“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 populism’s 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 people’s 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 people’s 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:
“Let’s 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 future, which 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.”
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 populism’s 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 Wallerstein’s 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 there’s 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.
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 doesn’t 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. It’s 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 Turkey’s 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 what’s 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.
“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.
There’s 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?
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.