On populist surge and traditional purge

In Society on 30. April 2017 at 20:59

THE DOMINANT POLITICAL narrative in the recent and upcoming elections are filled with myths that are taken for granted as truths. Political interest on immigration, its effect on the national unity, nationhood and its survival, globalization and the lack of sovereignty and the dominant of them all, populism, its surge, and the apparent almost purge of the traditional political landscape.


All form the central themes in an environment where de-industrialization and inequality increases popular resentment and anger towards an imagined elite. What is myths in this, and what are the truths. Are these concerns of nationhood, national unity, identity, multiculturalism, populism-vs-elitism, a new phenomenon? How to dissect the myths, and the realities in this inflated debate?

What effect does a populism that is based on tribalism have on the rights based order – and how do one enter a global order that can take into consideration the dilemma between choosing both democracy/rights and sovereignty? In the end, how is diversity in the current form, any different from diversity from our near past? Is multi-identity based citizenship possible or is such a project forever dead and bygone?


The main theme in the vote on British referendum on EU membership, and that of Trump’s election in 2016 was the relations of the nation to those of international alliances/unions. While these are two of the latest examples to look for, the fight between autonomy/sovereignty and that of a global integration is centuries old.

Dani Rodrik identifies these two orders with a third one that makes it necessary to look for a model in where one of these has to be sacrificed in order to safeguard the rest. The third order being the democracy that includes the rights and liberties accumulated throughout centuries.

According to Rodrik we have a trilemma in where the obvious choice is to let democracy work with globalization – the cost being sovereignty. Alternatively, choosing the latter, in addition to democracy and one loses on the benefits of a globalization. Might sound like good music, but the cost is economic decline, due to protectionism, for which examples are in the many.

In this model of letting globalization work for democracy, the trade-off does not equate to export sovereignty to global organizations as WTO or OECD. It does not mean to let financial decision be orchestrated by global corporations and remove all of what is left of barriers and nation specific wishes because international business community likes it streamlined.

Sovereignty will be affected, but it can be steered and its control increased. Had national parties in each European country put more effort in the European Union Parliamentary elections, they would have delivered a voice to their policy and their citizens.

In addition the current globalization that bases on one truth, that prosperity only comes through hyper-globalization with zero-barriers and free trade, needs to be quashed. Countries are different, and their economic structure resolves and is built around these differences. Countries should be able to, even without being protectionist, manage to bargain benefits from global trade. In this, according to Rodrik, the responsibility lies in the hands of those who cheer globalization, or else, he warns, nativism will use the discontent and resentment to cheer up anti-globalist and protectionist political order.

As long as the global institutions manage to, and can show off, a better control of economic globalization, the bargain of choosing democracy and globalization, on behest of sovereignty is the optimal. Already there is work done on tax havens and more so is coming to the surface.


Populism is equated with a tribalism/nationalistic ideological specter – one that looks inwards, and bases its foundation on national identity and national sovereignty. That is not the case.

Populism is politics – and it is as old as politics itself, and politics all forms of systems, be it imperial, authoritarian or democratic. Populism although is more prone to those who set the agenda and a useful tool in the hands of the few, as long as they have a critical mass they can steer. In short, populism steers towards someone to point at, for the ills one suffers from.

For the left wing there is an elite of bankers that controls state and system behind closed doors, for the right wing there is this same elite, that in addition guards a minority that mostly receives the brunt. In Europe, the Jews saw and felt what that meant. In contemporary Europe and US, the immigrant receives the focus. With this imagined elite with an agenda of altering the social fabric and national integrity on the behest of global integration – words as traitor, fifth columnists and patriots sure makes its rounds.

A popular Schröder can end a long streak of Kohl Chancellery. A Blair with a new coloring on social democracy can end the Tory grip on power. A nationalist Mitterrand can be the face of Socialists in France and be the standard bearer of European left in 80s and early 90s – yet a wipe-out of Mitterrand’s party is evident in current French elections, Labor is at historic low in UK, and German SPD tries to face a popular Merkel, despite being in power for the last decade. Parties get their obituaries written, for then to show up with a massive support and return to the chambers of power – this, because populism is an integral element of democratic politics.

When does, and when does not, a populist surge occur is hard to say, the common wisdom seems to be a certain type of politician, ignoring the fact that every newcomer to both the houses in Washington has a story of being the pure and untouched, ready to do the job without the vested interests of lobbies. Joe Biden was such a star when he first took his train from Delaware, he is now considered of the ‘elite’ by the far right headed by Trump.

Populism therefore is not necessary deemed to be tribalistic and inward, looking towards an imagined glorious past – it is the art of channeling resentment, and it can be done by anyone. A healthy kind of populism is therefore also present, one that channels popular resentments not towards otherization, but unity, with concrete steps towards progress on certain political arenas that affect the local citizen. That’s what’s at center, the citizen, and in comes the term multiculturalism.


Its dead – has been the headlines the last decades, not only proclaimed by those at the right side of the political divide, but also among the center-left. Multiculturalism and the project of a multi-cultural society is dead has perhaps been the main myth that enhances and confirms many of the right-wing anti-immigration movements doctrines. That immigration and integration cannot be, and that the only alternative is assimilation or expulsion.

But for something to die, it at first has to be born – multiculturalism, as preached by the right-wing and to a certain degree the specter right of center – has never been willed or wished for, in many a cases, not even real.

Kenan Malik tells a different story and breaks the myth of a historic homogenous past. Europe seems to forget its diversity along religious, linguistic and class lines. Malik has earlier been a vocal critique of multiculturalism that eliminates the individual and replaces him with a sub-homogenous group represented by self-proclaimed community leaders. UK suffered with this only to realize that it creates a self-disciplinary and self-strengthening force that pushes individuals to accept the parameters a majority within the minority.

Europe was no homogenous entity. It had its divisions so great that the better off used to classify industrial workers, as they would portray black slaves cross the Atlantic. And as memory seems to be fading, there was the Dreyfus affair in France, long before a certain charismatic demagogue came to power in Berlin.

Defining citizenship by ethnicity more, rather than by the values which would be universal, is the consequence of a narrow definition of national identity. Citizenship is not only acquired by a passport or by a legal stamp from a clerk – formalities are filled then it is the contract between citizens to the state, the state to its citizens and the latter to each other’s. What European states did success on when it comes to rights and liberties, are what now define modern democratic constitutions.

National identity thus has to be wide – not replaced, as in ignoring the fact a historic fundament of a people, faith or culture, but rather the quest for a common interest in strengthening and protecting the dear fought rights. The values of equality, liberty and fraternity are not to be a historic relic.


During German occupation, the term liberte, egalite, fraternite was replaced by travail, famille and patrie – i.e. labor, family and fatherland. These three words combined sold the message of ‘fatherland’ that being an ethnic-nationalistic one, and thus fascism creeped its ways and replaced the republics slogans.

In a time where family relations are being challenged by new forms of households, where work is being replaced by machines or immigrants, and where the fatherland no more reminds of the past, it is of upmost importance that liberties and rights are closely linked to what ails the citizen the most.

What gives the citizen a decent work, a dignity in society and a sense of belonging to the local community? Church and unions are arenas that still can form a wider community, it can extract duties in exchange of belonging. Micro-communities in the form of football-clubs, political parties, cooking clubs all work as a force to knit citizens through hierarchy and demand obligations between citizens to each other.

The many changes traditional structures have undergone will demand a counter-reaction, but as enlightenment provoked a counter in the form of romanticism, these micro changes will need to be absorbed yet dealt with. If combined with unemployment, a sense of lack of dignity the alienated will find demagogues who will channel it to their own goals – those will not be for the betterment of society at large, as witnessed with recent US. Administration.

What suffers in addition are the rights and liberties that citizens already are adjusted too. Take them away and they will object, once tasted these rights and liberties will be fought for by any means. Yet in short term a populace lets itself be duped and makes a smooth sailing towards progress a fight for fundamental rights. Their mess will be up to the progressive rights based liberal currents to clean up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: