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Putin’s war on Ukraine hasn’t affected populism. These leaders and their tactics show why

Many hoped that Russia's failed invasion of Ukraine would stem the tide of populism. However populist leaders from India to America have broad based appeal and often use unconventional tactics to remain in power. Examining the concept of populism and why people are drawn to it could provide answers for its current popularity across the world

Written by Mira Patel | Mumbai |
Updated: April 22, 2022 3:45:29 pm
Populists have risen to power across Europe, the Americas and Asia

Governments described as populist are now in power in Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Italy, Venezuela, and Russia. Experts say populist leaders from Donald Trump in the US to Marine Le Pen in France have fundamentally altered their country’s social fabric, promoting tribalism and stoking fears against minorities.

While populists can have a range of ideologies and governing styles, over the last two decades, the movement has been associated with illiberalism and the weakening of democratic norms. Populists are more likely to be authoritarian leaders or strongmen, and often play fast and loose with the rule of law. In a particularly grim assessment, the Cato Institute wrote that “the rise of far-right and far-left authoritarian populist movements today is more than a little reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s.”

In the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, many believed that his aggression and military shortcomings would undermine the global populist movement. However, despite such optimistic predictions, populist leaders have seen success in a range of countries over the last few months. To understand why, we need to look into the meaning of populism, its appeal, and the ability of populist leaders to remain in power.

What is populism?

Although populism is commonly treated as an ideology, it is better understood as a technique that is compatible with a variety of different ideologies. Widespread use of the term dates back to the 1890s when America’s populist movement distinguished the Democratic Party from its mostly urban, Republican counterpart.

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From the 1950s, political scientists began to use populism to describe movements from communism in Europe to McCarthyism in the United States. Competing ideologies but similar tactics. In 1967, Benjamin Moffit, author of the book The Global Rise of Populism, asserted that while the term was useful, it was too fluid to be described in a singular manner.

Some scholars linked it to economic uncertainty, others to growing nationalism. In 2004, Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, put forward a definition that has become increasingly accepted. He claims that populism is a “thin ideology” that pits the people against the elite. This thin ideology can be paired with several “thick” ideologies including nationalism, socialism, imperialism, and racism. In 2016, Princeton scholar Jan-Werner Muller expanded upon that definition, suggesting that populists were also anti-pluralists who claim to be representing the people but exclude groups of ‘others’ such as foreigners, minorities or white-collar workers.

Additionally, populists seem to believe that the true will of the people is focused on one leader, who typically operates under a cult of personality. They may seek power using democratic means but often campaign against liberal norms such as an independent judiciary and checks on executive power.

Right-wing populists (commonly found in Europe) tend to focus on cultural issues whereas left-wing populists (frequent in Latin America) speak to economic disparities. However, one common thread binds the two together. Populists across the spectrum rely on antagonism to rally public opinion, painting the establishment and other groups as the enemy of the people.

What is the appeal of populism?

Populists largely campaign on two major issues, namely the economy, and a change in status.

Martin Bull, director of the European Consortium of Political Research, links the recent rise in populism to the economic crash of 2008, noting that following the crisis, the elite class including bankers could be held responsible for an event that affected most of the global population. Sheri Berman, a professor at Columbia University, writes that economic developments have created “deep divisions” within many societies in addition to creating deep divisions between many countries.

Those divisions in turn spark resentment and disillusion towards the “winners” of the financial system, be it China abroad or wealthy elites at home. Populist leaders then campaign on the basis of those resentments, promising to create a society in which average voters would prevail over vested interests. This argument is well received by uneducated voters who are disproportionately poorer than the average citizen. In many countries, uneducated people were far more likely to vote for populists than those with a school or college degree.

Martin Wolf, the chief economic commentator for the Financial Times, sums up this perspective stating that “it is no accident that the US and UK, long-stable democracies today succumbing to demagogy, are the most unequal of the western high-income countries.”

However, that being said, studies have not been able to establish a direct link between individuals’ economic circumstances, and their propensity to support populism.

The second theory is that populism is born from a change in status, whether that be perceived or real. A 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 15 countries found that there was a direct link between populist voters and those who think ethnocentrism is in decline. The loss of culture felt by populists was a by-product of an increasingly diverse society in which their customs and institutions were being co-opted by others.

Speaking on the issue, former US secretary of states Hillary Clinton argues that the rise of populism in Europe can be directly linked to immigration, noting, “that is what lit the flame.” Polling from the Pew Research Center seems to concur with that assessment. It found that in Germany, 44 per cent of the populist Alternative for Germany (AfG) supporters say that life is worse than it was 50 years ago for people like them, compared to only 16 per cent of other Germans.

Donald Trump made campaigning against immigrants a focal point of his election campaign (Rueters)

In 2017, 13.7 per cent of the US population was foreign-born. Moreover, census projections estimate that by 2045, whites will be a minority in the United States. Similarly, Europe has seen a sharp rise in immigration over the last decade with nearly six and a half million people entering the continent since 2011, most of them from countries like Afghanistan and Syria. This has subsequently affected the status of the formerly dominant populations who can overwhelmingly be characterised as white males.

According to Pew Research, in the US and Europe, it is straight white males who tend to feel insecure about their position in society, reporting feeling swept up by ethnic change caused by globalisation and immigration. Donald Trump, therefore, gained success by demonising Mexicans, and Polish President Andrzej Duda amassed a following by campaigning against the LGBTQ community. It is also worth noting that most European countries that were staunchly against Middle Eastern refugees are now willing to welcome white refugees from Ukraine.

The former would change the social fabric of those countries while the latter would reinforce the dominance of a white European electorate. Black or brown refugees are viewed as criminals and fanatics while white refugees and citizens are seen as being overlooked and hard done by.

Populists unlike others best represent a theme of exclusion, which they have demonstrated with their policies towards Middle Eastern refugees. Since the refugee crisis began, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has built a razor-wire fence to keep refugees out of Hungary and Polish President Duda has commanded forces to prevent refugees from crossing into Poland. In Italy, the populist party Lega Nord said that Muslim refugees should be banned in order to “protect the Christian identity of Europe.”

That being said, populists come in many shapes and forms. Trump wants to deport immigrants whereas, in Spain, the populist party wants to grant immigrants voting rights. Polish populists wanted to make it illegal to use certain language to defend the holocaust while Dutch populist Greet Wilders wanted to eliminate hate speech laws.

Whatever their position, Berman notes that right-wing populists benefit “when the salience of social and cultural issues, such as immigration and national identity is high” as it has been during the European migration crisis and the election of Barack Obama in the US. By linking prosperity to the restoration of economic, social, cultural, or political status, these leaders capitalise on feelings of lost identity which explains why they gain popularity during times of hyper ethnic change.

The rise of populism

Populist leaders occupy office across the world, from the richest countries to the poorest, from democracies to autocracies. These include Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Recap Erdogan in Turkey, and Viktor Orban in Hungary. In Europe, Guardian research established that populists have tripled their vote over the past 20 years such that more than one in four Europeans voted for populist parties on average in their last election. While 12.5 million Europeans lived in a country with at least one populist cabinet member in 1998, more than 170.2 million did in 2018.

Europe’s migration crisis has fuelled the rise of populism in the region

Even in countries where populists are not leading, gains have been made. The AfG in 2017 increased its vote more than sixfold to become the third-largest party in parliament. In Italy the next year, populists won more than half the votes. Most notable, due in part to its campaigns on Brexit, is the UKIP party which drove its vote tally from 100,000 in 1997 to four million in 2015.

From Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic, America, Austria, Norway, Italy and the UK, many countries have flirted with the appeal of populist leaders. So pervasive was the movement, that in 2017, the Cambridge Dictionary, named populism as their word of the year.

Experts say that in and of itself, that would not necessarily be a bad thing, however, populists in those countries tend to discard notions of decency and liberalism. Moises Naim, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, states that recent populists have “reengineered the old dictator’s playbook to enhance their will on others,” showing “decidedly undemocratic proclivities” along the way.

According to the Swedish V-Dem Institute, which created a database of 1,955 political parties from 169 countries, “populist governments tend to erode the level of the electoral, liberal, and deliberative model of democracy.” Thus, in addition to discriminating against groups like minorities and foreigners, populists also tend to undermine the very foundations of liberal democracy, including the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary.

Why did people think the tide would turn?

Noted political scientist Francis Fukuyama recently argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would significantly hamper the rise of populism. Several other commentators writing for the likes of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian have offered a similar prognosis.

The theory posits that Putin’s war has adversely affected populism in two ways. The first is that most populist leaders have at some point or another, put forth their support for Putin. This list includes Trump in the US to Nigel Farage in the UK. Secondly, Putin’s relative failure in Ukraine has undermined the reputation of the strongman populist, putting into question their ability to contend with worthwhile adversaries.

Association with Putin today is akin to associating with socialists in America during the Cold War. Putin is stumbling into the role of global pariah and those who praised him or facilitated his rise are inexplicably tied to his moral shortcomings.

However, it should be noted that many populist leaders have withdrawn their support for Putin in the aftermath of the invasion. According to an analysis by the London School of Economics, every populist party in Europe, barring the Swiss People’s Party, has spoken out against Putin in recent months. This indicates that populist leaders are aware of the global unpopularity of the war and know that they could be viewed as guilty by association.

However, outside of Europe, notable exceptions remain.

Modi, Bolsonaro, and Mohammad Bin Salman have all refrained from criticising Putin while Trump, no longer in power but still by far the most popular Republican, has even gone on to brag about the close relationship that the two share.

In terms of the second point, competence, the argument becomes slightly more complex. Populist leaders stood by Putin during his 2014 invasion of Crimea and they faced no discernible backlash from their base for doing so. However, unlike the success of 2014, Putin’s recent tactics leave much to be desired. Competence and effectiveness are the backbones of the populist strongman and without it, their grandiose pronouncements tend to fall flat. According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, the argument that autocracy works should, in theory, be undermined by Putin’s failures in Ukraine.

So far, that has not been the case.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Le Pen has surged into contention for the presidency in France, Orban won overwhelmingly in Hungary, Trump remains wildly popular in the US, and Aleksander Vucic won a landslide election in Serbia. Crucial to understanding the reasons are the structural advantages that populists enjoy.

How do populists stay in power?

As discussed earlier, populists tend to favour illiberal democracy, a governing system in which, while elections take place, citizens are often deprived of other civil liberties. It has been difficult to recognise this problem because, for decades, democracy and liberalism have gone hand in hand.

However, the bundle of freedoms associated with liberalism, such as the rule of law, are theoretically different from democracy. As the political scientist Philippe Schmitter pointed out, “liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine of economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice.”

Populists can subvert liberalism in a number of ways with Berman arguing that the weakening of democratic institutions is the root cause of the rise in populism. The most apt example of this is the Brexit movement, in which the UKIP party repeatedly undermined public trust in the EU, accusing it of trampling on the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. In the US, the Republican Party initiated the politicisation of the judiciary when it refused to vote on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016. Since then, judicial appointments, once considered staunchly apolitical, have been mired in controversy with candidates repeatedly questioned about their ideology instead of their qualifications. Subverting these institutions removes many of the checks and balances against authoritarian overreach and have long term consequences for countries even when populists are voted out. In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, write that many institutional changes are legal, in the sense that they pass through the electorate or judiciary, but they nonetheless cause “democracies to die at the hands of elected leaders.”

However, therein lies the second problem, in that populists have demonstrated a refusal to leave power. Putin and Erdogan both changed their country’s constitutions to allow them to extend their term limits and Trump refused to accept electoral defeat, inciting thousands of his followers to storm the nation’s Capitol in 2021. Then there’s the matter of pseudo elections. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega jailed all his political opponents in the run-up to the 2021 elections. In Hungary, parliamentary districts were manipulated to underrepresent areas opposed to Orban. Additionally, his government granted citizenship to 2.4 million ethnic Hungarians living abroad, earning him the support of those new voters.

Diminishing the media is another familiar tactic. This presents itself in two ways – by repressing the media and by promoting the spread of false narratives. In Russia, the Kremlin maintains a strong grip on the media landscape, controlling the information that citizens receive and issuing propaganda favourable towards Putin. In 2021, World Press Freedom Rankings of 178 countries, nations ruled by populists, overwhelmingly rank at the bottom along with communist countries and dictatorships. Joining the likes of China and Iran are Saudi Arabia (at 170), Turkey (153), Russia (150), Venezuela (148), Mexico (143), India (142) and the Philippines (138). By controlling the media or jailing journalists, populists can ensure that very few dare to question their version of events.

Additionally, in the era of social media, fake news runs rampant. According to Naim, “autocrats constantly spewing lies and half-truths get their followers to accept things are true entirely because they have said them.”

Moreover, Berman argues that the growth of social media and the rise of fake news leads to “skepticism and disgust.” This in turn creates political polarisation that enhances the relationship between followers and leaders. A few decades ago, people could support a politician but not necessarily subscribe to their entire legislative agenda. However today, leaders are able to demand utter fealty from their supporters.

According to Berman, this works better for populists than other leaders because they are more likely to position themselves as the solution to all the nation’s problems. When inevitably, they are unable to follow through on promises or are proven wrong, they can turn their narrative on its head without losing popular support. An example of the first is Trump’s promise to ‘build a wall’ and of the second, Bolsonaro’s assertion that he would root out corruption, and when proved otherwise, to claim that corruption in government was not his fault because he was unaware of it.

To summarise, Naim states that populists are able to “defy any constraints on their power and concentrate it in their own hands, launching frontal attacks on the institutions that sustain constitutional democracy, stacking the judiciary and the legislature, declaring war on the press, and scrapping laws that check their authority.”

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