6 February 2020   Leave a comment

Martin Gurri has written an exceptionally insightful essay on the rise of populism in the world over the last decade. It is, in some respects, a development that can be easily explained by the dramatic growth in income and wealth inequality in the world. But that explanation could also suggest a rise in leftist political activity, something which has been far less vibrant than the rise of right-wing politics. Gurri’s conclusion is clear: “The great political divide of our time is between the public and elites: and what matters to the public is to strike a blow at the elites.” He goes further to describe the rise of populism:

“The populism Trump represented has contributed mightily to the instability of the last decade. The public has elected outlandish characters to high office across the world: Johnson in Britain, Orbán in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, Salvini in Italy, Modi in India, Obrador in Mexico, Bolsonaro—whose statements make Trump, by comparison, sound like Miss Manners—in Brazil. In France, Germany, and the Netherlands, populist figures have gained ground. These are disruptors and system-smashers. If they aren’t exactly Mussolinis-in-waiting, neither are they overly concerned with the rituals and rhetoric of democracy. The populist, like the public, aims to stand against. A fundamental question, if we are to understand our moment, is whether these off-key politicians are the cause of the public’s surly mood or merely a symptom of it.”

Gurri’s answer to the question is the same as mine: populism is the result of widespread dissatisfaction by ordinary people and the elite’s inability to offer meaningful political choices:

“Whether the current crop of populists tell more or better lies than their elite predecessors can be left an open question. But that they are the prime movers in a decade of revolt may be safely doubted. The arrow of causation points in the opposite direction. From Tunisia in 2011 to Hong Kong today, the majority of protests have been leaderless—quite consciously so. These spontaneous outbursts have developed out of the same set of symptoms as populism: the decline of traditional political parties, for one. Both share the same digital vectors of communication, the same rhetoric of rage. The far spread of populism, rightly considered, should be viewed as an argument against the notion that it is personality driven. Structural and global factors appear to be at work.”

Unfortunately, Gurri does not suggest a way out.

“The public has voted bizarre characters into office for a very simple reason: democratic political institutions, and the elites who manage them, have refused to offer meaningful alternatives. The populists in all their strangeness are a message from the public that this narrow status quo cannot stand. In the age of post-truth, however, nearly the opposite message has been received by those at the top of the hierarchy.”

It is hard to believe that the world’s elites will respond in a meaningful way to the inequities that have become far too obvious to most since the Great Recession of 2008-09. Whether the populist movements can articulate a coherent world order as an alternative is also open to great doubt, particularity since the movements seem to be leaderless and not at all ideological. This is an essay worth reading.

Posted February 6, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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