Rise of nationalist populism
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - April 14, 2019 - 12:00am

Today, there is a rising political tide engulfing the world in all types of countries as diverse as the United States, Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, India, Israel  and Italy.  This politics – old and new – is populism defined as “...political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established ‘elite’ groups.” This is old politics; but, new politics has combined populism with a type of nationalism which views identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests to the exclusion or detriment of the other nations.

This new type of politics has been termed as nationalist populism. It has no ideology because there are left wing and right wing personalities who espouse this advocacy. It is hard to define populism because the leaders who espouse this oftentimes refuse to be called this term. However, the typical populist usually presents “the people” as the force for good and they are simply representing this force often called the “silent majority”. They then present the “enemy of the people” as “the elite” who are portrayed as corrupt and self-serving . This “elite’ is supposed to be comprised of the political, economic, cultural and media establishment often depicted as a homogenous group who place their interests above the interests of “the people.” 

The rise of nationalism is said to be a revolt against globalization; and, the rise of income inequality is said to be  a revolt against the elites. Populists point to globalization as benefiting only the very rich while the fact that income inequality is getting worse is shown as evidence that the elites do not care for the overwhelming “silent majority.” 

The situation becomes more intense in countries that boast of high economic growth and the increase in the number of billionaires; but, income inequality becomes more pronounced. It must be painful for those thousands standing on the sidewalk waiting for hours to ride a public utility vehicles while watching chauffeur driven limousines and suburban utility vehicles and vans driving by with a lucky few riding in air-conditioned comfort. I once mentioned this to some affluent friends and their replies were typically elitist. One said: “ Really? I never noticed that.” Another said: “ I am sure they are used to it.” And a third one said: “it is not my fault I am rich and they are not rich.” 

The positive side of populism is they are truly expressing the frustrations and yearnings for a better life for them and their children. Is there a dark side to populism?  Princeton professor Jan-Werner Muller explained it this way:

“Populism ...is sometimes taken to be shorthand for criticism of the elites and it is true that populists, when in opposition, criticize sitting governments and other parties. More important, however, is their claim that they and they alone represent what they usually call the real people or the silent majority. Populists thus declare all other contenders for power to be illegitimate. In this way, populists’ complaints are always fundamentally personal and moral;  the problem invariably is that their adversaries are corrupt. In this sense, populists are indeed antiestablishment. But populists deem citizens who do not take their side to be ‘inauthentic,’ not part of the real people: they are un-American, un-Polish, un-Turkish and so on. Populism attacks not merely elites and establishments but also the very idea of political pluralism.

“This anti-pluralism explains why populist leaders tend to take their countries in an authoritarian direction if they have sufficient power, and if countervailing forces such as an independent judiciary or free media are not strong enough to resist them. Such leaders reject all criticisms with the claim that they are merely executing the people’s will. They seek out and thrive on conflict; their political business model is permanent culture war. In a way they reduce all political questions to questions of belonging: whoever disagrees with them is labelled as an enemy of the people.” 

At some of his rallies, Trump shouts about “corrupt, power hungry globalists.” At one rally, he said  “ You know they have a word – it’s sort of become old fashioned – it’s called a nationalist...You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist.” And the crowd started cheering “ USA! USA!” During the Brexit debates in the United Kingdom, pro-Brexit supporters invoked nationalism saying that Britain should take back its sovereignty. 

I remember a time when leaders like Claro M. Recto and Lorenzo Tañada were lauded for their nationalism. Today, it has become a debatable word. The thing to remember is that nationalism is only around two centuries old. Until the 18th century, most of the world was divided into empires – Austrian, British, Spanish, French, Ottoman, Russian and Chinese. The doctrine of nationalism – rule in the name of a nationally defined people – spread gradually around the world as empires broke up into nation states. It was only in 1950 when the majority of the globe’s surface became nation states. 

If the factors driving populism – worsening income inequality and globalization benefiting only a few – continue, then removing a populist leader will only see the rise of another populist leader as replacement. There are even those who predict that a future dominated by Artificial Intelligence and run by algorithms will result in millions of unskilled and semi skilled people losing their jobs. This futuristic world might mean that populist leaders representing the “silent majority” will even become stronger.

There is a chance – a very slim one – that we will see the renaissance of an enlightened elite who would be willing to sacrifice personal interests for the common good – a future that will see an elite that will finally realize that charity  philanthropy is not enough. What is needed is a world where every family is given the right to a decent quality of life. I wonder if such a world could really come true.  Then we may see the end of nationalist populism. 

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on April 27 (1:30 pm-3pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration, email writethingsph@gmail.com.

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

NATIONALIST POPULISM
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