Populism, Identity And The Democratic Recession In Today’s World
By Tayyab Wazir and Asadullah Khan Wazir
The 21st century has been witnessing increased polarization, partisanship, ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, othering, toxic masculinity and racism. Emotionally charged political appeals and extreme political and ideological views greatly divide societies, which is leading towards regional, economic and ideological polarization. The politics of exclusion is increasing day by day. There are many factors leading to this state of affairs, but populist ideology is perhaps the important source of these issues and also a threat for liberal democracy. Populism is not restricted to specific regions, but it is cutting across borders. Developed and developing countries equally face this rampant issue, even though the characteristics and magnitude of populism vary. To realize the full impact of it, we need to understand populism.
Francis Fukuyama, renowned political scientist, wrote an important book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment in 2016. In his book, Fukuyama says that humans, by nature, want recognition, and seek to be respected. He writes that, “thymos” which, according to him, refers to “spirit” and “courage” is the part of the soul which craves recognition of dignity. He adds that human beings also try to preserve their identity at any cost. Fukuyama argues that whenever people belonging to various communities and ethnic groups feel marginalized and disrespected at the hands of other ethnic groups or political elites, they show strong resentment so as to get recognition and respect in one way or another.
Keeping in consideration the above discussion, one can argue that since the last several decades, different communities in Europe, USA and other parts of the world have been facing marginalization. People think that their identity is decaying, and that they do not enjoy the respect and dignity that they deserve. This sense of social, political, cultural and economic exclusion has given birth to numerous phenomena. One of them is the rise of populism around the world, particularity in Europe and America.
Needless to say, populism has become one of the highly controversial topics of our time. The problem is not that it has no definition; but instead that it has several!
There are scholars who consider populism to be a logic of understanding the real essence of politics. On the other hand, there are those who say that populism is a language which speaks about the common people and the elite classes. However, Erim Hook, a prolific writer, says that “populism can be understood as a battle between the people, mostly virtuous, and the immoral and corrupt elite.”
In the above definition, the word “people” doesn’t represent all and sundry. It speaks of a specific ethnic group(s). Contrary to it, the “elite” includes those who control the reins of power, mostly politicians. In this regard, populism actually contextualizes the animosity between the people and the elite. The people come to think that the immoral and corrupt elite is a threat to their dignity and identity; therefore, they need to overthrow the status quo erected by these self-serving politicians. Now, in order to destroy the existing structures and institutions, people elect an individual who talks about their rights, dignity, identity and recognition. For example, Trump in the USA, Orban in Hungary, Johnson in UK, Modi in India, Imran Khan in Pakistan and others.
These leaders and politicians share certain features and characteristics. Firstly, populists speak about the people against the corrupt elite. Secondly, they, utilizing their political and popular legitimacy, try to attack the institutions of state including judiciary, legislature and others. Thirdly, a populist leader comes up with policies which look attractive in the short-term but have adverse long-term consequences. Fourth, a populist represents specific ethnic groups, not the whole society. Fifthly, they have charismatic personalities. Lastly, a populist seeks to establish direct links with the public without having an institutional interference or a third-party intervention in this process.
To conclude, it can be argued that populism has greatly disturbed the nature of politics in today’s era. It has injected not only polarization into world politics but has also become an existential threat to liberal democracy, rule of law and human rights. Moreover, populism is intensifying nationalism and racially-motivated violence. The world is experiencing, to quote Francis Fukuyama, “democratic recession”, and authoritarian regimes are getting appreciation and support in the process.
Tayyab Wazir is an MPhil scholar and Asadullah Khan Wazir is a freelance journalist