You Are Making Populism Worse | Jake Scott


Following the riots/demonstration/protest (pick according to your political preference) at the United States Capitol Building, the online space has become infinitely more hostile. Not only have the huge social media platforms taken draconian steps towards the censorship of dissenting users (read: right-wingers), now there is a proliferation of limitations imposed on major figures, mostly on the American right. I am not even talking about the high-profile banning of President Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account: long-term Senator and noted libertarian, Ron Paul, has been banned on Facebook.

The specific problem this is creating is an exacerbation of the situation prior to the election of Donald Trump: in other words, a populist backlash. It is hardly contestable that populism played a major role in Trump’s emergence and meteoric rise to (and similar fall from) office; but what people often call ‘populism’ is not exactly populism as it should be understood. Indeed, commentators often make the mistake of thinking populism as a term can be attached to substantive policy proposals: stringent immigration restrictions; economic protectionism; regressive social rights agendas; and so on.

What this forgets is that, in the canon on populist movements, you can always find diametrically opposite policies enacted by still populist leaders. For instance, in Peru, Alberto Fujimori was noted for a stridently neoliberal economic agenda, that involved the dissolution of trade restrictions and internal market regulations; meanwhile, only a decade later and a few hundred miles north, Hugo Chavez rose to power in Venezuela, during which time he became the populist leader par excellence for the populist literature. Indeed, many writers and analysts of populism note Chavez’s extension of social rights for women, minorities, LGBT individuals, and so on. Simultaneously, Venezuela’s sharp turn towards economic leftism belied the legacy in South America of populist neoliberalism (see Fujimori, above).

Even now, in Spain, Greece and France, the movements of Podemos, SYRIZA and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (respectively) have campaigned for the opening up of border restrictions, recognition of existing illegal immigrants, and (in the case of France) for the legitimisation of citizens sans papiers. Put simply, populism is not an attachment to a clearly definable or substantive policy programme. What complicates matters further, is this fails to recognise the amorphous nature of populism, to the extent that it makes combatting populist leaders difficult by focusing on the policies and not the language through which they are expressed, or the logic that lurks behind the proposals.

Instead, we need to focus on the circumstances that give rise to populism, if we are to understand its nature properly. One of the key factors determining the emergence of populism (either in ‘real terms’ or in the rhetoric that populist use) is the perception of cartlisation.

The problem of cartlisation can be understood best in context of what democracy is presumed to do. As Margaret Canovan has written extensively, the promise of democracy is, at its heart, the capacity for self-governance that an extensive nation-state makes logistically difficult and historically unknown. However, governance is a difficult practice, and can quickly be overwhelmed by a majoritarianism that can erase the capacity for dissenting individuals to exist socially, even if not literally; so, as Henry Madison would argue strongly for in the Federalist Papers, the mechanisms of governance ought to channel plural demands into manageable forms that would not conflict, but would balance one another out.

For Canovan, populism is the method and logic that brings the vast and otherwise-impenetrable mechanisms of self-governance closer to the people over whom they are intended to govern. The simplification of processes will necessarily erase the nuances of governance, but the promise of self-governance is that those over whom such governance is exercised are capable of asserting the final agency in how that governance structured. In other words, the promise of democracy is that the people are sovereign.

There is a degree of contention behind this theory. Nadia Urbinati’s 2008 book, Representative Democracy, conducted a very thorough genealogy of democracy that showed, while the theory that Canovan describes above was the rhetoric, the practice was very different. Indeed, ‘democratisation’ as a process was usually a way of preventing the people from acting as the sovereign, due largely to semi-aristocratic (which I am quite sympathetic to) assumptions that ‘the people’ are incapable of acting as a sovereign decision-maker due to an irresolvable diversity of demands and identities, and what Edmund Burke described as the convulsing mass in being too readily influenced by the issues of the day.

Regardless, populism thrives off the sense that not only are political institutions beyond their grasp, but so too are the social institutions of everyday life. Now, it is unreasonable to suggest that simply one occasion of preventing the people from expressing themselves is going to lead to populism; but it is also not unreasonable to see how the mass censorship of right-wing (and, somewhat surprisingly, left-wing) voices on social media can be constructed as part of a conspiracy to prevent certain “officially unacceptable” opinions being shared. If, after all, the personal is political, and the political is democratic, I would not be surprised when the personal is democratised: every attempt to obfuscate the voice of the people (however that people is constructed) can be seen as part of a wider attempt at delegitimising dissident voices.

I am not arguing here that action should not have been taken, but this is the unfortunate paradox of populism: as populism deals in conspiracy theories of cartelisation, any action taken to prevent populists from achieving their goals will only throw fuel on the fire. This is one of the most significant problems facing liberal democracies in the West: how can you deal with populists, without proving populists right? As a side note, one of the answers that seems to have been found is of taking the painful route of allowing populists to win, and then defeating them in the electoral arena, as Joe Biden’s victory would suggest – but this remains to be seen.

The point remains: populism thrives on a conspiratorial perception of all political and social institutions working together to ensure a prevailing power structure persists. When social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter start censoring populist voices at the same time that the US Congress begins impeaching the previous President, populists will seize on such a development as further proof that the system is rigged against them – and one finds it very difficult to tell them otherwise.

Populist voices will not dissipate if you take away the avenues of expression – if anything, experience proves it emboldens them. Silencing and censorship is not the answer; indeed, populism might not even be the question. The real question always needs to be, are we doing the right thing?


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