Jan 18, 2022, 9:54:34 AMJan 18
1. FAKE DEMOCRACY: Everybody Has Their Reasons
The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.
—Octave in JEAN RENOIR, The Rules of the Game
I have lived for the last month … with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. I did not know at first what ailed me. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country.
—HENRY DAVID THOREAU
They do not all look the same; plenty of differences are obvious. But group them together and they clearly make up one political family: Orbán, Erdogan, Kaczynski, Modi, undoubtedly ex-president Trump, perhaps Netanyahu, but Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro for sure. It is imperative to understand what is often described as a global trend in authoritarianism.
The obvious danger is that the effort to do so will homogenize what, after all, remain fundamentally different national trajectories. The causes for the rise of right-wing populism in particular are not identical. But radical right-wing populists have developed a common strategy and even what might be called a shared authoritarian-populist art of governance—hence the family resemblances.
The spread of this populist art has put paid to a particular post–Cold War illusion: not that History had ended (did anybody really believe that?), but that only democracies could learn from their own mistakes and from one another’s experiences. Authoritarian regimes, so the assumption went, could not adapt to changing environments and innovate; they were all fated to end like the Soviet Union in 1991. The new Authoritarian International—whose members can try out and refine techniques of radical right-wing rule—puts that complacent liberal-democratic self-conception to rest; best authoritarian practices (or should we say worst?) can be copied across borders.
Broadly speaking, the authoritarian-populist art of governance is based on nationalism (often with racist overtones), on hijacking the state for partisan loyalists, and, less obviously, on weaponizing the economy to secure political power: a combination of culture war, patronage, and mass clientelism. To be sure, the nationalism often amounts to a simulation of sovereignty, a studied performance of collective self-assertion, when in fact not all that much is changing; plenty of antiglobalization rhetoric turns out to be perfectly compatible with the continued deregulation of capital flows across borders and other measures that enrich elites in other countries.
These specifics are missed by political diagnoses that equate contemporary right-wing populism with fascism, or see populism as a new, internationally successful ideology, or assume that “ordinary people” just brought all this on themselves with their supposed craving for authoritarianism. Historians have sought precedents for what we are witnessing, often with a view to drawing “lessons from the past.” Of course, exercises in comparison are valuable, and there cannot be blanket prohibitions on finding parallels between the present and the atrocities of the twentieth century, for, without first comparing, we could not appreciate the differences. Still, analogies all too often lead to shortcuts in political judgment; we are more likely to see the similarities, or even engage in motivated reasoning, that is, pick evidence in order to justify our preferred political strategy for today. As James Bryce—today virtually forgotten, but a highly influential diagnostician of democracies at the turn of the twentieth century—put it, “The chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies.” That’s a note of caution which always applies; more specific to our age is Tony Judt’s observation that we have become extremely skillful at teaching the lessons of history but probably quite bad at teaching actual history.
The truth is that today’s threats to democracy barely even rhyme with many twentieth-century experiences. Many of those who after November 8, 2016, rushed to buy 1984 or The Origins of Totalitarianism might well have given up after a few dozen pages. Fascism specifically—as distinct from authoritarianism or racism in general—is not being revived in our era: we do not see the mass mobilization and militarization of entire societies;1 and while hatred against vulnerable minorities is being fanned, no systemic cult of violence that glorifies mortal combat as the apotheosis of human existence is being instituted. Nor are states being thoroughly remade on the basis of racism, which is not to deny that racial (and religious) animus has been legitimated from the very top in Hungary, Brazil, and the United States.
We are all in favor of learning from history, but we implicitly assume that only good people learn from it. One of the reasons we are not witnessing the second coming of a particular antidemocratic past is that today’s anti-democrats have also learned from history. They know full well that highly visible human rights violations on a mass scale should not form part of today’s authoritarian repertoire: that would be too uncomfortable a reminder of twentieth-century dictatorships. Large-scale repression, as perpetrated by Erdogan since 2016, must be understood as a sign of weakness, not strength. Trump sending his “army” of far-right hobby warriors, conspiracy theorists, and the occasional country-club Republican in the direction of the Capitol was a matter of desperation, not proof of a master plan for a fascist takeover. Precisely because we might recognize it as a historical precedent, it by and large isn’t happening. So, what then is happening?
But What Is Right-Wing (or, for That Matter, Left-Wing) Populism Anyway?
I’ve so far used the term “populism” as if its meaning were self-evident. It’s not. It is positively misleading to equate populism with “criticism of elites” or “anti-establishment attitudes.” While such an equation has become conventional wisdom, it’s actually based on a rather peculiar thought. After all, any old civics textbook would instruct us that keeping an eye on the powerful is a sign of good democratic citizenship, yet, nowadays, we are told incessantly that such conduct is precisely “populist” (and, by implication, according to many observers, dangerous for democracy and the rule of law). Now, it’s true that populists, when in opposition, criticize sitting governments (and, usually, also other parties). But, above all, they do something else, and that is crucial: in one way or another, they claim that they, and only they, represent what they often refer to as the “real people” or also the “silent majority.”
At first sight, this might not look particularly nefarious; it does not immediately amount to, let’s say, racism or a fanatical hatred of the European Union or, for that matter, the declaring of judges and particular media “enemies of the people.” And yet this claim to a distinctly moral monopoly of representation has two detrimental consequences for democracy. Rather obviously, once populists assert that only they represent the people, they also charge that all other contenders for office are fundamentally illegitimate. This is never just a matter of disputes about policy, or even about values; such disagreements, after all, are completely normal and, ideally, even productive in a democratic polity. Rather, populists assert that their rivals are corrupt and simply fail to serve the interests of the people on account of their bad, or indeed “crooked,” character. What Donald J. Trump said about his rival in the 2016 election (and then also about his opponent in 2020) was extreme but not exceptional: all populists engage in talk of this kind.
More insidiously, populists also claim that those who do not agree with their ultimately symbolic construction of the people (and hence usually do not support the populists politically) might not properly belong to the people in the first place. After all, the suggestion that there is a “real people” implies that there are some who are not quite real—folks who just pretend to belong, who might actually undermine the polity in some form, or who at best are second-rate citizens.2 Just remember Trump’s habitual condemnation of his critics as “un-American,” or think of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s railings against Poles who he said have treason in their genes, or listen to what’s really being said with the pronouncement of BJP politicians that “the division … is just in the mind of certain politicians, but, as a society, India is one and India is harmonious.”
Populists always claim to unify the people or simply uncover the unity that is always already there, but their de facto political business model is to divide citizens as much as possible. And the message that only some truly belong to the people systematically undermines the standing of certain citizens. Obvious examples are minorities (whose status in the polity might already be vulnerable for one reason or another) and recent immigrants, who are suspected of not being truly loyal to the country. Think of Modi’s policy of creating a register of genuine citizens. Ostensibly, this is supposed to help identify illegal immigrants (referred to as “termites in the soil of Bengal” by Amit Shah, when he was head of the BJP). Hindu nationalists understand perfectly well that the entire exercise is meant to affirm the “real”—that is, Hindu—people and put fear into one particular minority, namely Muslims.
Where populists come to power, one consequence of this exclusionary stance can be that some citizens no longer enjoy full equality before the law (or even protection of the law at all): they are treated differently in conspicuous ways, perhaps not necessarily by judges in court, but in many ordinary encounters with bureaucrats who have understood perfectly well what is expected from the very top.3 That is not even to mention the unleashing of hate on streets and squares. There is significant evidence, for instance, that Trump rallies were associated with a local increase in politically motivated assaults; Asian Americans were attacked more frequently during the pandemic; Trumpist vigilantes clearly felt empowered by the Republican Party’s showcasing a suburban couple training weapons on Black Lives Matter protesters; and, lest we forget, anti-Semitic “incidents” also hit an all-time high in the United States in 2019 (numbers for 2020 were not available at the time of writing).4 The philosopher Kate Manne’s term “trickle-down aggression” perfectly captures this phenomenon.5
Note how this radicalization of the right in the name of the people is not the same as nationalism per se. The latter implies that every cultural nation is entitled to its own state, that compatriots are owed more by way of moral and political obligations than foreigners, and that the imperative of preserving the nation has moral weight as such.6 To be sure, all populists need to provide some content for their notion of “the people,” and it is hardly an accident that right-wing populists have so often reached for an ethnically defined nation to do so (or opted for outright nativism). But, in principle, one can be a populist for whom the definition of the people is primarily political or ideological—just think of Hugo Chávez’s notion of Bolivarian socialism for the twenty-first century; what matters in this case is that those who disagree with the supposedly uniquely authentic representative of the people are declared illegitimate and quite possibly put hors la loi.