There is hardly any region in the world that right-wing populism did not impact in the mid-2010s. The election of Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the swift rise of far-right political parties in Europe are evidence that contemporary politics is now the leitmotif of rightwing populism. By 2018, there were about twenty populist leaders that were shaping our world including Germany’s first far-right political party – the AfD – to enter the political arena in decades. These significant political changes that took place in this decade and the rise of other rightwing populist parties in France, Indonesia, Austria, Poland, Hungary, and Italy, to name a few, have prompted the need for careful inspection of the phenomenon.
Through the 2010s, populism held different forms. Some countries witnessed a socioeconomic and anti-establishment form of populism where the working class and the people were set against big businesses, political elites and the bourgeoise that were deliberately favored by the global capitalist system. The populism of this form was seen in countries such as the US and France where the mantra “the establishment has failed the people” was evoked. In other countries such as Germany and India, where issues of race, identity, and caste existed, civilizational and cultural populism arose.
Populism, in a sense, advocates the idea of direct democracy. It supports the interest of the general public over that of a specific group and their narrative roams around the juxtaposition of the corrupt class and the people. The central or perhaps the permanent agenda of the populist parties is one that builds on the “interests of the people,” in which a situation or a crisis is capitalized on to win public support. It sounds comforting to say that such an agenda is based on highlighting the interests of the people, but what makes it manipulative and vicious? It is the distinguishing characteristics of this form of right-wing politics which make it so alarming: the sharply “us versus them” attitude and the leaders’ tendency to manipulate people with phantoms and false contradictions. It can be a deceptive affair indeed!
After World War I, developments such as the emergence of the League of Nations and the concept of free markets surfaced. The world was becoming globally interconnected. In 1929, the Great Depression threatened liberal democracy and constitutionalism, leading the world towards the fascism and right-wing populism of Hitler and Mussolini. The mantra of “us versus them” and the populist tendency of nationalism led the world into World War II.
But, after World War II, the need for welfare states and the establishment of global organizations such as the UN, NATO, and Bretton Woods Institutes (WB and IMF) gained momentum, and economic growth flourished. The global environment was somewhat free of fascism.
Then, the financial crash of 1973 occurred. Countries around the world gathered and agreed to sign the Washington Consensus in the 1980s under which austerity, restriction of welfare states, free trade and economic favors to multinational corporations (MNCs) were encouraged. These economic rules destroyed local industry, allowed big businesses to coerce workers, damaged the climate and increased the wealth gap among the masses. The world entered into a neo-liberal capitalist setting that is familiar to us today.
The financial crash of 2008 crippled the capitalist economy, collapsed the growth rate and increased criticism of the current economic, political and financial establishment. This became an opportunity for the right-wing parties to assert themselves. They acted as a replacement for the collapsed system: Obama blamed the Republicans for giving a free hand to immigrants (Trump has done the same), Modi criticized Nehru and other founding families for sympathizing with Muslims and Europeans encouraged xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments. As liberals had feared, the crash of 2008 appeared to be the turning point towards bolder right-wing populist movements across the world, like it had done after 1929.
In the contemporary world, there is growing inequality, rising precariousness, a youth bulge, a surplus population, globalization that has made people insecure and an increasing global atmosphere of fear triggered by the refugee crisis in Europe. These are abnormal times; we are facing multiple crises such as economic, linguistic, cultural, identity, regional conflicts, climate change, cosmopolitanism, and now, health. People are angry and frustrated.
With these dynamics, the right-wing populist movements are able to impose themselves and cash in on a state of crisis. The contradictions and phantoms that they create either turn into realities because of the negligence of the current political establishment, or their followers start believing those fictions themselves. As Matthew d’Ancona puts it: “playing fast and loose with the truth has moved from fiction to real life.”
The politics where truth loses its value to fiction can be referred to as the politics of delusion.
Right-wing populists in today’s world feed people with fear of foreign elements: fear of the immigrants and black community in the US, fear of Muslims in India, and xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe. They make a dichotomy between the internal and the external, good versus evil, the deprived majority versus the wealthy minority and “us versus them.”
On the other hand, there is the left which is at the moment, shattered. Even in this moment of weakness, elements of the left are resisting, as witnessed in the historical Black Lives Matters movement, the almost candidacy of the socialist Bernie Sanders in the US, and the student rights movements in India. The left today is becoming defensive. It is trying to protect its status quo. Meanwhile the right is bold and revolutionary. It is a challenge for the left to gather itself and create a common language of solidarity against the right-wing.
But, neither of them has what it takes. Even if the right-wing populism is letting fascist powers come to office, they do not have the vision to govern. There is a difference between fantasy and vision. They become irrelevant with time if they fail to deliver. The left, on the other hand, may become revolutionary and bold again but they do not have the necessary solutions to get political and economic systems back on track.
Now that Joe Biden is the new president of the US, the world is hoping for a progressive change in US policies because of his inclination from the center towards the left. The progressive rhetoric he used in his campaigns and the vision he displayed on his campaign website can be seen as left-oriented. But the reality is more complicated. To take just one example: he campaigned in favor of Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan to give people relief but he is the same person who was among the few Democrats that favored the harsh bankruptcy bill. Even though Bernie Sanders reserves hope in Biden’s administration, one wonders: how can Biden justify his interview, amidst the pandemic, where he said that he would veto the Medicare For All bill if both houses of Congress passed it?
The opportunistic shift of Biden’s rhetoric from his unprogressive past can only be seen in one context: he is a chameleon that changes its colour with the situation at hand. The left, therefore, needs to come out collectively and boldly against both opportunists and populists. But this, as mentioned earlier, will have to be done with an effective vision to govern for a progressive welfare-based society.
Otherwise, one fears, the future is bleak and tyrannical.