Countering Populism

A specter called populism is haunting the world. Claiming to be the authentic representation of the majority’s interest, populism plays on fears and putative threats. Rafael Seligmann looks at a philosophy perverted at the roots of populism and explains how democratic culture can help impose frameworks and put up roadblocks to safeguard freedom, human dignity and democracy…



A specter is haunting the world. Its name is populism. People say it threatens democracy. That conclusion is largely correct. But before we go into the relationship between populism and democracy, first let’s nail down what that unclear term “populism” actually means.
Populism is derived from the Latin populus, or nation. But today, different politicians and parties are called populist. For example: Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Marine Le Pen,
Viktor Orbán, Jaroslav Kaczynski,
Wladimir Putin, Geert Wilders, Beppe Grillo, Rodrigo Duterte, Alexander Gauland etc. This incomplete list makes clear that highly contrasting personalities and political agendas are being put in a box together.
To understand what is happening politically today, we must arrive at a definition of “populism” that can function as the lowest common denominator. Observing politics worldwide, some similarities emerge. These include the strategy of playing on the population’s fears and, where fears do not or hardly exist, of sowing them anew and even deepening them. This way, the psychological reflex of being curious about the unknown while exercising caution is reduced to simple fear. The native population is fed negative images of the putative threats emanating from minorities, migrants, and other states and told they are existential threats. Taboos are placed on the willingness to stand by one’s fellows. The commandment of compassion in all monotheistic religions is replaced by exclusion.

Idealistic philosophy

Populism claims to be the authentic representation of the majority’s interests. The concerns of the minority are dismissed or even condemned as a threat to the majority. Populists claim to know the majority’s putative national, religious, economic and social interests. They determine the “enemy” and say how to fight it most effectively. This can reach the lengths taken by Philippine President Duterte, who incites the police and vigilante groups to kill “drug dealers.” These murders are then praised in public as necessary and beneficial actions in the interest of the people.
The transformation of perfidy and crime into beneficence is an invention of early fascism that the Nazis readily copied. Benito Mussolini, the “duce” of Italy’s fascists, was a fan of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was given to “philosophizing with a hammer.” Nietzsche aspired to the ideal of a “superman”. That was no racial or biological attribute, however. It was a call for intellectual integrity and moral rectitude. Mussolini and his followers perverted this idealistic philosophy into the tailored ideology of fascism, which demanded: “follow your duce unconditionally through all acts of cruelty. This way you will become a superman and serve the community.” Hitler and the Nazis took up the fascist prescription and added a quasi-biological dimension, morphing it into a “master race.”
Trump, Orbán, and Gauland are not Nazis. Yet the method of making the majority interest they themselves devised look valuable in the service of society, together with its ruthless implementation at the expense of minorities, is taken straight out of the fascist playbook of tactical manipulation. The neofascists understand that. It is why the “alt-right” in the U.S. supported and applauded Trump’s election to the presidency and his contradictory yet polarizing remarks regarding the far right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In Germany, meanwhile, the brief history of the AfD shows how quickly a party can drift into the far-right spectrum. When it was founded in 2013 the “Alternative for Germany” mainly criticized the government’s financial policy. The AfD leadership around Bernd Lucke, a professor of macroeconomics, lamented Germany’s abandonment of its cherished currency, the D-mark, in favor of the allegedly softer joint European currency, the euro, and called for a return to the D-mark.

Yet this alternative focused on finances and the economy achieved popularity only in the beginning. Then the party began falling back. In a prosperous country with nearly full employment, financial policy and macroeconomic details are not issues that generate an emotional response. Emotions are stirred far more readily by nationalist slogans and the alleged threat of foreign immigrants. This was the strategy that Frauke Petry, an AfD member of Saxony’s regional legislature, considered much more promising. The influx of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan that began that same summer appeared to confirm her nationalist course. From then on the AfD styled itself as the keeper of Germany’s national interests that, it said, had been betrayed by the German government. That was because Chancellor Merkel’s Conservatives and the Social Democrats had upheld the protection of human dignity and the right to asylum enshrined in the German constitution. The AfD vowed to take up the mantle of voice of the German people’s concerns. In fact, however, it was generating and amplifying the people’s fears of Islamic migrants who were, it said, threatening Germany’s inner security.

Emotions and anxieties

The emotions and anxieties that Petry had tapped into required ever more drastic slogans to remain active and influential, much in the same way that addicts require ever-stronger doses of their drug. Since Petry was unwilling to do this, however, she was pushed out by her own party allies. In the meantime she has announced to quit the party altogether. The AfD’s new leadership duo gives the radicals and fearful what they need. Also, one of the new leaders, Alexander Gauland, demanded that the ethnic Turkish politician Aydan Özoguz be “disposed of” in Anatolia. Rightwing radicals and neo-Nazis celebrated the dehumanization of a democratic female politician. It was a similar pattern as in the U.S., Hungary, and Turkey.
However, the example of the United States demonstrates that democratic ­institutions can place limitations on populism. Donald Trump failed in his efforts to restrict immigration from majority Muslim countries and dismantle the Affordable Care Act, known generally as Obamacare. Democratic culture imposes a framework on Donald Trump, sets roadblocks in his path and restricts him largely to sloganeering. In Germany too, democratic parties, institutions and the postwar experience are showing their effectiveness. In the recent federal elections an overwhelming majority of voters cast their ballot against populism and radical nationalism. The Germans voted for freedom, dignity, and democracy. Among most people, populist slogans had no realistic chance. ■

Photo Credit: – European People’s Party/Wikimedia/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

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