Populism: A Double-Edged Sword | Santino Facal

After five years of political uncertainty and social upheaval, on 11th April, Peru held primary elections that will define the future of the Andean country. For some pollsters the die was already cast and the triumph of the centrist Yonhy Lescano was imminent. But to the surprise of many, the candidate who ended up winning was the Castro-Chavist rural teacher Pedro Castillo. A discreet man with a low profile from whom no one expected anything, known for having led strikes in the past and characterized by having won the affection of the Peruvian lower-middle class by campaigning on horseback. The electoral contest hasn’t yet been decided but the unexpected outcome meant that shortly after the results were known, a complex term that is always present in the current political debate was brought to the fore once again: populism.

In the eyes of some Latin American intellectuals and writers, the debate between the left and the right is a thing of the past, and the new dichotomy we must face is between populism and democracy. “Communism is no longer the main enemy of freedom, but populism”, writes Mario Vargas Llosa in the prologue of his book The outbreak of populism. From a liberal perspective, populism is the origin of all our problems, since its infiltration of the political sphere unfailingly leads to the weakening of institutions; causing politicians to amalgamate power, rewrite Constitutions and restrict individual and commercial liberties of their citizens, as has happened in countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

However, it has already been shown that the only way to defeat the left and prevent its advance is with dutiful leaders who effectively deliver the people’s priorities. This does not mean flattering a reckless leader devoid of humanity. But it does mean avoiding at all costs the cowardice typical of leaders who are not willing to forcefully confront it, and instead of making history as true statesmen, choose to stay on the side-lines and be forgotten. Especially in times in which the right wing has lost a lot of ground; after the defeat of Donald Trump in the United States, and the spring of caramelized centrism that Latin America experienced, where it seemed that the Ibero-American world was leaving behind years of the ignominy of Chavism and the San Pablo Forum. But soon after, government after government began to fall like dominoes: Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Jeanine Añez in Bolivia (now imprisoned) and worst of all, Iván Duque in Colombia and Sebastián Piñera in Chile, both victims of social outbreaks perpetuated by the incendiary left who, in the face of an error by the government in power, took advantage of the situation by expressing their outrage in the streets. The main reason for the failure of these governments and political projects was a lack of courage and determination. 

It is clear that the bad political judgment inexorably leads to misdiagnosis vis-a-vis how we should face the left. But the issue with the “cowardly right” is that in addition to having a complacent attitude towards the unacceptable (that the left takes advantage of); at times it appears disconnected from reality and its supporters. Once in power, they stop responding to their followers and begin to respond to the interests of minorities in order to remain engaged with the progressive agenda, and depict themselves as a moderate centrist alternative willing to concede and agree. This lack of representation, political nous and conviction explains the emergence of populist right-wing governments such as those of Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil; or candidates like Marine Le Pen in France, and Santiago Abascal of the VOX party, in Spain. Unlike the centre-right, these new populist governments burst onto the scene to satisfy demanding and disgruntled people, and fight against the elites in order to restore power and give a voice to those silent majorities that have been ignored by traditional politics. In recent times, the most emblematic case has been that of Mr. Trump, whose triumph put the American establishment in check and took the world by surprise. However, this was just the start of a trend that would bring triumphs for the populist right.

Speaking in current terminology, the UK has recently started to show some of the symptoms mentioned above. This phenomenon occurs mainly because of the detachment of the voters from their parties. This not only evident with the Conservatives, which at times seem to only care about free market and low taxes and take increasingly similar stances to Labour on social issues; but also with the Labour party, which these days is held hostage by a minority group of young people who condition the party’s decisions and distance it from its original roots. The truth is that the vast majority of the working class in Britain is indeed socially conservative, wants less immigration, in some cases even longs for the times when transport and some industries were nationalized, and cares little about the exacerbated progressivism driven around the world. Nevertheless, the political leadership, blinded by ambition and rivalry, is unwilling to admit that there are aspects of the opposite ideology that could be incorporated into their policies, putting their moral hemiplegia above the real problems of the people they should represent. This is why, without realising it, those of us who closely follow the world of politics and international relations have seen this type of leader more often. Although since so many analysts and writers refer to populism in a pejorative way, and in many cases, it is seen as a way to trivialize politics, it is difficult to say that this is what the UK needs. But in other words, we could all agree that the country does need to improve ties between its politicians and the people, improving representation and meeting the demands of the British who have been ignored.

In these times, since the political order has evolved and the establishment is leaning left, it is the right that is popular. Because its policies are logical and reach people who come from different social backgrounds and have real concrete problems; and because now the left’s supporters are either young university students who have no contact with reality, officials who have been working for the government for as long as they can remember, journalists who lack critical-thinking skills, or politically correct celebrities who in some cases are financed by foreign foundations. Both from an economic and moral value perspective, our discourse is in a strong condition to go where it has never been before: those popular sectors that have been lost by the left, which are now found not in the people as a whole but in the establishment. We have a lot of work to do in conditions that are really interesting to give this fight, so there is nothing better than to force ourselves in that sense and get closer to the working classes, because surely even they are going to listen to us much more than those who boast of being heard. Perhaps it is time for conservatives to stop looking down on this form of political activism. Stop being afraid of the popular. Stop thinking like the old haughty aristocratic right from rich neighbourhoods who pass the time drinking whiskey and smoking cigars; and embrace the benefits of populism to become more appealing to the working class. After all, politics is the art of the possible, and as funny as it may sound it’s becoming very popular.

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