After Duterte: Time for ‘left’ populism?

Nothing has better exposed the paucity and utter impotence of rightwing “macho” populism than the ongoing pandemic. This should come as no surprise, given the bumptious dismissiveness of this type of leadership toward expertise and even basic science, precisely when top experts and scientists are most needed.

Instead of building robust institutions, right-wing populists tend to rely on their supposed magical instincts and concentrate power in their own supposedly capable hands. Predictably, when complex challenges that demand thoughtful policymaking and institutional strength emerge, the upshot is disaster.


All of a sudden, a growing number of voters across the world are developing nostalgia for the sane, more stable days under the relatively staid presidents of the past. Call it “democratic nostalgia” or “liberal nostalgia,” in which the right-wing populist project gets exposed like the proverbial naked emperor.

The most powerful manifestation of this “liberal nostalgia” is the radically “safe” Democratic presidential ticket of former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris. The unexciting yet seemingly reassuring pair clearly harkens back to the Obama days, when there was a measure of dignity and sturdiness in everyday governance. In the Philippines, Vice President Leni Robredo’s growing appeal is also partly due to a strengthening public clamor for steady and thoughtful leadership in our darkest hours.


With right-wing populists’ term in office likely coming to an end in a number of key countries, the question is: Which movements and figures could help stanch the wound of brazen misgovernance and steer their besieged nations toward a measure of recovery and respite? Major democracies such as the United States seem to be swinging back in the direction of left-liberal centrism. This is an understandable reversion to the mean.

In Brazil, the country seems to be heading for another Bolsonaro-Workers’ Party (PT) showdown, as alternative opposition forces led by the likes of leftist governor of the state of Maranhão Flávio Dino struggle to forge a united opposition.

But the path to the future can’t be forged through an instinctive relapse to a discredited past. If there is one thing the crisis has shown, it’s the importance of dynamic, inclusive, and competent leadership. After all, among success stories are the likes of Taiwan, New Zealand, and South Korea, where progressive leaders have overseen a remarkable balance between public health protection and ensuring that their economy didn’t grind to a halt.

What we are facing today is nothing less than a generational crisis, as the China-originated pandemic devastates the world economy and ravages communities unlike anything in recent history.

As a millennial who confronted the global recession fresh out of college and is now witnessing my peers raising young families under the shadow of a worldwide upheaval, I’m truly worried for the future.

The existential threat posed by climate change has only heightened this visceral anxiety among people of my generation, if not others. While plutocrats are benefiting from “disaster capitalism,” the middle class is rapidly hollowing, and tens of millions are being pushed into extreme poverty.

When confronted with a disaster of this magnitude, we need to explore the possibility of more radical responses if we are going to not only survive, but also thrive in the post-pandemic future.


And this is where we need to seriously contemplate the necessity for what political scientists call “left populism.” As we have seen in recent years, “right-wing” populism emphasizes “law and order” over human rights and civil liberties, identitarian-nativist purity over pluralism, and deference to an authoritarian populist figure over procedural democracy.

In contrast, “left” populism emphasizes redistributive policies, social justice, and working- and middle-class mobilization against systemic inequality and neoliberal governance. To be clear, not all “leftists” and “socialists” are the same. We are not talking about Venezuelan Chavismo, but instead democratic progressive groups such as Podemos (Spain) and figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have demonstrated their fidelity to basic principles of constitutional democracy despite their radical rhetoric.

As Harvard academics Noam Gidron and Bart Bonikowski have pointed out, populism comes in many varieties; thus, it doesn’t necessarily have to end in full-fledged authoritarian populism. Perhaps, extraordinary times should also call for extraordinary forms of leadership.

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TAGS: Horizons, left-wing populism, Richard Heydarian, Rodrigo Duterte
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