/ 23 November 2022

Populism based not in patriotism, but in many nationalisms

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This photo taken on August 31, 2022 at the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow shows the grave of Raisa Gorbacheva, the wife of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who played a major role in ending the Cold War, and died in Moscow on August 30, 2022 aged 91. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

The Cold War ended just over 30 years ago with democracy seemingly emerging victorious from the ideological battle against the communist Soviet bloc. The world let out a collective sigh of relief as the spectre of a hot war receded, along with the nuclear threat. We thought that from there on freedom and democracy would flourish while peace and harmony reigned.

Alas, today the mood is increasingly one of pessimism or even alarm and the safe path into the future we had imagined, is no more. It seems that democracy itself is under pressure.

What do we know now that we didn’t foresee then?  

We did not predict the speed and the wide-ranging implications of the information technology revolution. We did not anticipate how much migrations would increase in the new century. We did not fully understand the extent and impact of the fast-growing economic inequalities in the world. 

We failed to prophesy a shift in the balance of power between “the West” and “the rest”, and we did not even begin to imagine the existential threat posed by climate change that our planet is now facing. We also did not think then that multilateralism would be faced with the danger of rising populism and nationalism around the globe. 

It is populism, in particular, that has many people around the world worried about the road ahead as the phenomenon is gaining traction in both old and young democracies. 

What is populism?

Most commonly, populism is understood as the relationship between the small and powerful assemblage of people called the “elite” and the large group called the “people”. Populists unwittingly endorse this view when they present themselves as the defenders of a certain section of the population, or the “people” as a whole, against what they portray as the corrupt elite that is bent on depriving the “people” of their rights and their voice.  

But that definition is too narrow to truly capture the multifaceted nature of populism. To understand it more fully, values must be considered, especially those on which identity is built. 

Scores of white Americans, for example, feel that liberal politicians have relegated them to the status of a discriminated-against minority in their “own” country. In reaction, many have retreated into a kind of political tribalism, becoming hostile to both “the other” in the country — however defined — and to immigrants. One cannot but reflect poignantly on how this is happening in the very same country that had once welcomed the tired and poor “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who then went on to help make America great.  

Values-based identity markers know no cultural boundaries. Take Poland and Turkey, for instance. Historical, cultural, economic and political differences between the two countries could not be greater. And yet both have moved furthest away from the model democracies they were in their respective regions at the height of post-Cold War global democratisation.  

In both cases the marker of identity for the majority of the respective populations has been religion: Christianity and Islam, respectively.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that in highly religious societies the more permissive liberal values elevate the status and influence of religion rather than seeing religion diminished or retreating from political life.  

A picture taken on March 28, 2022 shows beds ready to use are photographed inside a dormitary of a public concrete nuclear fallout shelter located in the village of Evionnaz, western Switzerland. – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has awakened long-slumbering anxiety interest in Switzerland in concrete nuclear fallout shelters built across the country during the Cold War, with spots available for every single resident. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

The roots 

A major normative split occurred during the so-called cultural revolution of the 1960s, which originated in the US and spread to the rest of the Western world with far-reaching consequences, a few of which are worth mentioning. 

First, the cultural revolution confronted traditional survival-focused values with orientations advocating individual rights, self-expression and gender equality. This was seen as an assault on the old familiar values by the older and less secure strata of the population and has led to a generational rift.  

Second, the shift away from traditional values produced a mode of identity formation in which frugality was replaced by consumption-based forms of self-realisation. The consumer market has become an arena of identity construction while consumption-based lifestyles emerged as a mode of self-articulation. 

But as economic growth rates started to move downwards, consumption-based self-realisation can be increasingly sustained only by some, giving rise to exclusion and inequality expanding further the gap between the “people” and the elite.   

Third, the cultural revolution rearranged the traditional role of the left, the historical promoter of the working class that encouraged redistributive policies to create social safety nets. The “new” left, in contrast, targeted the middle classes and came out strongly in favour of political and cultural changes. This policy repelled the old left’s traditional working-class constituency, producing yet another split and thus more feeding ground for populism to grow. 

The various values-based divisions in combination with steeply increasing economic inequalities have the power to fracture a sense of collective identity that is necessary to uphold democracy. This kind of identity, known as patriotism, is cultivated by developing attachments to the norms and values of a liberal constitution. Without it, the idea of democracy in multicultural and/or historically conflicted countries such as, for example, South Africa is simply unimaginable. 

Populism works in the opposite direction. It replaces the notion of inclusive political belonging with pre-political ideas of group membership defined by shared language, rituals, culture, history or religion. As a result, not patriotism but multitudes of nationalisms are emerging, causing deep polarisation within and between nations around the world. According to the latest V-Dem Democracy Report, polarisation along with heightened misinformation constitutes the most dangerous threat to liberal democracy. 

There are no easy fixes when it comes to stemming the rising tide of populism. But that does not mean we should be hoisting the white flag. As in the case of climate change, only a concerted effort by both enlightened elites and dedicated ordinary citizens willing to work together can start to reverse the hazardous trajectory on which humanity finds itself at present. It is up to us to keep democracy strong, vibrant and resilient.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.