The past few years has seen a dramatic increase in populist political leaders and movements – not only in Europe, but around the world. The rise of populism is not necessarily a “bad” thing: what is often perceived as “bad” about a populist movement is the degree to which you may disagree with its ideological motivations. While certain people may view certain populist movements as good or bad, they are ignoring the more important attribute of populism: its rise was inevitable, and it is here to stay.
Populism is a political ideology or strategy claiming to be “for the people,” and is largely motivated by an opposition to a perceived corrupt elite. While there existed populist movements as early as the 1920s, modern 21st century populism is a far different beast. But why? Were there not corrupt elites in the 1920s, and indeed in every subsequent decade up until today? What is it about the 21st century, and the 2010s in particular, that is so conducive to the rise of populism? The answer is: modernization and globalization, linked by the theme of technology.
Through the hyper-increased process of technological innovation and modernization, a huge percentage of the world’s population now interacts in large part through social media. The now pervasive social media mindset of only reading the titles of articles and ignoring the content, writing journalistic articles for the objective of getting the most “views” or “clicks” rather than for the purpose of imparting truth with integrity and accuracy, and rushing to throw every unfiltered thought onto the internet is the perfect breeding ground for populism. It is emotionally driven and serves to unite people against an “Other.”
Globalization supplements this development by making it easier for ideas to spread to the farthest corners of the world. Populist movements in Europe can borrow from those in Latin America, Asia, and the United States, and vice versa, and populist movements can span multiple countries and even continents.
The bastardization of journalism as a profession, as brought on by the social media mindset, is of course worthy of criticism. However, social media’s tentacles have infiltrated and taken hold of the modern world, and it is never letting go. It may change and adapt, as does populism, but it will never disappear. Therefore, political discourse itself is being forced to change. Critique social media all you like, but by rejecting it you run the risk of cutting yourself out of the wider world.
As bleak as this new reality may seem, is it really so bad?
Populism is not inherently illiberal, right-wing, or extremist. Rather, these are attributes that can be applied to certain populist movements, like those which have taken hold in Europe, most prominently in Poland and Hungary but also in France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Populism can also take on left-wing personas, as in the global climate strike movement, Bernie Sanders’ mobilization of the common people, and the numerous anti-corruption protests currently taking place in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, and elsewhere, all united by the common purpose of liberty and anti-elitism.
The populist political strategy is becoming the new norm in world politics and, for once (perhaps counterintuitively), right-wing groups have largely been at the forefront of this new development.
The political pendulum will never stop swinging between the right and the left. Every now and then, one side will simply take on new strategies in order to get the pendulum to swing in their favour. The pendulum is now beginning to swing more to the right, for the first time in many decades, in large thanks to the rise of populism. To reject populism at large would be suicidal for the neoliberal left, for the simple reason that populism is working. Therefore, the left must instead adjust its strategies accordingly.
Modernization, globalization, and technological advancements are progressing in one direction: forward. It just so happens that populism has emerged as a by-product of this progression. In order for the world’s neoliberal left to win back some support, they are increasingly finding that they must embrace the new norm of political discourse and fight the radical right at their own game. Populism isn’t a moment in history, like fascism was in the 1930s; it is here to stay, for better or worse. The real challenge will be how we shape it.
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