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Guest Author

June 27, 2017

Is Populism an Enemy within the Western Democracies?

Populism has been a vital element of nearly every discussion about the political landscape in recent years. It is painted and described by many as a threat to democracies, because as a concept, populism suggests that there are very easy answers to very complex problems. To those who deeply study such issues, populism can be viewed as either an over-simplification of the political discourse or the simplification of political solutions paired with ignorance about the long-term effects.

For years populist movements have celebrated remarkable victories, creating political change in France, Netherlands, Italy and other countries. In recent memory, Austria was among the pioneers of populist/nationalist presence in a government, as evidenced by the conservative/freedom party coalition government of 1999 engineered by Wolfgang Schüssel and Jörg Haider. Nearly two decades ago, this was scandalous enough to cause a symbolic diplomatic isolation of Austria.

Much has changed in Europe and the United States since then. Populist movements have now become a normal phenomenon and there are many of them represented on different political stages throughout the international arena. Populism is also no longer a monopoly to parties of political right wing nationalists, even if still dominated by these groups. Look no further than the ruling Greek Syriza party or Yannis Varoufakis, the much challenged former Greek minister of finance who decorated cover pages celebrating him as the hard-rock minister of finance, challenging IMF and EU-leaders. Some even argue that the new US President shows signs of being a populist himself.

One may argue that populism is a vital threat to democracies and that it hinders the rational political forces from doing their work properly. To those arguers, populism is dangerous for political stability, the European Union, peace, the Euro, NATO and, last but not least, for our public budgets. It is most certainly a phenomenon that is disliked by political elites, but it should not be ignored in today’s landscape. It demands modern answers, especially by traditional political forces. Much of what is labelled as “populist” today seems to have found a flourishing environment in our changing societies. A few thoughts:

1. Populism is not new. It is, plain and simple, a part of the democratic process. It can be viewed as a phenomenon which lies deeply rooted in the heart of the democratic system. If citizens should have the power to take views or even influence political decisions, this demands a discourse that reaches the people. And what is populism if not trying to win the sympathies of the masses by means of simplified communication?

As a matter of fact, we need to accept that average citizens build their opinions by other means than the elites. It is a sign of vital competition, if there is more than one political force, which addresses this need. Therefore, the excuse that candidates who have lost their elections oftentimes present as defence – “the people do not understand that this is best for them” – cannot be accepted as an answer. Rather, it should be “we did not properly explain our political agenda to the voter.” It may be provocative to ask whether non-democratic expert-based policy systems could potentially have better political outputs, even though these queries will likely be lacking acceptance.

2. We argue that populism is a phenomenon that has been accelerated in the age of a new world order, fuelled by digital disruption, and that there is a need for more agile, aggressive and catchy political slogans. We live today in a new world of 140-character election manifestos and even policies. Our modern world, for good or ill, is marked by shorter, faster, wider audiences. Messages need to be louder and more dramatized to win the fight for attention. But we may not see the downside of the new communications environment we face.

We can also observe a democratization of information which has also enabled ordinary users to easily conduct their own fact-checks – if they are capable of doing it. Wrong statements get corrected within minutes by citizen journalists. This potentially contributes positively to the quality of the political discourse in a way it did never before. In the 15th century, the book was seen as a threat by the elites because it enabled everyone to say everything and distribute it to an audience wider than ever before. Centuries later, we can see that the advent of cost-effective book publishing changed the world for the better. We are facing the same phenomenon and the answer, as it was before, is not to blame the technology, but purely to seek to use it wisely.Closely related to this, there is the role of the media. “Fake news” is a term which has only recently become extremely fashionable and used widely by those who disagree with the reporting of select publications. Not only has there always been a tendency for populist movements to stretch the truth on

3. Closely related to this, there is the role of the media. “Fake news” is a term which has only recently become extremely fashionable and used widely by those who disagree with the reporting of select publications. Not only has there always been a tendency for populist movements to stretch the truth on occasion but in so doing, they are also immunizing themselves from allegations made by traditional media. However, these often-mainstream media outlets are viewed as being part of the establishment that people in populist movements are tired of. And often enough, reporting is painted in the colour of political correctness which often seems to be fitting the purpose or the angle that journalists want to take.

One may not underestimate the vanity of journalists who view their role as educating the masses. The promise of free, independent and purely evidence-driven journalism is a fiction itself. It probably has always been this way, but thanks to new digital tools, people have the ability to uncover constructed or spun stories themselves. As one example, CNN was criticized for staging a pro Muslim demonstration in London after the latest terrorist attacks. CNN apparently wanted to show a sign of Islamic solidarity with the victims of the attacks. Anyone looking at the footage that was taken by a third party at the scene can clearly see how the whole set was orchestrated and controlled by the journalist.

This may be the new standard in today’s broadcast journalism, but it is certainly not what people expect as an independent presentation of facts. The fact that media are viewed as part of an elite rather than as a public watchdog further stirs up the political system toward populist ends. As a result, populists find new ways to profit from their former weakness. Because they historically lacked trust by mainstream media, they build their own-media outlets (e.g. Breitbart) and/or Social Media channels. As a result, populists are now capable of presenting alternative facts, or even fake news, to their followers.

4. We often argue that people have lost their interest in politics. The view which is rarely taken is that people may just be “fed up” with the conventional political elites, which include the media and business elites. People are in principle interested in politics, but they are not interested in the style of the political discourse which they have seen for decades in our democracies.

Conventional political parties too often send out constant signals of saturation and nepotism, and they lack the ability to really solve pressing problems unless the systems are shaken by fateful events such as economic crises. One could take the view that many voters in the US did not want Donald Trump to win, but they preferred him over a candidate who was an icon of the political establishment. However, one should acknowledge that the vote for populist movements is not always one of easy choice for the voter. As soon as there are “viable options” that are perceived as new and somewhat reliable, they seem to be attracting voters. For the recent Austrian Presidential elections, a little known former chief justice ran for office. A woman in her 70s, well versed but totally untrained in politics, was able to receive 20% of the votes in the first run without a professional campaign and on a budget of €1 million from donations. In contrast, the conservative candidate ended up with half of the votes, as did the social democratic candidate, and both were long-serving politicians in their respective parties. This shows that people are willing to accept alternatives if they have them and if they believe that the offer is solid and honest. Macron in France is not a new figure, but people seem to believe his approach may change politics.

5. One area to remember: If we identify populism as a potential threat and if we want to unmask the most problematic forms of it, then we should not only try to find solutions for how to dismantle their most poisonous narratives in public, but we should also uncover their oftentimes obscure network of support. Many sources point in the direction of regions where there is a vital interest to destabilize Europe or the United States – the western alliances in principle. Much of the populist noise is at least supported by strategically-driven campaigns that target our democracies – and they have been quite successful so far. Coping with third-party influence and targeted disinformation campaigns will pose one of the most pressing problems for our future democratic decision making.

6. We have also seen some turnouts indicating that populist developments have seen their peak. This is likely a short-term impression and probably encouraging to an extent. Furthermore, it supports the theory that voters know quite well who they are choosing at the ballot box. But it should not comfort us if we see the populist era declining for the time being. Populism is a recurring element of democracy and therefore it will survive. It may come under a different cover, but it will remain. We need to face it as a reality that needs to be addressed seriously.

Martin Jenewein is a Senior Partner of Schneider | Minar | Jenewein Consulting, Vienna – Austria.

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