The world is going through a radical shift as a result of hyperglobalization. One dramatic occurrence that may be noted on the world stage is the rise of populism. The foreign policy positions of the populist parties on the right reflect their nativist worldview. This leads to anti-immigration policies, disregard for the plight of refugees, aversion to a multicultural and multi-ethnic society, and a focus on hyper nationalist discourse. Populist parties on the left, on the other hand, oppose the neoliberal world order and open markets. However, the line between left and right populism has become increasingly blurred in recent times.
Issues vilified by those either side of the aisle are no longer leftist or rightist stance, but instead become populist stances that do not oblige to which side of the political spectrum to fall on. For instance, while neoliberalism is accused by leftists primarily in political discourse, right-wing populists do not hesitate to point a finger at it either. A proper understanding of what this loaded term “populism” means thus becomes necessary for the field of International Relations. Not only have populist parties and leaders had a significant impact on a their respective country’s foreign policy, but also on the flows of globalization in the wider sense. It is not sufficient to accuse populism of being anti-toleration or anti-liberty. The world is in dire need of a understanding the deeper reasons behind the symptoms of populism so as to “guide political and policy choices and to identify alternatives to the nationalist and anti-multilateral course advocated by populism” (Balfour, 2017, p. 57).
“Populism” is a thin ideology (“-ism”), i.e. it focuses on a very small part of the political agenda. While populism is quick to make calls for getting rid of the current political system, it does not offer an alternative world order that will replace the current system. Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde (2004) calls it a thin-centred ideology because the particular ideas under its command are of limited scope, complexity and ambition when compared to full ideologies. This thinness of the populist ideology allows it to transcend the left-right political spectrum. The dominant theoretical paradigm originating in Mudde’s work (2017) defines populism as an idea that focuses on the antagonism between two conflicting groups within a society. On one side lie the people i.e. the “pure people”, and on the side lie the elites i.e. “corrupt elite” against the backdrop of popular sovereignty.
The populists that seem to be emerging in today’s political climate often fall on the right of the political spectrum. Mudde has accused them of being dividers rather than uniters i.e they find an agenda that infuriates the broader public and use the public anger and discontent in their own favour. They do so by first positioning themselves as the voice of the “pure people”. The presupposition here is that they too are a part of this gathering of the “pure people”, even if this claim may not be objectively true. They achieve an entry into the world of the commoners by claiming fraternity.
Modi’s tea seller story may be seen as an example of the same – an “I am just like you” anecdote (their is a reason behind the recent TIME cover calling him the “divider in chief”). Trump, on the other hand, cannot do the same by virtue of being a billionaire heir. His approach is distinctly different – he positioned himself as an aggressive outsider during his election campaign. By doing so, he claimed to be the tribune of white populist rage. He promised to meet the demands of blue collar workers, whose grievances he claimed to empathize with. It should be noted that despite the populists claiming to talk in the name of people, once they assume power, the discourse often flips. They are motivated by strong anti-democratic impulses. Upon securing power, they create oppressive regimes that are not motivated by the prospect of meeting demands of the common people (Muller, 2016).
One must wonder how populism became so popular so rapidly. Cox (2017) provides three narratives in an attempt to answer this question. The first narrative assumes populism to not be an ideology at all. Instead it is deemed a cheap strategy used by powerful people all over the world to become more powerful, and to hold on to this power. Populism is “invariably divisive, thrives on conspiracy, finds enemies where they do not exist, criminalises all opposition to it, plays up external threats, and more often than not insists that its critics at home are merely working for foreign governments” (p. 14).
The second narrative focuses on populism emerging as an opposition to globalization. Given the sudden rise in technology and social media (and social media-propagated movements), the new world emerging seems anarchic and a threat to traditional values to many persons all over the world. While this threat has been felt by everyone to an extent, it seems to be a much bigger threat to the older white generation who crave for the past. They want to be surrounded by people who share the same “values” as them. This perhaps explains why today most populist leaders use anti-immigration rhetoric.
The third way of understanding populism argues it to be a result of hyperglobalization i.e. the rapid rise in trade integration (Subramanian and Kessler, 2013). While for emerging economies like India and China, this proved incredibly beneficial, the exact situation was not replicated for the West. Wealth became more concentrated in the hands of a few than before globalization, unemployment rose, and jobs were outsourced to populous nations with cheap labour. Further, talented immigrants began flocking in to these first-world nations in search of a better livelihood. Thus competition rose for both, white-collar, and blue-collar workers.
Monteir and Pilkington (2017) argue that populism has been a result of the warped priorities depicted by the neoliberal economic and world order, which became increasingly popular as the viable form of economic organisation post-1970s globally. It should furthermore be noted that the disintegration of the Soviet Union led to not solely a shift in the balance of powers, but also in the favour of one ideology over the other. Liberal capitalism triumphed over communism, which due to the failure of the USSR, began to be seen as an erroneous ideology. This thus implied that the system of neoliberalism of the West was the only viable alternative.
It becomes imperative to understand what modern liberalism and neoliberalism connote in order to understand what this means. Modern liberalism strongly believes liberal democracies to be the foundation stones for a peaceful and prosperous world. It is essentially a pragmatic ideology, embracing free markets, democracies and international institutions. Similarly, the Liberal International Economic Order (LIEO) argues that in contemporary IR is based around certain guiding principles.
According to Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry (1999), there exist three interlocking factors that allow for the manifestation of a liberal world order. These are:
i) international organisation such as the United Nations put into place international agreements and laws that must be met by sovereign actors within the international community i.e. individual states,
ii) the existence of an open and market-based international economic system that helps spread free trade. The premise behind this is that peaceful relations between states become incentivized and war becomes a less likely outcome and
iii) international norms are set in place by the liberal international order, and violating these norms leads to some form of cost on the part of the violating party.
Neoliberalism, or neoliberal institutionalism, arose in the 1970s and is of the belief that international organisations foster cooperation amongst state actors. Seen as the overwhelmingly righteous world order by the liberals, Montier and Pilkington (2017) instead choose to call it “a broken system of economic stagnation”. They believe this neoliberal economic order to have led to populism by looking at its four broad pillars, of which globalization is only one of them. These are: replacing goal of full employment as the primary goal with that of inflation targeting, a rise in globalisation and flows of trade, capital and people across borders, shifting focus from growth to shareholder value maximisation, and promoting flexible labour markets while at the same time disrupting trade unions.
These four significant economic policies, they believe, have led to a skewed balance towards capital and away from labour. It has instead backfired and led not only lower level of inflation, but also to lower growth rates, investments, productivity growth and job security. Further the income and wealth disparity has only worsened. All of the aforementioned only accelerated following the 2008 global financial crisis. They conclude their arguments by stating that the only aspect of populism that should come as a surprise is that it did not happen earlier.
Liberalism and democracy have often been hailed as virtues of the modern world, and though not necessarily, are cited as going together hand-in-hand. Thus far the paper has provided proof for the neoliberal world to have been a key contributor to the rise of populism. However the rise of one must wonder if and how democracy has a contributing role to play. Instead of balancing extremist views, democracy seems to have led to the victory of extremism itself in many of the cases all over the world today. Many scholars, academics and politicians have argued that issues as dangerous as whether a nation should remain or leave the EU should not be matters left to the whims of the public.
Political leaders must not make issues matters of public referendum in order to secure political powers themselves. However common (contemporary) wisdom asserts democracy to be a virtue. While there is some amount of agreement on democracy not been a perfect system, it has been argued that this is the closest the world has come to a synthesis till date. To put in other words: if not democracy, then what? There does not exist a perfect answer to this question as of now. For the purpose of this essay, my quip is not with democracy itself but with a specific kind of democracy that seems to be fast gaining momentum in the West.
An article by Fareed Zakaria (1997) written over twenty years ago warned the world about the rise of what he called “illiberal democracies”. According to him, this breed of democracy is an “elected regime often re-elected or reinforced by referendums that ignore the constitutional limits of their power and deprive their citizens of basic rights and liberties” (p.22). It is perhaps safe to say that the rise of illiberal democracies may be one of the biggest political challenges of our century. It is becoming increasingly clear in today’s political climate that “inconsequential” voices, that may have earlier been shunned away from intellectual circles and from serious discourse on politics, have today led to dire consequences.
The rise of hyper nationalism in the United States with the advent of Donald Trump, Brexit, Modi’s (ultra)nationalist policies in India, the rise of the far-right in nations such as Germany, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden are all examples of a decline in the popularity of the liberal democracy. This is antithetical to the views of liberal democracy that have been propagated by many scholars, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Francis Fukuyama (1992) went so far as to say that liberal democracy has “vanquished” all other (rival) ideologies. The question was not about whether a country will turn liberal-democratic, but when.
Illiberal democracy goes against virtues preached by the Western liberal model that rose following the end of the second World War. One of the biggest examples of an illiberal democratic regime at work may be seen in the politics of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban argues that European Christian democracy has been led astray by liberalism. He aspires to place Hungary under an authoritarian regime similar to one in Russia today. Further, while he does claim protection of minorities to come under the purview of the European Christian values he deems virtuous, he unabashedly rejects multiculturalism – whether it be ethnic, cultural or religious. He has no reservations about showing hostility towards immigrants – a trend fast gaining momentum in the Western world. Trump’s fear mongering attitude towards hispanics and Muslims, rise of neo Nazism in Germany by the PEGIDA and AfD and the Visegrad Four’s policies towards refugees are a few of a vast number of examples of rising xenophobic sentiments.
Zakaria asserts that the Western world is not becoming less democratic; instead it is becoming less liberal. The explosive rise of populism is a testament to this forecast. Let us take the case of Brexit to better understand this. A portmanteau of the words “Britain” and “exit”, Brexit is a term that refers to Britain’s divorce from the European Union (EU). In 2013, then Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, promised a national referendum on the issue of European Union membership. He wanted the question to be settled once and for all. He was convinced that of the two options – Remain or Leave – the former would win by a landslide. However, following the referendum in June 2016, Leave won.
Over thirty million Britons voted on the issue, and the verdict was Leave (51.9% votes), as opposed to Remain (48.1% votes). While the reasons for Britons wanting to leave or remain with the EU are many and varied, two of the common themes that often emerge for those who voted to leave were: a) a call for greater independence of the UK, and b) the issue of immigration. According to Lord Ashcroft Polls (2016), 49% of the Leave voters believed that “The principle decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. This first major reason is tied in with Euroscepticism. Perhaps it would be wrong to label it as an overarching ideology (“-ism”), given how it is found in different political backgrounds. It may instead be seen as some form of opposition to the principle of European integration. One-third of the Leave voters believed that “voting to leave the EU offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders”. The results by the British Election Study, which categorized the reasons into fifty-four major categories, were also similar. The most common reason cited to Leave was “Sovereignty/EU bureaucracy”. This was closely followed by “Immigration”.
The Leave campaign was fought under the banner “Take Back Control”. This suggests that people can control their lives only as national citizens of a sovereign state. Such a political ideology may be termed “Faragism” after Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP). This ideology have three major components:
i) control is conditional to full national sovereignty of a nation-state;
ii) control over immigration is of the essence, and may be seen as the most important form of control, and
iii) the European Union must be disbanded so as to ensure sovereignty of European nation-states (Morgan 2016).
Faragism may be seen as an ideology that combines and propagates populism, conservatism and Euroscepticism. One may perhaps go so far as to say that this ideology depicts antipathy towards ideas of liberal democracy itself (Mounck, 2016).
Populists tend to perceive and analyze foreign policy issues through the lens of the “elite-underdog opposition” (Chryssogelos, 2017). Brexit and Trump are testament to the overwhelming worry felt by members of the Western world to not only globalization, but also towards emerging economies. They feel threatened by developing nations, such as say BRICS member states (Cox, 2017). The power shift can be seen as leading to slogans such as “Make America Great Again” in the US or the victory of the pro-Leave faction in the UK. They believe their position as global leaders and players to be fast becoming compromised in the face of these rising nation states.
Populism, then, in the West, becomes morphed in the voice of reason, or as the “will of the people”. The Rousseauian notion of general will asks individuals what would be good for everybody and not just for themselves. Compare this with the stance taken by Trump supporters and Brexiters. These factions paper over normal pluralities and present them as the true unitary voice for the people. Freeden (2017) comments on the same: “No wonder that sovereignty shares top billing with anti-immigration on the list of the political demands surrounding Brexit” (p. 8). The case is a curious one indeed. What is posited as the “voice of the people” is instead a singular voice emerging out of majoritarianism. The political fiction of the “one and indivisible” ironically rejects pluralism and globalized interests.
Therefore international bodies and domestic political parties must examine the underlying reasons behind the strengthening of this “us” versus “them” binary – whether it be us pure people opposing the corrupt elites, or us white Christians versus those brown Muslims, or us Europeans versus those Middle Easterns. It is becoming more imperative than ever to question whether globalization needs to have the outcomes of wealth inequality that are becoming its unquestionable consequences. One must question: are our liberal democracies “in tune with technological and societal changes?” (Balfour, 2017, p. 60). The next step would be democratize foreign policy given how globalization is a phenomena that impacts all and not just governmental bodies or elite citizens of a nation. The answer then is not whether the liberal world order and democracy is hazardous. Instead it is to wonder how democracy can be strengthened such that all voices becomes equally heard, addressed and if and when necessary, challenged.
What separates majoritarianism from populism, despite both claiming to voice the will of the common people, has to do with the latter’s claim of their demands been irreplaceable truths. Populist leaders and supporters are people who have felt themselves losing in the fast-paced world of globalisation and have instead of making peace with the same or trying to find some sort of compromise have decided to go insular. There exists amongst populists a strong distaste for toleration. The world of populism is a xenophobic and scared world. Populism is not a purpose-driven movement – it does not look for growth of society. It chooses to focus instead on fear mongering and suspicion. The populist ideology is not one built around culture, social rights or citizenship. Instead it is built around a fear of the “other”, who are deemed aliens as opposed to people coming from different culture or religion or region.