The fear of the erosion of democratic ideals and globalized liberal order is now transforming into a reality. As right-wing forces take over the reins of the governments across the globe or are on the verge of doing so, the minorities or the marginalized groups are left to their horrifying fate. Populism is the driving force that is currently in the process of re-structuring the order which had for so long dominated the international system. The populism that has taken roots is exclusive as opposed to being inclusive. Now, marginalized groups being rendered helpless around the world. The re-immersion of populism has led to the creation of an “us versus them” identity, the rise of divisive politics, and the establishment of authoritarian regimes.
Keywords: Populism; declining liberalism; world order; Europe; North America
To explain the above-mentioned term, I have provided below the definition given by an important individual:
Jan-Werner Müller, a German political scientist, has explained in his book What is Populism? “Populism is a form of identity politics. Populism is a threat to democracy because democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal but also irreducibly diverse citizens. Put simply, populists do not claim that ‘we are the 99%’. What they imply instead is ‘we are the 100%’. For the populists, this equation always works out: any remainder can be dismissed as immoral and not properly part of the people at all.”(Forthomme, 2017)
Populist politics: The defining element of a new world order
As far as the populist case studies are concerned, I will be putting forward a wide range of European, and American examples.
Large-scale migration, especially because of the consequence of the war in Syria, has been used as a rallying point for numerous far-right parties to tip the political scales in their favour. Cultural and security concerns have been repeatedly highlighted and abused as part of their propaganda to build hostility among the native population against the continued flow of immigrants. Left unaddressed, these concerns have culminated into deep-seated resentment against the existing national establishments and transnational institutions. In fact, the resentment has culminated into violence, both physical and verbal against the “others,” such as ethnic minorities (Muslims and Jews), immigrants, refugees, members of the LGBTQ community, colored and poverty-stricken people, and neo-liberals.
Several populist and nationalist leaders across the globe, are exploiting the fears and insecurities of the people and feeding on them like parasites, threatening to topple the liberal international order. These leaders are seen to be establishing a rapport with the voters who see their lives in a stalemate because of the inefficient governments who have not been able to implement the promises that the beginning of the Liberal era had signaled. (Starr, 2007)
These trends have taken strong roots primarily in the regions of Europe, and North America. Highlighting the European example, Herr Wolfgang Schaeuble (The former German Finance Minister), has claimed in an interview with BILD Daily, (A German tabloid) as per the reports of an article available in the Business Insider/ Reuters that there has been an upsurge in what he refers to as the demagogic populism, which if left unchecked, would undoubtedly dismantle the integrated European structure and thus, the European Union. His argument is supported by the referendum which took place to determine Britain’s future with regards to its membership in the EU as well as the current dynamics playing out in the political arena. Today, the world is faced with the prospect of the beginning of the end of EU for a successful Brexit would possibly sow the seeds for demagogues in other member states to follow suit.
Schäuble is not wrong in his concern about rising populism. In a report published by Chatham in 2011, “Right Response: Understanding and Countering Populist Extremist in Europe,” the study found that modern European politics has witnessed the rise of alt-right parties and the issue of immigration. Immigration, cleverly exploited by such parties, has become one of the determining factors in demonstrating an increase in pro right-wing party votes. An example of this includes the rise in immigration from Middle Eastern and African countries. With a large percentage of immigrants being Muslim, right-wing parties have deemed Islam a cultural threat and Muslims deemed as incapable of integration. This has invoked fear within citizens and has led them to protect their identities and homeland at an extreme cost.
Other impacts of populism is the increasing polarization in society, growing anti-establishment sentiment, subversion of the basic tenets of liberalism, such as right to equality, right to freedom of speech, expression and religion, as well as despotic rule.
This has the potential to shred liberal democratic values at its core. We are witnessing impassioned movements and rallies against the corrupt ruling class and the globalized elites. For Example, In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement led by anti-establishment, right-wing leader Beppe Grillo has resonated with the voters. In 2016 when Italy held the referendum on constitutional reforms, Grillo and his colleagues campaigned and amassed support to reject the reforms. They were successful in garnering over 59 per cent votes in their favor. This forced Matteo Renzi to resign as the Prime Minister. Operating on similar lines as those of other right-wing parties, politics of exclusion and nationalism have allowed them to reap political benefits. (The Economist, 2017)
Starting in 2014 and in the years succeeding that, several leaders have invoked the spirit of populism in an unprecedented manner. What we must keep in mind is that neither of the countries examined in this paper have a past that is free from populist rhetoric and actions. US, for example, has witnessed populist movements, and parties since the 1800s. Italian political arena has been home to populist tradition since the era of Mussolini. France first saw the emergence of populism in the later stages of French Revolution. German populism was initially observed in Nazi Germany. However, what we observe today has largely become more dangerous. There is/ are no specific causal factor(s) for the rise of populism across the world. The situation has differed across history and time.
I will be highlighting a few important points made by such leaders as part of their campaigns or at international events, thereby drawing a parallel between them. Marine Le Pen (National Front) in her maiden campaign speech of 2017 said, “Globalization is my enemy, one in the name of global finance and one in the name of radical Islam. They will lead to the disappearance of this France, as we remember it and as we love it. One advances under the guise of liberal economics, the other under the guise of religious liberty.” (Forthomme, 2017)
There have been numerous cases where the migrants who once sought refuge in the makeshift camps, have been forcefully evicted in a manner that is inhumane, to say the least. They now find themselves homeless and living in squalors, woods and open fields, making an effort to stay away from the sights of the police who treat them with absolute indignity. Chemical agents, projectiles, tear gas and baton are utilized by the police to get rid of them. (Townsend, 2018)
In September 2018, in his speech addressed to the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. President Donald Trump proudly rejected globalism, international organizations such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and instead embraced patriotism. In his speech, he also claimed the U.S. would always choose “independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination.” (Hennigan, 2018)
Within two years of Trump’s presidency, he has used the principles of populist rhetoric to launch attacks – both literally and concretely – against the policies of internationalism. Under Trump’s populism, the U.S. has engaged in a trade war against China, withdrew from the Paris Agreement, UNESCO, Iran Nuclear Deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, reduced its monetary support to the United Nations, and has adopted openly hostile and anti-immigration policies. (TRTWORLD ,2018)
Trump, while on the campaign trail had been successfully able to capitalise on the fears that existed among the white Americans. In fact, a study produced by Justin Gest in 2016 revealed that “65 per cent of white Americans stated that they were ready to vote for a candidate who would restrict immigration, promise to provide American jobs to American workers, preserve America’s Christian heritage and stop the threat of Islam”. (Ikäheimo, n.d)
Still, far-right groups in Europe and the U.S. have been working together on what is referred to by them as “The Movement” to provide the prerequisite support to the right-wing and anti-establishment groups and political parties to implement their radical ideologies and manifestoes. (Lewis, 2018)
For the first time in 2017, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the far-right party in Germany entered the Bundestag (the German Federal Parliament), with 94 seats, thereby securing 12.6% of the total vote share. (Clarke, 2017) This is believed to have greatly upset the delicate balance between the different societal factions that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a center-right party had maintained for a long period of time. AfD is now the third-largest party in the parliament and the largest opposition party.
Populist Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán has put in every effort in order to undermine and dismantle the core elements of liberal institutions, namely an objective media, independent judiciary, as well as a strong and independent civil society. Independence of the judiciary has largely been curtailed, the electoral law modified in a manner that would grant his party Fidesz victory in the elections and most of the media outlets have now been consolidated and operate as a “pro-government cartel.” (Ash, 2019)
In 2018, he yet again won the presidential elections, and he did so with a landslide victory. Exclusionary ethnic and religious political gimmicks, as well as the process of ‘Otherization’, have been the basis of the formulation of a new Hungarian national identity. Anti-Semitism, a reminder of the horrors inflicted by Hitler, is on the rise in Hungary.
In a manner that is reminiscent of the propaganda carried out by the Nazi regime, Orbán in 2018, reproached the Hungarian-born Jewish financier, George Soros as being the architect of the European refugee crisis. This allegation has its roots in Soros’s call for the humane treatment of refugees fleeing prosecution and death, in 2015. His advocacy stood in contradiction with the government’s hostile attitude and steps to bar the refugees from entering Hungary. Massive campaigns to smear Soros and the Central European University (CEU) have been led by the government. The promotion of liberal ideas by the university are supposedly clashing with the authoritarian, staunchly “pro-Christian” values of the government. (Walker, 2018)
Established in 1991, CEU was conceptualized as an international institution that would aid in the smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy in Eastern Europe, thereby introducing the concept of a free society in a region which had remained unaware of such a notion. Now the University has been pushed out of the country. The incident has set a historical precedent for the further erosion of freedom by authoritarian leaders. While there are still going to be less than 1/5th of the courses taught in Budapest, the university almost in its entirety, was forcefully evicted from the country in December, 2018.
In fact, as part of its policy to smear and destroy the credibility of those who still have a voice and those who are unafraid of being staunch advocates for compassion, humanity, as well as of freedom of speech and expression in the face of rising oppression; the Hungarian government had, not long ago passed a law referred to as the ‘Stop Soros’ law. In response to this law, the Open Society Foundations filed a petition against it in the European Court of Human Rights, situated in Strasbourg. (Mischke, 2018)
In the case of the UK in June 2016, Brexit leaders were successful in swinging the results of the referendum regarding the decision to stay or pull out of EU in their favor. Campaigning for the latter, they were able to achieve their objective, a decision which had previously been dismissed by the so-called experts as an improbability. The continued influx of Poles, particularly in the post-2008 financial crisis, had created widespread resentment at the grassroots level amongst the British. The growing anti-EU sentiment had worsened the situation. The inability of those in power to accurately assess the ground reality allowed the right-wing leaders to stroke the fears of the populace.
With the growing pressure, particularly from the Tory MPs, former Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a referendum to decide upon UK’s future relationship with EU would be held if his party won the 2015 elections. This referendum would determine if UK would remain as a EU member state or not. (Wright, 2016) His fateful decision set the stage for his country’s exit from the EU, more popularly known as Brexit. He and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon became some of the prominent faces of the “remain” camp and people including Gerard Batten, and Nigel Farage steered the “leave” camp.
They (Eurosceptics) capitalized on the popular grievances such as austerity, immigration, absence of job opportunities and security, etc. as well as misrepresented and misquoted facts and figures to terrorize the population into submission. As the country harrowingly draws closer to the possibility of a No-Deal Brexit from the European Union, the reality can clearly be gauged. There is neither clarity, nor a concretized contingency plan on what their world would look like in isolationism from the regional organization they had officially been a member of since 1973.
As opposed to having a unified currency and a single free-market trading system, the Brexiteers have sought to re-create Europe in a way that the EU as we know it today would be in ruins and displacing it would emerge, a separate and to a large extent, isolationist nation-states operating on the notions of tribalism. The vicious media and the wealthy South Asian migrants were two of the key players in the Brexit campaign, who collectively induced the UK citizens to vote in favor of their goal.
According to Thomas Carothers (Senior Vice President For Studies At The Carnegie Endowment For International Peace), populism as a phenomenon is here to stay for the foreseeable future. (Dempsey, 2016)
If that is to be the case for the foreseeable future, it is vitally important for liberal institutions to maintain the structural measures of the international liberal world order. The liberal world order as we know it has its foundations in rule of law, liberal democracy, and liberal institutions that were set up in the post-WWII era advocating for free trade, open economy, liberalization of policies, etc. The most important liberal institutions are WTO, IMF and World Bank. Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, Donald Tusk are the 21st century torch bearers of the liberal values that we cherish.
Rational liberal leaders must be united by a common goal to defeat the demagogues, rethink liberalism, restart the political debate that will not only address the populist sentiments that have begun to tear the liberal order to shreds but also, but will also ensure the sustenance of their arguments in favor of globalization and cosmopolitanism. The mainstream liberal leaders must cooperate as opposed to challenge one another. We therefore need to reconstruct the liberal democracy in such a manner that the waning appetite for globalization and internationalism resurges all over again. For this, there is no specific model and is entirely dependent on the experts being able to contextualize the problem at hand and apply the necessary solution.
What the liberal leaders must not forget is that they have to stop blowing the trumpet for the alt-right. Constant criticism of the policies adopted by the rightwing leaders has done anything but helped them turn the tide back in favour of the liberal values. I do not seek to dismiss the importance of speaking out against the erosion of liberal ideals. What I am against is constantly harping on about the dilemma facing us without doing what is necessary to counter it. The problems had been simmering underneath the surface for a long period of time, as a result of the pressure from the grassroots. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to the basics. Extensive grassroots engagement has to be taken up. The perceived ethnic, cultural and immigration related threats can be dealt with through genuine interaction between different communities and by forging shared experiences.
While the populists are able to successfully engage a large section of the population through their divisive and xenophobic rhetoric, they do not have concrete proposals in place to substantially deal with the issues of immigration, national security, etc. Thus, challenging them to provide such proposals to the electorate would result in inconsistencies emerging in what they claim they can achieve and what they can actually achieve, thereby creating gaping holes in their far-fetched story. (Maher, 2017) Trade wars and Brexit are policies but the leaders who have unleashed them onto the world have done so with little or no contingency plans should things fall apart. Moreover, there is no decisive blueprint made available to the electorate on how their policies would actually be implemented. Such policies should not be taken at face value but rather the leaders should be pressurized to put forth their pragmatic vision of what such policies would entail and their overall impact.
Moreover, the pro-EU and pro-globalization leaders need to urgently address the concerns which have been exploited by the populists to expand their support base, such as rising unemployment, equitable economic growth, failure of liberal modernity as well as the deep-seated resentment within those who have been inadvertently affected by the perils associated by with the globalized world order. It is now a matter of survival for these leaders to be able to successfully convince the masses of their vision of a multicultural and unified European Union and world.
Civil society organizations must nurture pro-liberal perceptions through social media platforms, and build networks across the North-South divide to halt the growing momentum of the alt-right as well as to re-affirm the importance of basic human rights. The respective governments should start off by addressing the economic concerns of their citizens. Tax havens must be exposed and the and equitable tax systems should be instituted. The youth must be empowered to undertake policy challenges necessary to remedy the blow to the liberal order.
Currently, the local populace across the world believes that besides the populist parties, they have no other forum available to have their grievances addressed. Mainstream politicians, in order to remedy that, must become far more responsive to those issues which are understood to be everyday concerns, concerns which many claim they are out of touch with. Clearly, they are. Otherwise, this backlash of exclusive populism would not be well on its way to homogenize the functioning of a new world order. Possible grassroots citizen consultation forums should be set up to aid those who feel they have been left behind in the path towards prosperity.
Note on Contributor
Saman Ayesha Kidwai has completed her MA in Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding from Jamia Millia Islamia. Current main interests: International affairs, Middle Eastern and Balkan politics, as well as Gender-based issues.
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 See Forthomme (2017), for a detailed discussion on whether Trump-led populism is a threat to democracy.
The promises of Liberalism can be adequately summed up in the words of Paul Starr in Why Liberalism Works. “Liberalism stands not only for the principle that we all have an equal right to freedom but also for the hypothesis that this is a workable ideal, and that a politics based on liberal principles can produce the power and wealth that make a free society more than a dream”.
These comments have been made by Herr Schaeuble in the context of the rising populism that has been witnessed across the first world and signaled that this major crisis has threatened the values of pluralism, an important characteristic that had long been associated with the European society. Unless the mainstream politicians and political parties are able to re-formulate themselves and their approach to addressing these issues, Europe would continue to face a grave threat. This particular dilemma has been posed as a result of the incapability of the mainstream leaders, specifically in Germany to assuage the frustration and insecurity of their fellow citizens over the issues of the open-door migration policy of the ruling coalition, and the policies adopted by the European Central Bank, which they feel are detrimental to their interests.
 See The Economist (2017), to understand how populism is reshaping our world.
 See Forthomme (2017), for a detailed discussion on whether Trump-led populism is a threat to democracy.
 See Townsend (2018), to examine the police brutality against the illegal immigrants in France.