So, …. Italy went populist, anti-European Union and anti-illegal immigration. Apparently populism’s demise has been somewhat exaggerated.
“Populism” is being ridiculed and attacked by the mainstream media and of course, by “traditional” politicians, with dire warnings of its inherently negative attributes amidst somewhat contradictory claims. In the United States it is being attacked mainly by gleeful Clinton – Obama Democrats who describe populists as xenophobic misogynists and racists, you remember, Hillary’s “despicables”, but the fact is populism does not involve specific issues except for rejection of elitist establishment imposed governance. After all, the real left that supported faux leftist Bernie Sanders was a legitimate expression of populism so populists also include Hillary’s “Bernie Bros”.
It would probably be much more objective as well as accurate to describe populism as a legitimate rejection of politics as usual, of the illusion of democracy without its substance, of the imposition of designer cultural values which have not yet percolated through social evolution to the mainstream but which involve “beautiful people fads” largely inapplicable to the hypocrites who espouse them.
Xenophobia is not an aspect of populism per se yet it may be a catalyst for its rising tide, but it is xenophobia based on legitimate if sad concerns, the fear of overwhelming social, cultural politic and economic change resulting from an influx of unexpected and unplanned refugees; a tragedy caused almost entirely by the “liberal” military interventionists who decry the dangers of populism. A tragedy for the countries like Libya and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and the Sudan and Honduras and Haiti which they destroyed, in fact turning them into “shitholes”, as well as for the countries now flooded with the resulting human “residue”. Lose – lose consequences for common men and women everywhere at the juncture of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.
Many “liberal” (a term now bereft of meaning) analysts in both academia and the purportedly mainstream but in reality economically elite media define populism in a manner making it analogous to caudillismo, a demagogic tactic used by would be dictators to legitimately attain political power but quickly leading to a loss of liberty and eventually, to the demise of the democracy that made it possible. I believe a much simpler definition is in order, populism is what democracy is supposed to be, the will of the majority, for good or ill, reflecting its own values and desires freed from the chains of manipulative institutions concerned with their own self-preservation rather than the common good. The reality is that most of our traditional government leaders hate and fear real democracy because, were it ever to exist, it would eliminate the probability that power would be concentrated and perpetuated in the hands of the few, in de facto hereditary oligarchies. And they have a point.
Democracy does not appear to really work anywhere largely because of popular indifference but that popular indifference may well be manufactured, largely through use of the tame “mainstream” media and entertainment industry complex, through the constant drumbeat to vote against something or someone rather than for something in which one believes, through “lesser evil” strategies instilling the feeling that, as the Borg put it, “resistance is futile” so why bother to vote. The canard that obligatory voting is “undemocratic” is sold as gospel notwithstanding the contradictory and incoherent nature of the argument: it may be un-libertarian but it is no more undemocratic than drivers’ licenses or taxes, and probably significantly more important. So, in the rare instances when democracy seems to work, it is immediately attacked as, horror of horrors, populistic.
Constitutions are described to us as semi-sacred documents needed to preserve democracy. I’ve taught constitutional theory and United States constitutional law as well as comparative politics, the latter a course that analyzes, compares and contrasts the forms and structures of government and governance in dozens and dozens of different states, and, with few exceptions, I’ve concluded that all too often, rather than promote democracy constitutions impose complex electoral structures designed to concentrate power (political, economic, cultural and social) in the hands of small but economically powerful minorities. In Colombia and many countries with similar forms of government, the real subjects of their constitutions (those with real participatory power) are the political parties and recognized political movements. For example, in legislative elections, as well as in non-legislative local and regional control organizations designated as city councils and departmental assemblies, Colombian “voters” are forced to vote for an entire ticket rather than having the option to pick and choose from among the candidates. With few exceptions (the Irish Republic seems to be one), constitutions are straightjackets for democratic aspirations rather than means to assure democracy’s implementation. Perhaps that’s why populist “revolutions” so often result in constitutional reforms that reject traditional political theories such as separation of powers and emasculation of traditional institutions like the press and the judiciary. Such seemingly drastic and illiberal “reforms” are based on the realization that neither institution is free and independent but rather, that in all too many instances, both have become politicized and serve only the interests of their oligarchic masters. That seems to be an essential feature of Latin American Bolivarian governments with very mixed results. Venezuela is a failure for many reasons, including ineptitude, corruption, economic sabotage and foreign intervention, a perfect storm, but Ecuador, Bolivia and especially Uruguay have proven to be unexpected albeit largely unheralded successes. The problem is that successful and efficient democracy requires the free and independent flow of reliable and complete information and the administration of fair and impartial justice, and tearing down their corrupt verisimilitudes without adequate replacements is not enough.
I recently had an enlightening conversation with the owner and chief executive of a growing media enterprise in the Eje Cafetero region of Colombia, “Eje 21” concerning how impossible it is becoming for independent journalists to survive in light of financial realities. The “mainstream” media almost everywhere is owned by and operates for the benefit of financial interests. The best examples may be the Jeff Bezos owned and CIA funded Washington Post and the Carlos Slim owned New York Times (ironic given Mr. Slim’s Mexican heritage), not billionaires’ toys but billionaires’ weapons with us as the targets. Journalists who do not toe the corporate line soon find themselves irrelevant at best, or unemployed, or blacklisted (consider Seymour Myron “Sy” Hersh as an example), those who do, regardless of lack of talent or ethics, ascend. The independent tend to starve but have, to some extent, been provided a temporary haven by alternative and pay for click social media which explains the heavy handed public – private efforts to censor and destroy them through the combined use of algorithms (think Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) and Obama era and current bipartisan congressional efforts at both censorship and crippling tax financed propaganda. So our options seem to be a choice among censors, the direct state variety imposed by United States allies such as Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, pretty much all our Middle East allies; the soft touch state variety such as the United Kingdom and France, or our evolving public private censorship model that so delights the ghost of good old Joe McCarthy while turning George Orwell’s stomach.
Is it any wonder that people all over the world are rejecting failed systems of governance for more direct and more democratic models pejoratively labeled populists? It kind of reminds me of the old “Archie Bunker Show”, a program designed to ridicule and belittle the “unenlightened” masses but which, as with Hillary’s “Deplorables” term, instead energized them, not necessarily a positive development but one all too predictable, then as now.
I am not in favor of many of the policies espoused by the populist victors in many recent elections around the world. I am an open borders, eliminate independent states – world government favoring, bleeding heart progressive pacifist. But I believe the only way we will ever attain the world we and our progeny deserve is through democratically inspired political and social evolution; art inspired evolution that changes what the worst among us (think Clinton – Obama Democrats and traditional big business Republicans) have made of our souls and ethics and morals.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2018; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen). Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.