Populism and the fear factor

What do political leaders such as Viktor Orban, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, the Kaczyński brothers, Mateusz Morawiecki, Chávez y Maduro, Cristina Kirchner, Evo Morales, Matteo Salvini y Giuseppe Conte all have in common? Español

Adrián Rocha
Adrián Rocha
2 July 2019, 12.01am
20 May 2019, Venezuela, Caracas: Nicolas Maduro, President of Venezuela, speaking at a rally marking the anniversary of his re-election. Photo: Pedro Mattey/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

All of them have been defined as “populists”. However, it’s important to ask if actors involved in such diverse political narratives can all be considered part of the same category, even when they have been in power at different times. The period from 2000 up until the present day reflects not only the rise of populism but also, in several cases, the consolidation of these regimes that we might consider “hybrid”, as is the case in Poland, Russia and Hungary.

A brief history of the concept

The concept of populism has been subjected to meticulous discussions in academia, the media and within politics itself. Considered both polysemic and arbitrary, these are terms that are often resorted to either to criticize or to describe populism. Describing populism is necessary when it comes to looking at structural similarities rather than similar traits or comparable historical trajectories, since, as we know, history never repeats itself, neither as a tragedy nor as a farce (no matter how suggestive Marx's humour or Hegelian historiography may be).

That structural similarity that defines both left and the right populism is the explicit, deliberate suspicion of globalisation. Slogans used by populist leaders are always tinged with hints of disenchantment with globalisation and with the liberal order established at the end of the Second World War and then consolidated with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The result was what was once known as "demoliberalism", now integrated irreversibly with globalization, which brings with it demographic and geopolitical changes.

Populism will always draw its identity from what is happening in society.

One of the founders of sociology in Argentina, Gino Germani, when analysing Peronism, considered populism to be the result of specific types of anachronic development; that is where there are discrepancies in the transition from a traditional society to an industrial one. His analysis, which draws from functionalism, has since been revised. Nevertheless, the idea of an imbalance between what the political system can assimilate and what is happening at a socio-economic level is extremely powerful when it comes to thinking about why the so-called political elites in classical political parties such as the Social Democrats, Liberals and Republicans have not been able to develop creative proposals to meet political needs. Of course, if such dissatisfactions are rooted in xenophobia or racism it will be difficult for democrats, even right-wing ones, to creatively solve the issue. The difficulty, then, lies in the way that traditional political elites structure their policies.

Populism will always draw its identity from what is happening in society. But the ability of leaders to articulate and shape claims is defined by their own morality. The challenge will arise, of course, when popular demands are used unscrupulously, something that is increasingly happening in response to perceptions of popular preferences as seen through opinion polls a problem for both the left and right, liberals and populists. The result is that parties offer more than they need in order to satisfy the demands of people. This gives responsibility to those who design the strategy, who then take the worst of what the polls suggest to craft a response based on the the most primitive instincts. If they opt for a strategy of "anything goes" allowing any nonsense to win voters, playing to the dark side of humanity, then politics as we know will no longer make sense. The underlying question then becomes whether politics, as we know it, continues to be valid, or whether we are are witnessing a transition a politics separated from reality.

This question becomes more interesting when we consider the list of current populists, none of whom hold much political power but who still have a chance to winning it, such as Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, Wilders, Holland; Vox, in Spain, and Alternative for Germany, or the case of Brexit.

Economic and cultural globalization: minorities, feminism and labour market

We are facing a worldwide moment in which defeatist domestic histories are articulated alongside trajectories of international changes in accordance with the "deep forces" (as understood by Renouvin) making the emergence of political movements focused on the feelings of the moment likely to develop. The consequences of economic change and their impacts on the labour market have always produced social and political disruption. The relevance of the new social movements, such as feminism and minorities groups, alongside a global and cosmopolitan order, threaten the bases that support leaders such as Bolsonaro, Trump, Putin, Orban and almost all parties in Poland. The relative failure of the social democratic and liberal movements to contain these demands has as its counterpart in the emergence of policies of resentment.

The audacity of Trump, Orban, the Kaczyński brothers and many others, has undoubtedly highlighted a degree of correlation within different societies, but discursive language, symbolic appeals and, fundamentally, public policies, should be used to put to an end to what are primitive appeals to the worst of humanity. This is especially significant when discussing issues such as immigration, the labour market, cosmopolitanism and minority rights. If the discourse of these leaders continues to feed off of the worst aspects of society, public policies will end up being shaped by this type of discourse, as already happens in Russia, Italy, Hungary and Poland.

Not all the leaders mentioned here are in office or ruling simultaneously, but there is a kind of trend. Chavismo in Venezuela now embodied by Maduro along with Kirchner in Argentina; Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia, which together formed a regional populist bloc in Latin America, between approximately 2000 and 2015, had its own set of characteristics. While in Russia, Putin having already ruled once, returned to power in 2012. Jaroslaw Kaczynski served as prime minister of Poland between 2006 and 2007, leaving a political structure that changed the country through the party he founded with his brother Lech, who died in 2010: The Law and Justice Party. Mateusz Morawiecki, from the same party, is the current prime minister of Poland. Viktor Orban had been prime minister of Hungary between 1998 and 2002, returning to power in 2010. The cases of Bolsonaro, Trump, Giuseppe Conte and Salvini are more recent. The political consistency of Bolsonaro is questionable, whilst Trump has had a number of economic achievements but at the cost of international stability.

Populism stems from a "united terror"

Fear factor, political overshooting

Globalisation has become a threat to all sides either because of its progressive features, or because it is linked with the decay of patriarchal structures, or because of the inevitable advance of new technologies and artificial intelligence. Globalization is a threat because the encounter with otherness feeds fear which stems from the challenges of globalisation. To paraphrase Jorge Luis Borges, populism stems from a "united terror". As the leaders of another populist party, Podemos, put it, drawing from their philosophical idol, the Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau, who interpreted populism as a democratic phenomenon that was the product of the articulation of demands that are then condensed into "empty signifiers", uniting heterogeneity through a common rejection of ‘something’. What that "something" is will depend on each case in question, although in populisms there is an ineluctable convergence: the rejection of cultural and economic globalization.

The overreaction, a sort of political overshooting in response to the employment and technological dilemmas and the transformation of traditional paradigms, coexists with an international crisis that has deepened since 2007 and to which, liberal and social democratic elites have not been able to find solutions. The result is the rise of anti-systems, illiberal and Eurosceptics movements that leverage the context of crisis and transformation to focus on xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and the rejection of constitutionalism and formal procedures. In short, there is a growing distrust of the liberal order that emerged from the rubble of 1945.

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