Alt-populists: How to beat demagogues
Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution,” the German literary genius Walter Benjamin lamented amid the rise of the most vicious forms of modern politics in the early 20th century.
Built on the ashes of World War I, fascism marked the deadly nexus of romantic nationalism, stylized death squads and radical statism, according to sociologist Michael Mann. Most importantly, a singular, charismatic leader who served as both the father and savior of the nation anchored fascism, thus the divine-arbitrary power to decide the fate of his countrymen.
What was most tragic about the advent of fascism (and national socialism) is that it represented the adulteration, and collectively deranged response to, the failures of liberal democratic forces, particularly in postwar Italy and Germany.
Fascist leaders were the 20th-century manifestations of what classical Greeks called “demagogues,” the larger-than-life figures who exploited democratic institutions to usurp power and establish a popular dictatorship. This was precisely the dark side of democracy that killed Socrates. As Plato observed, demagogues are the product of a process of “political decay,” specifically when an oligarchy corrupts the best values of a city-state and besmirches the aspirations of a democratic polity.
The upshot is widespread cynicism and public discontent. And this is where demagogues, equipped with special oratorical skills that mesmerize the plebeian and even the aggrieved elite, step into the picture.
The 21st century has created a new breed of demagogues, namely strongmen populists who thrive on the politics of fear, rage and grievance. They feed on what sociologist Walden Bello describes as the “politics of faith,” when millions of people, drenched in communal frenzy, are willing to hold their critical faculties in abeyance in exchange for illusory political salvation.
As Bello warns in his latest book “Counterrevolution,” today’s strongmen populists are waging a war against no less than the Enlightenment values. This new breed of demagogues, he writes, is “contemptuous of liberal democratic ideals and practices,” while enthusiastically “espousing the use of force to resolve deep-seated social conflicts.” At the most fundamental level, they skillfully and unabashedly tap into the darkest instincts of the electorate.
The question, though, is: How to beat them?
As I argued in my book “The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy,” strongmen populists are a societal response to the failures of the liberal oligarchy. Thus, it logically follows that returning to business-as-usual liberalism won’t work.
This is precisely why the Liberal Party opposition in the Philippines as well as the Congress party in India were completely dislodged during the latest elections in Asia’s oldest and biggest liberal democracies, respectively. In both cases, President Duterte’s as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s allies thrashed their liberal opponents, who were led by the scions of the ancien régime, namely Roxas, Aquino and Gandhi.
In a historical first for his clan, Rahul Gandhi even lost in his own constituency in Amethi, signaling the potential end of the once hegemonic Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty. Also, for the first time in years, the Roxases and Aquinos are absent in national politics.
The antidote to strongman populism is not centrist liberalism, but instead something entirely new. In mature democracies like the United States and United Kingdom, we have seen the rise of left-wing populism, led by hard-edged progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.
Yet, even more importantly, we have seen the rise of what I call the “alt-populists”—young, antiestablishment and charismatic leaders, mostly in their late 30s and early 40s, who have taken over top offices from New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern) to Slovakia (Zuzana Caputova).
The 29-year-old New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is widely considered a future presidential candidate, too.
As Harvard academics Noam Gidron and Bart Bonikowski explain, populism can take many forms, whether in terms of rhetoric, electoral strategy or outright ideology and policy. The likes of Mr. Duterte and Modi are “consummate populists,” employing all three elements of populism.
Alt-populists, in contrast, employ populism in terms of branding and electoral mobilization strategy, but are instead radically liberal-progressive in their actual policies.
It’s too early to say, but we may have our own versions of alt-populists, in the persons of Isko Moreno and Vico Sotto (“Iskotto”).
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