a litmus test of whether the regime would accept losing any power through elections (Marsteintredet, 2020). Faced with a sweeping opposition victory, Maduro initially acknowledged the results by saying, “The bad guys won, like the bad guys always do, through lies and fraud” (The Guardian, 2015). But before long, the government implied that it had no intention of sharing its power with an opposition-led parliament. Within two years, the parliament was weakened, first by the electoral council’s denial of the seats necessary for a supermajority, next by the Supreme Court’s rejection of the authority of the legislative body, and finally by a constituent assembly that rules in the place of the National Assembly. 

In the years following the 2015 elections, the country was riven by deep polarization and faced a political impasse, as Maduro felt more insecure about holding power. By early May 2016, the opposition had submitted petitions with some 1.8 million signatures to call for a referendum that would remove Maduro from power. Nevertheless, with the help of the National Electoral Council (CNE), which the government has filled with Maduro loyalists, the referendum was blocked. This manipulation was simply another confirmation that the ruling party would not accept the results of an election that it might lose. 

Similarly, the Supreme Court repeatedly undermined the opposition-dominated National Assembly’s authority as an equal branch of power, routinely overturning the laws that it enacted. The Court has been turned into a political weapon of the Maduro administration. Shortly after the opposition gained control of parliament in 2015, Maduro repacked the Court with unconditional loyalists by circumventing the judicial appointment procedures outlined in the constitution (Freeman, 2020). The Supreme Court nullified nearly all legislation that the National Assembly passed in 2016 and stripped it of its budgetary powers. Moreover, Maduro asked the Court for extraordinary powers to govern by decree, bypassing the legislative body’s checks and balances.

Political interference in the judiciary is not new in Venezuela. This “judicial shield” was also used by Chávez, who packed the Court with his loyalists (Correa and Recinos 2016). Yet, the Supreme Court during the Maduro administration has become an arm of an authoritarian executive (IJC, 2017). A report by the International Commission of Jurists’s (IJC) indicates that the executive has decisively co-opted the Court, whose members mainly consist of members of the ruling party and ex-government officials. For example, last year, the Supreme Court unilaterally appointed a new electoral commission, which was supposed to be appointed by parliament. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court argued that the opposition-run legislature was in “unconstitutional omission.” The Court suspended the leadership of the two leading opposition parties (Primero Justicia and Acción Democrática) and appointed Maduro supporters to lead both parties instead. Finally, the Court increased the number of seats in the National Assembly from 166 to 277, a means of packing the legislature (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

While the CNE and the Supreme Court significantly curtailed the National Assembly’s authority and ability to legislate, Maduro aimed to fully dissolve it in 2017. The government controversially created a new Constituent Assembly to supersede parliament’s authority and bypass its legislation. Its alleged purpose was to draft a new constitution, yet it never happened. The Constituent Assembly assumed de facto power and made all the country’s important political decisions, giving Maduro full control of the process. This explicitly marked Venezuela’s exit from democracy. 

Under the Maduro administration, electoral irregularities have also become more common (Corrales, 2016). The regime understands that it cannot survive a free and fair election, especially after the resounding defeat in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Although the remine has inherited several “legacy” irregularities from Chávez, Maduro has also introduced new, election-specific irregularities of his own (Corrales, 2016). It is widely accepted that electoral conditions under Chávez were never free and fair, and the incumbent party enjoyed an uneven playing field, but the elections were more competitive and happened mostly on schedule (Corrales, 2016). During the Maduro administration, Venezuela has experienced significant electoral irregularities, including the abuse of state power to the incumbent’s advantage, gerrymandered electoral districts, and public media access for opposition candidates (Alarcón, Álvarez, & Hidalgo, 2016).The government’s electoral strategy is designed to turn out its core supporters while discouraging its opponents from voting. Maduro has created an environment that enables the ruling party to hold elections without any risk of losing. 

Meanwhile, the number of political prisoners has significantly increased under the authoritarian Maduro administration. Like other populist autocrats, Maduro has labelled the opposition leaders “traitors” serving as allies of foreign countries. Popular opposition members have been mostly side-lined from the political process, either through being jailed or forced to live in exile; some have been disqualified from holding office (Singer, 2019). The leader of the Popular Will Party, Leopoldo López, was one of the most popular opposition leaders; he was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison for a series of alleged crimes related to his participation in the protests of early 2014. Another popular opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who has run twice as a presidential candidate, was barred by Maduro’s government from running for office. The Supreme Court also lifted parliamentary immunity for Freddy Guevara, the National Assembly’s vice president, who the government accused of crimes for his involvement in street protests (Semple, 2017)

As part of a larger authoritarian playbook, the political prisoners have also been used as a bargaining chip by the Maduro administration. For instance, in August 2020, the Venezuelan government pardoned more than 100 opposition politicians, including more than 20 legislators who had been accused of conspiring against the government (Reuters, 2010). Maduro attempted to use these prisoners as part of an ongoing negotiation ahead of parliamentary elections.

Amid diminishing government support, Maduro is increasingly bolstered by a loyal security apparatus, including the military and police. After losing Chávez’s political capital amid the deteriorating economic situation, Maduro has leaned increasingly on the military, which has become vital to his regime’s survival.

Nicolás Maduro with First Lady Cilia Flores and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López are seen as watching a military parade in Caracas on February 1, 2017.

The Alliance with the Military 

Chávez’s main strategy was to use plebiscitarian mass support to transform established institutions and concentrate power in the hands of the President (Weyland, 2013). However, Maduro, unlike other populist leaders, lacks the charisma to appeal to popular support. Instead, he consolidated support among the Chavista’s inner forces and the military (Romero and Mijares, 2016). Lopez Maya (2018) describes Maduro’s government as a “neopatrimonial rule”; it is not a simple populist regime. According to her, Chávez’s close circle coalesced around Maduro, letting him rule along with his family, friends, and the military. Maduro originally derived his legitimacy from those implicit domestic coalitions rather than the people’s vote.

Amid diminishing government support, Maduro is increasingly bolstered by a loyal security apparatus, including the military and police. After losing Chávez’s political capital amid the deteriorating economic situation, Maduro has leaned increasingly on the military, which has become vital to his regime’s survival. Maduro and his allies understood that the military would be a decisive player in the political game. The lack of charismatic leadership and popular support has made a power-sharing arrangement with the military necessary.

It is important to note here that the high “militarization” of Venezuelan politics dates back to Chávez, who espoused a narrative of the “civil-military alliance” even in the early years of his administration (Strønen, 2016). A significant number of military officers entered into the traditionally civilian space of public offices, effectively militarizing the political system. While many military officers were purged during the Chávez era, some loyal officers were promoted to critical civilian posts.

With Maduro, the Venezuelan military has become even more involved in politics through a series of rewards granted by the government in accordance with implicit power-sharing arrangements. Maduro sought to shore up his support in the armed forces after the defeat in the parliamentary elections (Smilde, 2015). Losing a critical branch of power, Maduro rewarded “profit-seeking soldiers” with access to cabinet posts and the control of banks and other financial institutions (Correa, 2020). High-level bureaucratic cadres and political posts have been staffed with military officers. The officers have a massive presence in the presidential office, vice-ministries, and among governors, mostly without giving up their military offices. As of 2020, eight members of Maduro’s 33-member cabinet – and seven of the nineteen governors who belong to the ruling party – are active or retired military members (Correa, 2020). Several key sectors now rest in the hands of military officers, including the distribution of food and basic products. Maduro appointed Defence Minister General Vladimir Padrino López as head of the “Grand Supply Mission” in 2016, handing him control of Venezuela’s entire food supply system. Since then, the Venezuelan army has become the main authority regulating food and medicine distribution across the country

Maduro has surrounded himself with a group that faces high exit costs if the ruling party loses power, thereby ensuring their support for his survival in office (Cannon and Brown, 2017). For example, David Smilde (2016) argues that Maduro has picked generals for his inner circle who are on the US blacklist for drug trafficking or human rights violations. Theseindividuals have much to lose in any political transition favouring democracy and the rule of law. Any transition to democracy could lead to prosecution and long-term imprisonment. High ranking military officials are expected to remain loyal to their commander-in-chief, since their ability to avoid justice depends on Maduro’s survival.

Maduro has needed to consolidate support amongst the military: since he came to power, the likelihood of a coup has increased. Fed up with rampant corruption, rapid democratic backsliding, and the dire economic situation, some factions of the opposition considered the possibility of a military intervention. Maduro, in fact, claims there have been several attempted coups against his government (Lansberg-Rodríguez, 2015). Some Venezuelan opposition members and generals were arrested by intelligence agents and indicted on charges of conspiracy against the government. According to Corrales (2020), by mid-2019, the Maduro administration held 217 active and retired military officers in prison, many of them without trial. While the Venezuelan government fingered opposition members, generals, and businesspeople as plotting a “coup” against Maduro, he also accused the United States of masterminding an attempt to overthrow him.

The army has played a significant role in supporting Maduro’s legitimacy and power, especially at critical turning points. The military’s support of Maduro smoothed the way for his consolidation of power. That support has not been uniform, however. In 2019, dozens of military members joined Juan Guaido’s uprising attempt. However, none of them were upper-level military members, and the attempt failed. 

Oil pump jack and oil barrels with Venezuelan flag.

Fall of the Petro-state Under the Maduro Administration

Maduro also lacks another significant asset that Chávez enjoyed: booming oil prices. Oil accounts for around 90 percent of petro-state Venezuela’s exports (OPEC, 2016). Instead of saving the oil revenue for the future, Chávez just funnelled booming oil revenue into social programs targeting the poor, including subsidized food, free healthcare, and education. Even though Chávez was a highly charismatic leader, his popularity also heavily depended on his government’s economic performance and generous social programs funded by oil money, which in turn spurred the voters’ support for him.

Maduro was elected president amid an unfavourable economic environment and would soon feel the long-term economic pain that Chávez wrought for the sake of short-term gain. Shortly after Maduro took office, the global price of petroleum crashed, triggering Venezuela’s most serious economic and social crisis in recent history. Since 2013, the country has lost 62 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Bull and Rosales, 2020). The economic crisis has rapidly spiralled into a serious humanitarian crisis marked by worsening public services, malnutrition, and shortages, including for food and medicine. 

Venezuelan oil production has also declined because of international sanctions and a lack of maintenance in the oil sector. Instead of market-friendly economic reforms and relaxing price controls, Maduro chose to continue with his predecessor’s populist economic policies, including nationalizations, tight state control of the economy, and uncontrolled printing of money. Some short-term relief did not solve the complicated problems. Losing his popular support, Maduro was, indeed, not in a position to deviate from Chávez’s socialist policies mainly due to a fear of losing his base (Smilde, 2015). Maduro’s economic management was also marred by a series of incompetent appointments. At a critical time when the economic crisis deepened, Maduro appointed a professor who believed inflation does not really exist (Ellsworth, 2016).

The decline in state revenue due to the sharp fall in oil prices also resulted in reduced social welfare programs. As social programs benefiting the poor, the clientelist social networks providing services in exchange for political support has significantly expanded under Maduro’s rule. Even though food distribution and other social programs have long been in place, at least since Chávez was in power, the massive misuse of state resources became more frequent through solid patronage and clientelist politics under the Maduro administration (Buxton, 2017). Maduro explicitly used government resources to guarantee his re-election for another term. For example, before the presidential elections in 2018, Maduro expanded food subsidies nationally to assure a high electoral turnout (Penfold, 2018). Under military control, food was used as a political tool to reward and mobilize supporters and punish opponents. The voters who were not ideologically aligned with Maduro were excluded from food distributions and other social programs (García-Guadilla and Mallen, 2019)

The neo-patrimonial rule under Maduro also allowed corruption and illicit businesses to flourish across the country. According to Transparency International (2019), Venezuela is among the most corrupt countries in the world (of a total of 180 countries included in the Corruption Perception Index, Venezuela ranks 169). A recent example of the complex corruption schemes initiated under Maduro’s rule is the “Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP) program.” Initially created to provide subsidized food to poor citizens, the program has turned into a complex corruption network that made money from overvalued contracts, which eventually enriched high-level officials (Reuters, 2019). While corruption has proliferated under Maduro’s rule, other illicit businesses, including drug trafficking, have emerged as a key source of profits for the ruling elite (Naim and Toro, 2018).

Opposition protested against the government of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela on April 26, 2017.

Anti-Maduro Protests 

This difficult economic situation has been accompanied by a pronounced deterioration in social issues and, consequently, an increase in the levels of political conflict. Deteriorating economic conditions, economic mismanagement, and rampant corruption have undermined Maduro’s unravelling support over the years, leading to widespread discontent among broad sectors of the population, even including some faction of Chávez supporters. Inevitably, the worsening situation triggered several massive protests across the country against rising repression, the high cost of living, and misgovernance.

Amid growing frustration, in 2014, the government faced the first massive demonstrations. Leopoldo López, an opposition leader, led national street protests in opposition to Maduro as part of a strategy known as “La Salida” (The Way Out). Hard-line members of the opposition and students took part. The demonstrations were severely repressed by Venezuelan security forces, resulting in the deaths of 43 people. 

The country witnessed another set of widespread protests in 2017, when the Supreme Court stripped the opposition-led parliament’s legislative powers. This decision prompted widespread outrage in the country. A month of huge protests against Maduro’s rule involved instances of looting and violence. Maduro reacted to these protesters by referring to them as “vandals and terrorists” and called his supporters to the streets (Romo and Marilia, 2017). Similarly, he ramped up his fierce rhetoric against the right-wing opposition and external powers.

Maduro violently cracked down on the protests and imprisoned his major political rivals. Security forces repeatedly used excessive force to repress anti-government demonstrations, resulting in dozens of deaths. Several international institutions documented human rights violations committed by state authorities. Recently, a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission identified findings about extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture committed in the country since 2014 (UN Human Rights Council, 2020). Similarly, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecutor reported that there is a “reasonable basis” to believe Venezuelan civilian authorities, members of the armed forces, and pro-government individuals had committed crimes against humanity (Reuters, 2020).

Maduro’s Presidency Facing Questions of Legitimacy 

Under conditions significantly favouring the incumbent party – including voting irregularities – the main opposition parties decided to boycott the next presidential (2018) and parliamentary elections (2020), saying the electoral system was rigged in favour of Maduro and his party.

In May 2018, the presidential elections took place amid criticism of domestic and international actors. Maduro was re-elected with 67 percent of the vote, although only 46 percent of eligible voters participated. The high abstention rate was due to the opposition’s boycott.The election was rejected and labelled illegitimate by several countries and international organizations, including the United States, the Lima Group (12 of 13 Latin American member countries and Canada), and the European Union. 

In January 2019, Maduro was sworn in for his second term as president amid questions about his legitimacy. Only two weeks after Maduro’s swearing-in ceremony, the President of the National Assembly and the opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself the country’s acting President. His claim rested on a provision in the 1999 constitution that allows the president of parliament to assume power temporarily in the absence of a president-elect. The opposition argued that Maduro had not been elected legally, and, therefore, the country was without a president. Since 2019, Venezuela has been caught in a political conflict between the two men who claim to be its rightful president.

President of Venezuelan National Assembly Juan Guaido talks to the people during a rally in Caracas, Venezuela on January 23, 2019.

Even though Guaido was recognized as President by more than 50 countries, he has remained powerless and struggled to gain control. Most critically, he did not succeed in persuading the upper echelons of the military – the most critical power player in Maduro’s survival – to turn against the regime. With Maduro firmly entrenched in power, Guaido-led efforts have failed to change the political dynamic on the ground. In June 2020, ruling-party lawmakers elected one of the opposition members backed by Maduro to lead the parliament, depriving Guaidó of his position (Krygier and Faiola, 2020). While the opposition declared this move a “parliamentary coup,” Guaido’s popularity significantly declined only one year after he promised to remove Maduro from power. 

Seeking to bolster his legitimacy, Maduro continues to hold elections significantly stripped of their democratic requirements. In the 2020 parliamentary elections, the Guaidó-led faction of the opposition refused to participate due to serious electoral irregularities. The electoral system has been re-designed in favour of the government. In June 2020, the Supreme Court stripped three of the four main opposition parties of their leadership, allowing the parties to be co-opted by pro-government politicians. Along with an expanding of the National Assembly, from 167 to 277 seats, this severely weakened the opposition. The Maduro administration also refused to allow international electoral observers.

With low voter participation, the president and his left-wing allies won 257 of the 277 seats in the assembly, taking 67.7 percent of the vote. Regardless of civilian disenchantment with politics, solidified his grip on the last democratically elected institution in Venezuela. 

Another Populist Playbook: Foreign Plots

Maduro has another similarity with other populist leaders: he feeds fears of external plots to distract the public’s attention from daily problems inside the country. From the outset of his reign, conspiracy theories have been central to Maduro’s discourse (Carey, 2019). Shortly after he took office, Maduro accused foes of plotting to assassinate him and claimed that “imperialist” enemies infected Chávez with cancer (Reuters, 2013). The Venezuelan government has trumpeted the conspiracies as a way of rallying its supporters around a shared, unsubstantiated enemy. Both Chávez and Maduro used conspiracies as a weapon to discredit or demonize adversaries and to generate a fortress mentality among supporters (Piñeiro, Rhodes-Purdy and Rosenblatt, 2016).

Unable to control the collapse of the economy and chronic issues inside the country, Maduro sustained typical Chávez-style conspiracy theories and claimed foreign states were the main culprit of the country’s problems.In 2016, Maduro announced a plot orchestrated by the US and its alleged domestic conspirators to sabotage the Venezuelan economy. Two weeks later, he announced that the US Embassy, with the participation of opposition leaders, carried out a cyberattack against the banking system (Telesur English, 2016).He also explicitly attributed the country’s socio-economic misery to “external dynamics” by constantly invoking the “economic war” waged against his government by internal and external enemies (Reuters, 2018). Maduro has also constantly characterized the widespread protests and rallies as attempted coups fostered by the United States against his government. For Maduro, there was an international right-wing conspiracy working with the radical opposition inside the country to oust him.

Meanwhile, the US’s increasingly aggressive policy towards Venezuela helped Maduro paint himself as the victim of a foreign plot by the US in an effort to gain favour at home and abroad. First, the Obama administration declared Venezuela as an “an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security” and imposed sanctions on a few high-ranking government officials in 2015 (Neuman, 2015). Then, the Trump administration further increased the pressure by adopting a “maximum pressure” policy to topple Maduro and pave the way for a democratic transition inside the country.Washington imposed another set of sanctions against Venezuela in 2019 in a bid to oust Maduro. The PDVSA state-led oil company was barred from accessing US financial markets as of 2017 and from selling oil to any US-related individual or corporation as of 2019. 

These sanctions disrupted he flow of petrodollars. But the aggressive policies also provided Maduro with a tailor-made excuse: he could blame the crisis on external powers and establish more sweeping government control over key government institutions (Dempsey, 2018). Similarly, Maduro used the sanctions to shore up his domestic supporters and loyalists. Maduro shouted to a large crowd: “I invite the entire Venezuelan people, in all the states and regions of the country, to join in. No one messes with our country. The Yankee boot will never touch it,” (New York Times, 2015).

Being in dire need of economic and financial relief, the Maduro government managed to find ways of evading sanctions by deepening its alliances with like-minded regimes. In response to rising isolation in the region, the Maduro administration has become more reliant on alliances with Iran, Turkey, China, Russia, and other autocratic populist international actors.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the opening ceremony of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Porlamar, Venezuela on September 17, 2016.

An Authoritarian Coalition with Like-minded Regimes

Maduro’s less favourable conditions after Chávez were not limited to domestic dynamics. Venezuela’s position has significantly changed in the regional and international context since Maduro assumed the presidency. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Latin America experienced a “Pink Tide,” as a wave of leftist governments took power in the region. While this surge, which began with Chávez’s election in Venezuela in 1998, created a favourable environment for Chávez, it had begun – and continues – to recede as right-wing parties once again gained power in the region.

With the demise of potential left-wing allies, Maduro’s government has become increasingly isolated in the Western Hemisphere. Rising repression, human rights violations, economic crisis, and widespread corruption cases have all accelerated the regime’s regional isolation. 

The changing price of raw materials has also altered regional dynamics (Romero and Mijares, 2016). In 2005, Chávez launched PetroCaribe, which provided a stable oil flow to many Caribbean and Central American nations on preferential payment terms. When Venezuela’s oil production plunged and the US sanctions ramped up, the Maduro administration scaled back the program. In return, Venezuela lost the diplomatic support of those small countries, which had until then that blocked nearly every resolution put forward by other member states condemning or pressuring the Maduro government.

Venezuela’s isolation in the regional context has become more visible in the initiatives led by the Organization of American States (OAS), which is an influential regional organization that includes 35 independent countries in the Western Hemisphere. The OAS has become the principal body through which the countries in Latin America have exerted pressure on the Maduro administration as instability intensified in the country. The Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, called the Inter-American Democratic Charter in May 2016, a process that could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the organization. The Maduro government formally withdrew from the regional body in April 2019 (Gallón, 2019)

More external pressure and increased isolation in the region further destabilized the economy and the state’s income. Being in dire need of economic and financial relief, the Maduro government managed to find ways of evading sanctions by deepening its alliances with like-minded regimes. In response to rising isolation in the region, the Maduro administration has become more reliant on alliances with China, Russia, and other autocratic populist international actors. Strong ties with China and Russia have strengthened the resilience of the Maduro administration. During the Chávez era, these bilateral relations blossomed due in large part to the close personal relations between presidents. These two revisionist powers have been eager to trade their financial and diplomatic support to Venezuela as part of their geopolitical intentions in America’s backyard. With that intention, Moscow and Beijing have played a crucial role in keeping the Venezuelan regime afloat, primarily through loans and other contributions (Rouvinski, 2019)

Several other countries also appeared eager to cooperate with the Venezuelan government despite the risk of more sanctions. These countries have become vital partners, filling the void at a time when many Western companies express reluctance to engage in business with Venezuela for fear of incurring US sanctions. A widening array of friendly countries seemed to expect preferential access to Venezuela’s market and to cultivate lucrative commercial relationships. Erdogan’s Turkey is one of the opportunistic new “allies” that has extended a lifeline to Maduro (Oner, 2020).

Meanwhile, Cuba still remains an influential actor in Venezuela. Cuban security officials are reportedly involved in various key areas of the administration, including intelligence services. Maduro’s connection to Cuba, cultivated when he was a young man, has made Havana more pervasive during his rule (Naim and Toro, 2018). It is believed that Cuban security training and technical assistance has significantly helped the Maduro government to establish a firewall against internal and external threats (Fonseca and Polga-Hecimovich, 2020). In return for this aid, the Maduro administration provided significant oil support to Cuba. While Cuban military and intelligence personnel help Maduro stay in power, the oil provided by Venezuela continues to provide much-needed support to the Cuban economy.

Conclusion

The last seven years under Maduro have been marked by rising polarization, election irregularities, looming economic crisis, and massive protests. Maduro’s incompetent policies have further propelled the country into a downward spiral, which eventually forced more than five million people to leave the country. The same political, economic, and social shocks contributed to the regime’s rising authoritarianism. As the opposition gained popular support through the elections and external pressure on Maduro grew, the resorted to anti-democratic means to maintain his grip on power.

There is a widespread consensus that Maduro is an unpopular leader. Despite his lack of popular support, Maduro still shares particular features with other populist leaders. His discourse and political style – framing politics as constant battle between the good and corrupt – is notably populist in nature. Similarly, his struggle for power at the expense of rising repression and restrictions is in line with the autocratic practices of other populist leaders. As several scholars argue, Maduro has transformed an inherited, semi-authoritarian regime into a full-blown authoritarian one (Corrales 2020; Marsteintredet, 2020).

Lacking personal charisma and booming oil revenues, Maduro has struggled to obtain his predecessor’s popular support and failed to legitimize his rule at the polls. Instead, Maduro consolidated his power through sharing it with elites and the military. Externally, the country’s social, economic, and political environment has contributed to the growing perception among international actors that the regime is becoming ever more authoritarian and unstable. In the face of the greatest threat to its survival both at home and abroad, Maduro and his allies eliminated Venezuela’s remaining democratic institutions. 

The Maduro administration remains reluctant to make any concessions that might erode its power. With implicit and explicit power-sharing arrangements with key actors at the domestic level, Maduro has been able to cling to power. Currently, the military still supports Maduro; there are no signs this will change anytime soon. As the recent political events suggest, and barring free and fair elections, unpopular populist Maduro will remain in power. 

(*) IMDAT ONER is a Senior Policy Analyst at Jack D. Gordon Institute. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Florida International University. He holds a M.A. degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the same university. He specializes in International Relations with major focuses on foreign policy in Latin American. Oner has extensively published on Venezuelan politics, Venezuelan foreign policy, and Turkey-Venezuela relations. His articles published in War on the Rocks, The National Interest, Americas Quarterly, Foreign Affairs Latinoamerica, Ahval and Miami Herald.

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Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi addressing the 25th Foundation Day of the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences at Bengaluru via video conferencing in New Delhi on June 01, 2020.

How Hindutva threatens the world’s largest democracy

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. I commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In the next step, I probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with the processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published by the author(s) in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer

Compared to the other statesmen in this series, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is a relative newcomer to national politics. The former chief minister of Gujarat secured an absolute majority in India’s 2014 general election and has since solidified his premiership with a landslide election win in 2019 (The Guardian, May 16, 2014; BBC News, May 23, 2019). Despite this democratic show of force, Modi – like Erdogan and Netanyahu – built a resonant brand of right-wing populism that severely imperils the world’s largest democracy. I argue that this political strategy resembles Erdogan’s populist playbook in a number of important respects. Let us distinguish between three constitutive parts: Neoliberal economic policy, religious polarisation and media-capture.

India’s economy successfully opened to the world in 1991, under the auspices of the social-democratic Congress Party. Despite the Congress Party’s liberal record, Modi used his own reputation for reforms in Gujarat to undermine the Congress Party and to present himself as India’s ‘development man’. His Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) positioned itself as the country’s ‘most reform-minded party’.[i] In line with Erdogan’s neoliberal playbook, Modi weakened labour unions[ii] and endorsed public-private-partnerships[iii]. Following the mantra of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, the BJP substituted formal welfare services with new insurance schemes and digitally-enabled cash transfers that play into the development narrative. Modi frames poor, newly urbanized and middle-class Hindus as the pure, deserving “people”, threatened by a secular, anti-national elite. This liberal elite is deemed corrupt for monopolising power and preventing development while pandering to minority groups.[iv] The promise of development of the “people” also allows Modi to challenge institutional and civil society initiatives that oppose his deregulatory agenda. 

In addition to Modi’s neoliberal development vision, the BJP embodies Hindutva, a belief system that deems Hinduism superior to the culture and beliefs of India’s minority groups. Hindutva manifests in animosity towards Muslims[v] and was used by Modi’s supporters to justify attacks on Muslim places of worship, delegitimize inter-faith marriages and endorse campaigns to convert Muslim and Christian families “back” to Hinduism”.[vi]

Deep divisions between Muslims and Hindus trace back to India and Pakistan’s partition in 1947 and continue to manifest – amongst other things – in struggles over the slaughter of cows[vii] (a holy animal in Hinduism) and control over the region of Jammu and Kashmir. In light of such deep social divisions, the ethnoreligious homogeneity propagated by Modi threatens to undermine the delicate accommodation between casts, ethnicities and religious groups that sits at the heart of India’s democratic compromise culture. When Modi demands that opposition politicians “stop writing ‘love letters to Pakistan’”[viii], these assertions nurture a majoritarian conception of the “people”. Funding cuts for minority development programs further alienate religious minority groups[ix]. Similarly, a civil society campaign titled “Love Jihad” – tacitly endorsed by BJP grandees – manufactured a resonant imagination of ‘sexually rapacious Muslim youth converting Hindu women to Islam’.[x]

At this stage, it is worth clarifying that the blanket securitization of Indian Muslims and Modi’s tacit endorsement of vigilante violence against them is more sweeping than Erdogan’s crackdown on dissidents and political opponents. For Erdogan, religious rhetoric is primarily a source of legitimation through the definition of an AKP-supporting “people”. The “enemy of the people” is defined in socio-political, not explicitly religious terms. Modi, in turn, deems both Muslim minorities and their elite backers external to the “people”.[xi] Confrontations between the government and India’s minority populations reached new heights in 2019, when Modi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, detained thousands of Muslim Kashmiris and imposed a strict curfew (The Telegraph, October 31, 2019). In a region already prone to sectarian violence, Modi’s inclusion of vulnerable religious minorities within the “enemies of the people” imperils both liberal democracy and human wellbeing. 

Modi’s populist infusion of patriotism and nationalism with religion offers his supporters a meta-morality and a source of identity, from which the “enemies of the people” can be distinguished based on their minority status and their willingness to accommodate religious minorities.[xii] A similar unwillingness to tolerate difference or criticism emerges from Modi’s relationship with the fourth estate.

At first sight, Modi’s relationship with the Indian media landscape diverges from Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists and online media. In ham-fisted attempts to control the information flow, Erdogan sought to remove internet and cellular access for Gezi protesters in 2013, cut access to Twitter and YouTube in 2014 – after corruption allegations surfaced against him – and blocked Wikipedia following charges of voter fraud in Turkey’s 2017 referendum. In stark contrast to this censorship spree, Modi’s 2014 election campaign was marked by an unprecedented level of digital competence: Modi’s campaign included a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, profiles on Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram, a mobile phone app as well as 3D holograms that appeared simultaneously across different locations.[xiii] This digital strategy culminated in Modi becoming the ‘world’s most-followed leader on social media’ in 2017. 

Beyond these differences in digital competence, Modi shares Erdogan’s scorn for impartial media outlets, as fora for democratic mediation and accountability. Following criticism of Modi for ‘inaction, complicity, and even giving direction to’ large-scale violence and the killing of over 3000 Muslims in Gujarat, Modi began attacking elite media figures and traditional media outlets as corrupt ‘paid news’, one BJP minister denouncing these English-language media outlets as ‘presstitutes’.[xiv] In manner characteristic for populist leaders across the globe, the BJP asserted that the “people” would recognise their own truths against those of the secular elite.[xv] Adding deeds to discourse, Modi implemented a 24-hour blackout of NDTV – a news channel that had frequently criticised his administration – in 2016.[xvi] Journalists now face growing intimidation, repression and arrest for reporting in Kashmir or on the spread of Covid-19 in India (The Wire, June 16, 2020; Al Jazeera, March 18, 2020; Democracy Now! , October 1, 2020)

Despite being in power for only a fraction of Erdogan’s tenure, Modi’s attack on accountability institutions is catching up to Erdogan’s monopolisation of political power in Turkey. The combination of neoliberal developmentalism, religious sectarianism and media capture allowed Modi to pair-back central pillars of India’s democracy – including its accommodation between ethnicities and religions and the fourth estate. By contrasting a pure Hindu “people” with a “corrupt elite” and its unpatriotic Muslim allies,[xvii] Modi created an uneven political playing field that severely disadvantages political opponents: Within a single five-year term, his BJP undermined state institutions including the Supreme Court, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Electoral Commission.[xviii] In his current, second term Modi continues to entrench his position as a national “saviour”.[xix] If Hindutva and Modi-like developmentalism remain hegemonic, India risks becoming an authoritarian one-party state. 

Rererences

[i] Kaur, Ravinder. “Good Times, Brought to You by Brand Modi.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 323–330. doi:10.1177/1527476415575492.

[ii] Harriss, John. “Hindu Nationalism in Action: The Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian Politics.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 38, no. 4. (2016). doi:10.1080/00856401.2015.1089826

[iii] Sinha, Subir. “Fragile Hegemony: Modi, Social Media and Competitive Electoral Populism in India.” International Journal of Communication. 11, no. 2017 (2018): 4158–4180.

[iv] Ibid. 

[v] Palshikar, Suhas. “The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centrist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 38, no. 4 (2015): 719–735. doi:10.1080/00856401.2015.1089460

[vi] Ibid., 728-729.

[vii] Chacko, Priya. “The Right Turn in India: Authoritarianism, Populism and Neoliberalisation.” Journal of Contemporary Asia. 48, no. 4 (2018): 541–565. doi:10.1080/00472336.2018.1446546

[viii] Sinha, Subir. “Fragile Hegemony: Modi, Social Media and Competitive Electoral Populism in India.” International Journal of Communication. 11, no. 2017 (2018): 4158–4180.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Singh, Gurharpal. “Hindu Nationalism in Power: Making Sense of Modi and the BJP-Led National Democratic Alliance Government, 2014–19.” Sikh Formations. 15, no. 3–4 (2019): 314–331. doi:10.1080/17448727.2019.1630220

[xii] Kinnvall, Catarina. “Populism, Ontological Insecurity and Hindutva: Modi and the Masculinization of Indian Politics.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs. 32, no. 3 (2019): 283-302.

[xiii] Pal, Joyojeet. “Banalities Turned Viral: Narendra Modi and the Political Tweet.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 378-387. doi.org/10.1177/1527476415573956.

[xiv] Sinha, Subir. “Fragile Hegemony: Modi, Social Media and Competitive Electoral Populism in India.” International Journal of Communication 11, no. 2017 (2018): 4158–4180.

[xv] Ohm, Britta. “Organizing Popular Discourse with and Against the Media: Notes on the Making of Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Leaders-without-Alternative.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 370–377. doi:10.1177/1527476415575906.

[xvi] Govil, Nitin , and Anirban KapilBaishya . “The Bully in the Pulpit: Autocracy, Digital Social Media, and Right-Wing Populist Technoculture.” Communication, Culture and Critique. 11, no. 1 (2018): 67–84. doi:10.1093/ccc/tcx001.

[xvii] Chacko, Priya. “The Right Turn in India: Authoritarianism, Populism and Neoliberalisation.” Journal of Contemporary Asia. 48, no. 4 (2018): 541–565. doi:10.1080/00472336.2018.1446546

[xviii] Singh, Gurharpal. “Hindu Nationalism in Power: Making Sense of Modi and the BJP-Led National Democratic Alliance Government, 2014–19.” Sikh Formations. 15, no. 3–4 (2019): 314–331. doi:10.1080/17448727.2019.1630220

[xix] Ibid.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey, a perfect storm of anti-democratic​ populism?

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. I commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, I probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer

Turkey suffered a spectacular fall from grace in the global democratic imagination. Once celebrated as a ‘model for political learning’[1] and the Middle East’s ‘only Muslim Democracy’[2], Turkey has become a ‘U.S.-style executive presidency – minus the Supreme Court and Congress’ (ECFR, April 8, 2017) and ‘the biggest jailer of journalists in the world’ (Amnesty International, 2017). Of course, Turkey is not the only country to have recently experienced democratic backsliding. Yet, the Turkish case differs from the more familiar instances of populism witnessed in Europe and the Americas. The populist playbook employed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offers a partial blueprint for the antidemocratic populist strategies employed by other right-wing populists. This populist strategy combines neoliberal economic policies, religious polarisation and media capture. Let us begin with a glance at the country’s democratic legacy.

Even before Erdogan’s tenure at the helm of Turkish politics, democracy in Turkey was plagued by top-down, autocratic tendencies, manifest in four military coups between 1960 and 2000. Elected in 2002, Erdogan’s centre-right Justice and Development Party (AKP) presented itself as a moderately Islamist alternative to the secular Kemalism of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Invoking alignment with the European Union (EU) and the prospect of eventual accession, the AKP promised to improve individual freedoms, reduce the military’s role in government and better recognise Kurdish language and culture. These noble ambitions notwithstanding, the AKP repeatedly clashed with secularist political establishment, committed to upholding Mustafa Kemal’s prohibition on virtually all public manifestations of religion. 

Promising to defend democracy against the alleged coup-plotters, Erdogan used the state of emergency to undermine democratic institutions by cleansing them of alleged ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’.

Civilians demonstrated near the Ataturk Culture Center (AKM) building during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey on June 08, 2013.

For instance, the AKP’s 2007 appointment of President Abdullah Gul, whose wife publicly wears hijab, triggered a constitutional crisis and an investigation of the AKP for violating the principle of laicism. From 2008, the Ergenekon trials sought to combat the role of the deep state (the military, bureaucracy and secret service) in government affairs. At the same time, lawsuits against bureaucrats, NGOs, civil society and journalists evidenced the AKP’s willingness to rescind civil liberties to reaffirm its own power. Following a series of resonant electoral victories, the AKP increasingly weakened national institutions staffed overwhelmingly by Kemalist rivals. Erdogan’s violent crackdown on peaceful protesters at Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in 2013 showcased this distaste for all political opposition to a global audience.

A Populist Strategy to Monopolise Political Power 

Less than three years after the Gezi protests, the failed coup attempt of July 2016 ushered in a fundamental change for democracy in Turkey[3]. Promising to defend democracy against the alleged coup-plotters, Erdogan used the state of emergency to undermine democratic institutions by cleansing them of alleged ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’. The measures enacted after the 2016 coup attempt are part of a multi-pronged populist strategy to monopolise political power in Turkey. Its antidemocratic effect is compounded by harsh repression of elected Kurdish politicians, civil society groups and minority populations. While highly significant, the Kurdish issue is too large and complex to be satisfactorily analysed in this series. 

In the economic realm, Erdogan employs a variant of neoliberal clientelism. Despite promoting a series of business-friendly policies – such as the privatisation of public land,  and the weakening of labour unions – the AKP receives the majority of its votes from economically disadvantaged sections of society[4]. These voters are kept onside using Islamic charity networks who distribute benefits and services in the AKP’s name[5]. At the same time, clientelism reached new levels under Erdogan. Kickbacks from AKP-friendly enterprises constitute a major source of donations for party affiliated organisations[6]. The same enterprises benefited from lucrative public-private partnership construction contracts with AKP controlled municipalities. The catastrophic tenure of Berat Albayrak (Erdogan’s son-in-law) as Minister of Finance and Treasury (July 2018 until November 2020) and the military drone contracts awarded to Selcuk Bayraktar (his other son-in-law) exemplify a political system that places loyalty above competence (Al Monitor, September 11, 2019)

In this economic order, citizen loyalty for democratic institutions is undermined as jobs and benefits cease to be a matter of rights or merit but are tied to membership of an AKP supporting “people”[7]. Thus, after the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan used the state of emergency to disown the “enemies of the people”. His government appropriated over one thousand schools, companies and hospitals owned by members of the Fethullah Gulen-affiliated Hizmet Movement allegedly behind the attempted coup. It also sold seized businesses, such as the Koza-Ipek Conglomerate, to AKP loyalists. Thus, by combining business friendly liberalisation, clientelism and expropriation the AKP increasingly monopolises the Turkish economy. 

Supporters of Turkish President Erdogan follow his speech during an election campaign rally of Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul on June 17, 2018.

Diyanet Used to Supress Dissent 

From 2011 onwards, Erdogan increasingly used the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Diyanet, to entrench AKP narratives in mosques, religious and educational institutions[8]. In addition to imposing its own religious interpretations and mobilising religious segments of society in support of Erdogan, the AKP used Diyanet to supress dissent against the regime[9]. This conscious politicization of an avowedly non-partisan state body entrenched distinctions drawn by Erdogan and the AKP between the religious “people” and their secular “enemies”. The exclusive definition of the “people” around Islamic institutions and AKP support allowed Erdogan to privilege conservative values and traditional family structures[10]. Women contemplating abortion, single mothers and other “non-traditional” family units face discrimination and are labelled unpatriotic.

The July 2016 coup attempt inspired a new level of religious polarisation, in which the “enemies of the people” were extended to include Muslims supportive of- or allegedly affiliated with Fethullah Gulen. Ten-thousands of, so called, “Gulenists”, were dismissed from their jobs, arrested and/or detained as alleged ‘terrorists’ and members of a criminal ‘cult’ (The New Yorker, October 10, 2016). Erdogan’s self-characterisation as the leader of the faithful disavows large swathes of Turkish society, who are either secular, non-Muslim or critical of Erdogan’s regime. 

Beyond this highly instrumental approach to religion, the AKP’s relationship with Turkey’s mass media is characterised by its willingness to arrest journalists for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda[11]. From early into his tenure, then-Prime Minister Erdogan painted mainstream media moguls like Aydin Dogan as the tools of “deep-state”, an elitist faction scheming to undermine the “people’s will”. More recently, Dogan Media Company – once the owner of major newspapers and television channels – was left no option but to sell its media outlets to Demiroren Holding a conglomerate with close ties to the President Erdodan (New York Times, 21 March 2018). Olay TV, another independent news channel, was forced to close due to government pressure (Ahval, December 26, 2020).

Looking back, Erdogan’s attack on democracy amounts to a “perfect storm” – in which clientelism, religious messaging and media capture combine into an antidemocratic populist strategy.

Turkish riot police bloc protesters as they surround the headquarters of a Ipek Media Group linked to a Erdogan regime critic, enforcing a court order to seize the media outlets, in Istanbul October 28, 2015.

Fourth Pillar of Democracy Was Undermined 

In addition to undermining mainstream and critical media outlets, the AKP now controls the messaging of the public broadcaster TRT and the state-run Anadolu news agency, thereby further side-lining critical and opposition voices[12]. Pro-Erdogan businesspeople are encouraged to fund media outlets, publishing houses and creative agencies filled with uncritical government supporters. Invasive laws and media blackouts nurture a culture of overt- and self-censorship among journalists[13]. During the state of emergency declared in 2016, this fourth pillar of democracy was comprehensively undermined. Large-scale media censorship, widespread arrests of journalists and the closure of additional media outlets sparked an exodus of critical journalists out of the country[14]. Independent voices were framed as illegitimate plotters against the “people”. This latest stage of Erdogan’s populist media-capture strategy undermines the principle of accountability of the ruler to the ruled, as to have any practical significance voters need accurate, verifiable information about the government.

Looking back, Erdogan’s attack on democracy amounts to a “perfect storm” – in which clientelism, religious messaging and media capture combine into an antidemocratic populist strategy. Key figures in Turkey’s democratic opposition – including Selahattin Demirtas the Kurdish leader of the progressive pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – are imprisoned and defamed as terrorists. 

As the next part of this series will suggest, Turkey’s democratic decay is emblematic of a wider trend affecting democracies across different religions, cultures and geographies. Despite its severe democratic decay, Turkey is still deemed an indispensable partner by many within the EU and a key NATO ally. This picture is complicated by military escalations with its long-term rival Greece (ECFR, March 13, 2020), its meddling in the Libyan civil war, its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles and Erdogan’s continued assault on international institutions – including the European Court of Human Rights (Al Monitor, December 23, 2020; Politico, December 10, 2020)

The collapse of the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Statement on migration in March 2020 exposes another key vulnerability for Turkey’s democratic partners. Having effectively abandoned Turkey’s prospects for EU accession in 2005, Europeans have surrendered a key means of encouraging Turkey’s democratisation. The failure of democracy in Turkey does not bode well for a world in which democratic values are increasingly questioned. 


References

1) Çavdar, Gamze. “Islamist New Thinking in Turkey: A Model for Political Learning?” Political Science Quaterly. 121, no. 3 (2006): 477-497. Crossref.

[2] Lewis, Bernard. “Why Turkey Is the Only Muslim Democracy.” Middle East Quarterly. March 1, 1994. https://dev.meforum.org/216/why-turkey-is-the-only-muslim-democracy .

[3] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

[4] Bozkurt, Umut. “Neoliberalism with a Human Face: Making Sense of the Justice and Development Party’s Neoliberal Populism in Turkey.” Science & Society. 77, no. 3 (2013): 372–396. Crossref.

[5] Cosar, Simten and Metin Yegenoglu, “The Neoliberal Restructuring of Turkey’s Social Security System.” Monthly Review. April 1, 2009. https://monthlyreview.org/2009/04/01/the-neoliberal-restructuring-of-turkeys-social-security-system/

[6] Özdemir, Yonca. “Turkey’s Justice and Development Party: An Utmost Case of Neoliberal Populism.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the European Consortium for Political Research, Montreal, August 26–29, 2015.

[7] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

[8] Öztürk, Ahmet Erdi. “Turkey’s Diyanet Under AKP Rule: From Protector to Imposer of State Ideology?” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. 16, no. 4 (2016): 619–635. Crossref.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Yilmaz, Zafer. “Strengthening the Family Policies in Turkey: Managing the Social Question and Armoring Conservative–Neoliberal Populism.” Turkish Studies. 16, no. 3 (2015): 371–390. Crossref.

[11] Yilmaz, Gözde. “Europeanisation or De-Europeanisation? Media Freedom in Turkey (1999–2015).” South European Society and Politics. 21, no. 1 (2016): 147–161. Crossref.

[12] Esen, Berk , and Sebnem Gumuscu . “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. 37, no. 9 (2016): 1581–1606. Crossref.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

Political sociologist Dogu Ergil. Photo: Evrensel

Political sociologist Ergil: Populism has a deadline

“Populists share the populace’s negative feelings towards the establishment, but they lack the depth of solid criticism and a sound roadmap of reform. This is populisms inherent weaknesses. As a sweeping movement, populism starts to wane as reality overwhelms the excitement of the rhetoric. Thus, populism has a deadline. The deadline is the realization that populist leaders do not deliver what they promise.”

Interview by Alparslan Akkus

 In this series of interviews on populism, Professor Dogu Ergil argues that conditions are ripe for the emergence of populist leaders. Such figures take centre-stage if popular hopes are shattered and institutional fatigue weakens governmental systems. Populism may surface even in the most developed democracies when systemic fatigue takes hold and populist leaders start exploiting peoples fears, pessimism, and hopes. In general, these leaders idealize the glorious past but seldom have a solid projection of the future. Populist leaders will persist as long as the conditions require their existence, but populism has a deadline; the deadline is reality.

Scholars argue that there has been a worldwide rise in populist movements over the last decades. Some of these populist movements are defined as inclusionary, but most of them are exclusionary; all of them are fed by various ideologies and sentiments like racism, nationalism, xenophobia, souverainism, homophobia, polarization, dividing society into us” vs them,” creating internal and external enemies, aggravating anti-immigration sentiments, antisemitism, islamophobia, Euroscepticism, and anti-globalism, etc. Do you also see a rise in populist movements and, if so, what are the main reasons driving this phenomenon?

Populism is a political approach adopted by politicians that do not trust the “people” and popular government. They claim to be the true representatives of the people. Hence, there is no need for the involvement of the people in the political process. Instead, they can do a better job of representing the people and deciding on their behalf.

“The reason behind the rise of populist movements all around the world can be explained by several factors. Initially, people, by and large, do not feel comfortable deciding on their own on critical issues. Instead, they expect able leaders to lead them to a better future. People are willing to give up their right of choice and pass it on to political leaders who they deem to be superior to them.” 

Given this definition, populism and popular government are quite different in nature. Populist leaders dislike organized society. They shy away from popular participation in politics (participatory politics) that can hold them responsible for their deeds and decisions. In fact, the politics of populism is an indirect process; it may be called “proxy politics”: for the people, by the leader!

In the politics of populism, institutions, societal organizations (civil society), and organized labour (trade unions) are probable sources of opposition to and conspiracies against the populist leader, who knows and does the best for the people. 

The reason behind the rise of populist movements all around the world can be explained by several factors. Initially, people, by and large, do not feel comfortable deciding on their own on critical issues. Instead, they expect able leaders to lead them to a better future. People are willing to give up their right of choice and pass it on to political leaders who they deem to be superior to them. As Eric Fromm coined, this is a sort of flight from freedom.” Masses do not feel capable enough to decide on complex issues that involve serious risks and require a certain level of expertise like economic management, security, or international affairs. This void allows populist leaders to exploit peoples trust. 

Wherever you see an increase in populism, you see people who feel insecure and threatened by existing conditions. By and large, people feel excluded – like they’re on the losing side or their living standards are deteriorating. They gasp for help and hope from a source that is more powerful than themselves. At that moment, the populist leader appears at their doorstep to restore their hope and self-esteem. The slogans of populist leaders are almost identical: 

“Lets make our country great again,” or Our strength is in our blood, history, and unique qualities,” etc. 

Populist leader generally attribute greatness to the past, which has been usurped by sinister imperialist forces and their villainous internal counterparts. Reclaiming the might and glory of the past is the most attractive promise of populist leaders. For instance, in Turkey, the reconstruction of the idealized Ottoman period is almost necrophiliac; it’s as if the Empire didn’t disintegrate a century ago.  

Populists seem to promise an idealized past instead of a better futurewhich they fail to deliver. That is why the past is always gilded and more glorious in populist discourse. The masses do not question this regressive image as long as it satisfies their need for pride and hunger for self-respect.

“Populist leaders do not emerge out of the blue. The deteriorating conditions necessitate them. The gap between the failing or ailing system and disillusioned people is filled by populist politicians. People are in need of confidence and self-respect and are in search of better living standards. Populist leaders will always emerge as long as such conditions surface. Once adverse conditions disappear, populist leaders will become invisible.”

Professor Dogu Ergil.

Reality Overwhelms Hope

Is it correct to demonize populism in general? Isn’t there any valid pretext for emergence of populist movements when conditions avail? Furthermore, almost all populist movements claim to speak on behalf of the people” rather than ruling elites” and imposing bureaucrats.” This rhetoric intrigues people. And the record of the ruling elites so far is not so promising, all over the world. 

Populist leaders do not emerge out of the blue. The deteriorating conditions necessitate them. The gap between the failing or ailing system and disillusioned people is filled by populist politicians. People are in need of confidence and self-respect and are in search of better living standards. Populist leaders will always emerge as long as such conditions surface. Once adverse conditions disappear, populist leaders will become invisible.

We need to remember that populism” is just the opposite of popular rule.” Popular rule, in other words, popular government,” enables people to exercise their will and be involved in the governance of daily life in a less indirect way. This may be approximately called democracy. Democracy is the best way of governance that human beings have so far invented; it’s certainly better than any other existing system. 

Populist leaders propose simple answers to complicated questions. For instance, imagine a country where there is a badly run economy, an unproductive system, huge debts, rampant unemployment, dysfunctional education, negative balance of payments, and so forth: all these issues require sophisticated expertise to solve them. People do not understand or do not bother to understand the root causes and remedies of such complex issues. This is the opportune moment when a group of opportunistic politicians may emerge and propose simple answers like deporting immigrants or denying minorities basic human rights. 

These simplistic answers or remedies garner support from fragile groups who feel threatened. The promise of making things better” resonates with social classes who feel their expectations of a secure present and better future has been lost. They increasingly feel that the ailing system is inefficient, corrupt, and heartless. Populists exploit these negative feelings. Their rhetoric – to make up for past losses and to build a better future – wins the hearts and minds of the expectant people. Unfortunately, they offer no solid foundation for problem solving, instead offering only pejorative remedies.

Populists share the populace’s negative feelings towards the establishment, but they lack the depth of solid criticism and a sound roadmap of reform. This is populisms inherent weaknesses. As a sweeping movement, populism starts to wane as reality overwhelms the excitement of the rhetoric. Thus, populism has a deadline. The deadline is the realization that populist leaders do not deliver what they promise. The power of mobilization does not match with the success of realized hopes. Populist leaders either do not make comprehensive structural changes or fail while trying. Reality overwhelms hope and excitement. The balloon inflated by the populist leaders bursts on the surface of the sharp realities of the day.

The people are left with two choices: either to organize and be a part of the efforts to build a popular governance or join the trail of another populist leader and continue to be duped. The second way is much easier, although it does not lead to anywhere. Populist politicians sway people but do not lead them to “El Dorado.”

 Well, do you see any correlation between Wallersteins anti-capitalist views, like the world system theory, and the rise of populist movements in Latin America? 

Capitalism is prone to crisis but also has the potential to correct and upgrade itself until the next crisis. Marx predicted that the capitalist system will collapse one day, a prophecy that is not yet realized. However, Marx was right in pointing out that capitalism has innate flaws: exploitation and inequality, hence injustice. As long as theres inequality and injustice within a system, it will sooner or later collapse or undergo dramatic changes. 

Indeed, capitalism has proved resilient and undergone serious changes. It led to social democracy, a more egalitarian form of governance. With technological changes, working patterns changed along with class structure. You no longer have two antagonistic classes but many layers of the workforce that are complimentary. Tensions between them can be institutionally reconciled. These changes mitigated class struggle in industrialized countries. However, the fierceness of competition between antagonistic classes still rages in non-industrialized countries. Having said this, let me remind you that exploitation, inequality, and injustice remain unchanged in the capitalist system and these systematically hurt people. Dissatisfaction and suffering worsen at times of crisis, and [this is when] populist politicians take centre-stage. 

The struggle for equality will go on forever, further improving the system and ensuring the struggle for justice will not end. Although it isn’t the collapse of the capitalist system and the realization of the ensuring revolution, as Marx predicted, multiple revolutions have occurred in science and technology. These changes altered the modes of production and politics. Rather than a big, sweeping revolution, there have been multiple revolutions, which have changed life as we know it. However, in societies which have benefitted little from improving conditions, or where existing systems experienced entropy, we have witnessed the emergence of populist movements and leaders.

How exactly do you define the interplay of populism and authoritarianism? Is it just a matter of strongman politics, or are there some other social, economic, and/or political factors?

Populist leaders can emerge anywhere, even in the most economically and/or politically developed countries. Populism raises its head when democracy and affluence decline, and pessimism is on the rise. By definition, populism is a by-product of a degenerate democracy or popular government that has enjoyed elections and elected governments. 

There are also traditional autocracies, kingdoms, and emirates where democratic culture or popular government have not been developed. Political development is gradual and slow in such societies. Democratic culture doesnt flourish where there are no individual freedoms and basic rights. We cannot talk about populism in such societies. However, we can talk about forced mobilization and ruler domination. Populism exists where individuals give up their free will for a “superior” person who they expect to be their “saviour.”  

Respect for freedoms – like freedom of expression or freedom of association – are key to forming a democratic culture. Its hard to form popular governments where democratic ideals are not institutionalized. For instance, after the Ottoman Empire, the sultanate was replaced by an authoritarian bureaucratic government that claimed to directly represent the people. In fact, “populism” was among the basic [constitutional] principles of the Turkish republic. 

The leaders during the first decades of the republic were not coming from liberal backgrounds. They all relied on the unrivalled power of the state rather than rallying popular support. Only after multi-party politics was instituted (1950), did we witness the emergence of populist leaders. 

“There is a direct correlation between conspiracy theories and the way things are perceived among less enlightened groups. The atmosphere of populism is riddled by conspiratorial thinking. Faults are projected onto alien perpetrators. Failures are attributed to the misguidance of foreigners or their treacherous internal agents.”

Populism Is Based On Conspiracies

How do you interpret the relationship between conspiracy theories and rising populism?

There is a direct correlation between conspiracy theories and the way things are perceived among less enlightened groups. The atmosphere of populism is riddled by conspiratorial thinking. Faults are projected onto alien perpetrators. Failures are attributed to the misguidance of foreigners or their treacherous internal agents. With regards to Turkey, economic problems are the result of a so-called “interest lobby” that manipulates Turkeys monetary system and undermines its monetary system. There are always sinister foreign forces that want Turkey to fail and to disintegrate. Conspiracy is a substitute for failure. Populist leaders do not say that they have failed but attribute their failure to conspiracies where the culprits are external agents. Populist leaders need conspiracies; they are an integral part of their discourse.

Do you see any correlation between pessimism about the future of the world (or country or self) and the rise of populism? Do they affect each other?

Pessimism, fear, feeling of loss, but with the hope of regaining whats lost – these are the psychological foundations of populism. 

Do you think this widespread rise in populism is a permanent situation or a conjunctural phenomenon triggered by socio-political and economic problems?

Well, there are developed and undeveloped economies. There are also developed and undeveloped democracies, or put in different words, developed and undeveloped political institutional edifices. But all of these can be shattered by an economic (market collapse) or political crisis (i.e. war). Affluent economies can disintegrate, and people may fall into poverty. Germany for instance, at the end of the World War I, was destabilized and this industrial power had become a poor country. Or on the other hand, an exemplary political system, such as the United States, fell into such political disenchantment that Mr. Trump emerged triumphant from the 2016 elections. Many commentators have stipulated that the American Dream” has come to an end, and people were reacting by supporting a populist politician, namely Mr. Trump. Trump called for the rejection of the established system and proposed his own “wisdom” as its replacement. 

The U.S. example suggests that a rich and productive economy and an established constitutional democracy may fall into entropy, allowing the emergence of populist leaders.

Do you think populism is related to political culture? Is it possible that it wins general approval in some societies and is refused in others? 

Not really. A particular political culture may resist the lure of populism, if its politico-economic system works smoothly, meaning if it sustains a satisfying living standard, political representation, and responsive government. However, a systemic crisis in the institutional structure may lead to the attrition of hopes and confidence. Then, the rise of populist movements cannot be prevented. Just look at post WWI Germany, which once produced the greatest philosophers, scientists, and artists that the world had ever seen; it turned into a country where racism, chauvinism, and expansionism prevailed. When the good declines, the bad emerges. Opportunistic leaders feed on dead hopes, fears, and self-humiliation. 

“People have multiple fears. However, the fear associated with survival is the mother of all fears. Turks have lost an empire. Populist leaders have incessantly provoked their fear of losing again. They fear losing the motherland, the sovereignty of the state, and internal cohesion that may be disrupted by unrest among minorities.” 

Does provoking fear among the masses – or in other terms, a politics of fear / a politics of (in)security – pave the way for populist movements? 

People have multiple fears. However, the fear associated with survival is the mother of all fears. Turks have lost an empire. Populist leaders have incessantly provoked their fear of losing again. They fear losing the motherland, the sovereignty of the state, and internal cohesion that may be disrupted by unrest among minorities. Every single populist leader in Turkey played on these fears rather than finding solutions that could eradicate them. 

Another fear common among Turks is being denigrated and losing respect in the international arena. When somebody – be it a political leader or a nongovernmental organization or a think tank – says something critical about Turkey, then the Turkish people feel offended. They demonstrate on the streets for days. This is a result of a lack of confidence. Just remember the Russian plane incident: when a Turkish Air Force F16 fighter jet shot down a Russian attack aircraft near the Turkish-Syria border on 24 November 2015, Turkish leaders boldly said that we did it.” But later, when they began to experience the brunt of Russian retaliation against Turkey, they back tracked. They went to Moscow and almost begged for reconciliation. 

Their first reaction was for internal consumption. Their second reaction was an act of repairing the damage done in the international arena; it was far from boasting. In this case, populism is sort of an internal propaganda process to polish up the image of the regime and the leadership. 

Kurdish people walk by the bombed buildings after the curfew in Şırnak province of Turkey on March 3, 2016. Armed conflict between Turkish security forces and PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) members killed hundreds of people.

“Kurdishness As An anomaly”

Considering the political Islamist hegemony and the prevalence of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, how do you see the relationship between religion and populism” as well as religion and nationalism” in terms of the authoritarian populist discourse? 

Turkish nationalism is an ethnic ideology that excludes all other nationalities other than Turks. It is a reductionist political ideology, which does not incorporate all the citizens of Turkey.

As for the religious perceptions of Turkish society, we could state that the political Islamist ideology looks at society as an ummah (a union of believers) and refers to all existing congregations as the nuances of the whole. Political Islam expects people to behave as part of the larger ummah. When one emphasizes his/her ethnic identity and exacerbates it, nationalism and religious identity exhibit an uncomfortable co-existence, each identity claiming the upper hand. However, when it comes to the Kurdish “question,” nationalism and religion concur on the suspicion and exclusion of the Kurds. 

The nationalists and the political Islamists leave aside their differences and agree that Kurdishness is an anomaly. Kurds are excluded from every single equation at the national political level.

In both the nationalist and religious rhetoric, Kurds are either our brothers and sisters,” not a distinct identity group, or an alien existence that should be kept under control. This is an enormous contradiction in terms of the national solidarity” that is so exalted. 

Theres no problem in nature; there are facts and realities. Kurds are a fact. Just as any fact that is not perceived and managed properly, they have turned into a problem. Turkey has created a Kurdish problem,” which it does not know how to handle. 

Who is Dogu Ergil?

Professor Dogu Ergil.

Dogu Ergil has served as a professor of political sociology at various universities in Turkey and in the US. He has been a visiting scholar in various universities in the US, Britain and Sweden. Mr. Ergil was chairman of the Department of Political Behaviour at the Faculty of Political Science at Ankara University until late-2000s.

Ergil has earned his BA degree in Turkey; MA and Ph.D. degrees in the US. He worked on political inclinations, ethnic relations, political parties and political violence. He accomplished the first research on political violence in Turkey, which was consummated in a book called ‘Social and Cultural Roots of Political Violence in Turkey’ in 1980, based on interviews in the prison system, on right-wing and left-wing militants. He completed his seminal research ‘The Eastern Question’ in 1995, offering peaceful social conflict resolution methods rather than ongoing violent police and military tactics. 

Ergil has worked with various NGOs on developing more effective leadership, conflict management, and creative problem-solving. He has won awards for his work in international organizations promoting peace and democracy. He has authored 28 books, published a sheer number of academic articles and book chapters.