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The will of the people

United Kingdom

Paroxysm: Robin Roy, a fervent Donald Trump supporter, eyeballs her idol. This image was clicked during Trump’s presidential campaign, but Roy’s enthusiasm has not wavered now that he holds office. © Brian Snyder/Reuters

Flavia Kleiner (in the magenta jacket) and the Operation Libero team raise a cheer in Bern, Switzerland, when they hear that their campaign against a proposal to expel foreigners, for committing even low-level crimes, has been a success.

Lukas Lehmann/Keystone/Associated Press

I have to be honest. My first reaction is usually groaning disbelief.

As I write it’s the run-up to the general elections in the Netherlands where I live and a certain bleached blond bombshell is impossible to avoid because he has led the polls for much of it.1

Geert Wilders, the leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), is an autocratic one-man show – he is the party’s only member. His party manifesto displays the brevity of a Twitter habitué. Nearly half is taken up with his plan to ‘de-Islamize’ the Netherlands, including: ‘Close all mosques and Islamic schools, ban the Qur’an’.2 As satirist Arjen Lubach pointed out, this tidy little injunction drives a battle tank through three constitutional guarantees – the freedoms of religion, assembly and speech.

Then there is this little gem: ‘No public money for development aid, windmills, art, innovation, broadcasting, etc.’ Wilders is clearly not a man of details, but the ‘etc’ is a wink to his followers that implies, ‘You know, all that crap.’

Our democratic institutions and processes are distorted by the muscle of big money, and rarely demonstrate that they can stand up to corporate interests

How can multitudes of my fellow citizens take this guy seriously? Is it the nostalgic and virulent nationalism that appeals?

Fortunately, the Dutch political scene has a large spread of parties which fragments the vote (Wilders polls at around 20 per cent), resulting in coalition governments. The other major parties have said they will not work with him. A significant number of people will vote for him not because they actually believe he is the answer, but to give the political establishment a kicking – a desire reflected in the proliferation of small anti-establishment parties.

Here we touch upon a deep undercurrent that is bringing a paranoid populist politics bubbling up in much of the Western world: the stagnation of the current political consensus around neoliberal economic models which leave little practical difference between parties of the centre-Left and the Right. Labour parties are now labour only in name; their disconnect from the concerns of workers is profound.

The Netherlands is a wealthy creditor nation that has privatized much of its public sphere and shrunk social provision in a series of austerity measures. In 2013 the Dutch king Willem-Alexander officially announced that the welfare state had ended and we were now living in a ‘participation society’ where people must create their own social and financial safety nets, especially in terms of ‘social security and long-term care’.

The zombie voter

This is the big con of the Western neoliberal model where the promise of opportunity remains a fiction for most, but meritocracy is still held up as the route for prosperity for all; where the guarantee of social equality is undermined by the monopolization of power by a few. Our democratic institutions and processes are distorted by the muscle of big money, and rarely demonstrate that they can stand up to corporate interests. Unaccountable technocratic bodies serving the interests of the rich have co-opted political institutions. Governments seem powerless to reform the financial sector, whose excesses plunged many countries into crisis. As George Monbiot put it: ‘If the dominant ideology stops governments from changing social outcomes, they can no longer respond to the needs of the electorate.’3

Political scientist Chantal Mouffe calls this a ‘post-political situation which has led to the disappearance from political discourse of the idea that there is an alternative to neoliberal globalization’ and which has turned the ‘demos’, the sovereign people, into ‘a zombie category’.4 As the Spanish anti-austerity movement, the Indignados, put it: ‘We have a vote but we do not have a voice.’

Today, surveys reveal an increasing appetite for strong leaders who would disregard the niceties of parliaments and judicial checks and just get on with things. It’s a kind of magical thinking that is tearing up the political establishment and has shot into power populist demagogues all over the world channelling popular rage and fear away from the real causes of discontent and down the usual rift valleys of division, anti-immigrant sentiment, and ethnic and religious prejudice towards triumphalist nativism and nationalism.

Divide and rule

Populism, as a political style, has three distinguishing qualities, according to Benjamin Moffitt, author of The Global Rise of Populism. It features appeals to ‘the people’ versus the ‘the elite’, utilizes an undiplomatic style not normally associated with politicians (the so-called ‘common touch’), and thrives on perpetuating a state of crisis to keep supporters mobilized.5

Recently, this has led to some rather elitist anti-elitism. Take the thin-skinned billionaire in the White House and his cabinet appointees, who jointly hold more wealth than the bottom third of all US households – can one really see them being flagbearers for the ‘left behind’ rather than cranking up crony capitalism to the max?6 Or British Prime Minister Theresa May, married to a hedge fund manager, railing against the elites and claiming to support ‘ordinary’ working people.

Democracy, as it is usually imagined, gives power to the majority while respecting the minority; otherwise, it degenerates into the dictatorship of the majority. But the current crop of rightwing populists want just that, and they encourage their supporters to indulge in ‘the tenacious pleasures of victimhood’ (as author Pankaj Mishra so memorably put it) to justify their bloody-mindedness. In the words of Donald Trump: ‘The only thing that matters is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.’ (It matters little that ‘the other people’ are actually the majority that didn’t vote for him.) Similarly, the perma-smirking architect of Brexit, Nigel Farage, and his claim that the 52 per cent of the turnout that voted to leave the EU were ‘the real people’, which makes the rest conveniently unreal and unworthy of consideration. A notion that the current British administration has taken to heart.

This identification of the chosen people is a dangerous divide and rule strategy. According to Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General: ‘2016 was the year when the cynical use of “us vs them” narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s. Too many politicians are answering legitimate economic and security fears with a poisonous and divisive manipulation of identity politics in an attempt to win votes.’7 And cranking up arms and military spending along with their rhetoric.

‘Today’s politics of demonization shamelessly peddles a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others, stripping away the humanity of entire groups of people. This threatens to unleash the darkest aspects of human nature.’7

Mystical gifts

In India we have Narendra Modi shaping this vast land of numerous cultures into a Hindu nation, leading a party that is openly contemptuous of the secularism enshrined in the country’s constitution. This is the man who, while he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, did little to quell the rioting that killed 2,000 people, mainly Muslims. And who later pointedly refrained from voicing any regret, instead stating that he had been saddened in the manner that one feels when a puppy comes under the wheels of a car in which one is travelling.

This is where majoritarianism leads. India has rising levels of voter engagement and voters, of late, unfailingly choose authoritarian leaders – across all levels of government. These are people who are viewed as corrupt themselves but with the muscle to get things done. Plus they have learned how to harness the violence of young men who feel excluded from opportunities.8

Turn your gaze to Hungary, where Viktor Orbán, an open advocate of ‘illiberal democracy’, and his hardline Fidesz party, which enjoys a comfortable two-thirds majority in parliament, are fostering a climate of hate – anti-migrant, Islamophobic, where hate crimes against Roma and Jewish people pass without much comment. Government officials have rewritten history curricula and appoint teachers, and a coterie of politicians, academics and journalists openly stoke hostility towards foreigners.

Last year Orbán spent $40 million on an anti-Muslim campaign for a referendum on whether Hungary should take the paltry 1,294 refugees that the EU had assigned to it. The referendum failed because fewer than 50 per cent of voters turned up, but those that did voted overwhelmingly (98 per cent) in line with his position. Orbán promptly declared that the real people had spoken and renewed his tirades against a Brussels establishment of ‘liberal nihilists’ forcing multiculturalism upon European nations.9

Populists thus claim a mystical gift of being able to divine the will of ‘the people’ regardless of the reality that this will is actually a set of varied and often competing interests. They also have a tendency, exemplified by the likes of Putin and Erdog˘an, of trying to accumulate increasing power into their own hands. Since the failed coup against him last summer, Turkey’s Erdog˘an has played the resulting state of emergency for all it’s worth. More than 125,000 people have been dismissed from state jobs; 45,000 are in jail on terrorist charges; 160 media outlets have been shut down.10 The atmosphere of fear is such that those who fall foul of the administration are shunned by employers, and lawyers shy from taking up their cases. On 16 April there will be a referendum to give him even more sweeping powers with an executive presidency replacing the existing parliamentary system of government and with Erdog˘an being able to pick ministers and judges. The opposition, if not in jail, is cowed by intimidation, and the government-friendly press has free rein to urge for a ‘Yes’ vote.

Such examples are the strongest case for checks and balances. How much worse would Donald Trump’s reign be if judges couldn’t rule some of his orders illegal, if his executive power were completely unchecked by Congress, courts and state autonomy; if the Pentagon chief were not able to oppose his support for torture?

All the world’s a stage

The current rise of authoritarian populism that feeds on hate and division is a reminder that democracy is not fixed; it is always in the making. And persuasion is a large part of it. Just as people with a little encouragement can respond in ways that are far-sighted, thoughtful and inclusive, they can also be encouraged to be brutal, xenophobic and exclusionary.

The current distortions of the media landscape in the digital age – both established and social media – play a significant role. It’s ironic that Trump thunders FAKE NEWS (always in capitals) about reporting that is usually fact-based and true, but has himself benefited enormously from a model of digital capitalism that makes it profitable to circulate false click-bait. If populism is about performance and projection rather than representation, then today’s media environment only encourages this tendency.

Spreading across the internet are troll armies and twitter bots, funded by governments and wealthy individuals alike, ready to throw into question the credibility of news that doesn’t fit a particular frame and promote false versions.

‘Today’s politics of demonization shamelessly peddles a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others, stripping away the humanity of entire groups of people’

Google offers no filtering for fake news and well-funded rightwing groups have mastered its algorithms by aggressively linking up sites, so that their views come up top. Following an exposé by Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr which showed how searches about the holocaust or Jews returned denialist and vile top results, Google was shamed into correcting this. But key in the words ‘mainstream media is’ and the autocomplete options that come up are ‘dead’, ‘fake news’, ‘dying’, ‘fake’.11

Outright lies are now mistaken for freedom of speech and they spread worldwide in an instant.

Surely it is up to the individual to withstand this onslaught? Perhaps not if the individual is on Facebook, which will filter what you see according to what you have liked and shared just to keep you logged on – but won’t warn you that the news is fake. In the lead-up to the US election, fake stories generated more engagement than real news stories on Facebook (where, incidentally, 44 per cent of US adults get their news).12

There is a further twist: artificial intelligence was employed on a massive scale to sift through and use the personal information freely shared on social media in order for the Right to target swing voters with tailor-made messaging in both the Brexit referendum and the US elections.12

Pulling out all stops

Referenda are a favoured tool of populists, allowing them to claim ‘the people have spoken’ and pose simplistic answers to complex problems. A yes/no choice often invites a gut response and studies have shown that when people feel they are insufficiently informed they often say no.

Herewith, a tale of two referenda. First, the British referendum on continued membership of the EU. Putting aside the preening demagoguery of the Leave populists, let us look at the level of knowledge of the voting public. An Ipsos Mori poll conducted a month before the vote found that on the burning topic of immigration that dominated the latter stages, both Leave and Remain voters overestimated the percentage of EU immigrants in the country. They plumped for 20 and 10 per cent respectively, when the actual figure was about five per cent.13 Leave aside the fact that migrants from the EU actually make a net positive contribution to public funds. Both sides also vastly underestimated how much investment comes from the EU. So much for being informed.

The second tale is inspirational and took place last year in Switzerland, where referenda are commonplace. Here the largest political party, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) – rightwing populists with a hatred of immigrants, who had previously got the building of minarets banned – hit on the no-brainer of getting the public to vote on a proposal to expel immigrants with a criminal record.

But they hadn’t counted on Flavia Kleiner, then still a student, who decided to take up the fight, founding the campaigning group Operation Libero. The campaigners made a firm decision not to engage in party politics but to focus on the issues, thus reaching out to voters regardless of party affiliations. And they decided they were going to concentrate on bringing their own message across – not merely reacting to SVP propaganda. ‘We said: listen, this is a threat to our democracy. This proposal would allow the legislator to sit in the judge’s chair,’ explains Kleiner. ‘It contradicts the rule of law.’14

Operation Libero also went all out on the media game. ‘They have internet trolls, we have online warriors,’ says Kleiner. When the SVP delivered a pamphlet full of misleading propaganda and dodgy statistics to all Swiss citizens, Operation Libero pulled out the five biggest lies and sent them with the correct facts to all national newspapers. ‘That week the media focused only on the SVP’s fact checking.’ Their tireless campaigning paid off – the proposal was rejected by a 58.9-per-cent majority.

A similar massive civil-society mobilization saved the leadership of Austria from falling into the hands of the far-Right populist Norbert Hofer and brought Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent candidate backed by the Greens, into office at the tail-end of last year. Amazingly the campaign played down Van der Bellen as a figurehead and focused on values, ‘respectful togetherness’ being the main message. A range of NGOs, sports clubs and neighbourhood groups got involved; anyone could volunteer as an activist and thousands did, who then received campaigning training.15 Bottom-up, grassroots: we are not used to seeing electioneering quite like this.

Progressive and populist

Today, many political analysts argue that the populist mode is here to stay and the sooner the political establishment adapts to it, the better. Jonathan Matthew Smucker makes the case for a progressive populism in the US, where the current civil-society resurgence in the wake of Trump needs to connect better with the political process. Run for Something, an organization committed to recruiting young progressives to run for local office, was launched on Trump’s inauguration day and had 3,000 sign-ups in its first two weeks. Richard Swift outlines why this moment of global crisis calls for a genuine populism of the Left.

There are stirrings in the mainstream that the populist field won’t be left open to the hard Right. In the French electoral race Marine Le Pen is being challenged by the centrist charmer (and former investment banker to boot) Emmanuel Macron. Sadly the socialist Benoit Hamon’s star waned as rapidly as it rose. In the more stolid world of German politics the far-Right Alternative für Deutschland has failed to make headway and the current insurgent is the socialist Martin Schulz.

They could take a leaf out of the book of some of Latin America’s progressive populists. For example, Bolivia’s Evo Morales has brought a politics that embraces diversity to bear some fruit – like the increasing inclusion of women, indigenous people and social movements in politics; and a surge in public funding drawing on natural resources which has had a knock-on impact on poverty. But even he is trying to go for another term in office despite a constitutional bar, an attempt to cling to power that is also characteristic of populists.

Direct and deep

Ultimately, whether populist or not, what we need is a more deliberative democracy, not the stunt-ridden song-and-dance routine we have been getting.

A prerequisite is a robust defence of human rights for all and of the rule of law – so that the former don’t become dispensable in the name of fighting terror or protecting the majority and the latter doesn’t just become the instrument of the spurious ‘popular will’.

Much needs to be done to tackle the corruption of politics by powerful private donors and corporate lobbyists. Proportional representation could reflect better the desires of all the people and dampen extreme positions, but sadly remains susceptible to colonization by technocratic neoliberalism.

All methods of deepening democracy involve a stronger civil society and greater citizen participation, not the malleable mob required by demagogues

All methods of deepening democracy involve a stronger civil society and greater citizen participation, not the malleable mob required by demagogues. One route to such participation is through citizens’ juries and conventions. There are over 50 examples of citizens’ juries in Australia alone, involving a random selection of citizens who deliberate a particular policy issue with guidance from experts, and then through discussion and consensus come up with proposals. In Melbourne such a jury of ordinary citizens came up with a 10-year financial plan that was accepted in the main by the city council.

In Iceland a citizens’ convention took on the job of overhauling the country’s constitution, opening up the process on the web and inviting feedback from other citizens every step of the way. When the proposed constitution was put before citizens in a referendum it won two-thirds support.

An Irish group chosen by lots examined many constitutional issues both by drawing on expert advice and receiving input from other citizens. In their deliberations on gay marriage they received more than 1,000 responses. When they recommended that the constitution be changed to allow gay marriage, the citizens of Ireland responded by voting ‘yes’ in a national referendum. This is democracy that is both direct and deep.

The current destructive populist moment that is upon us has come about because of the powerlessness felt by so many people in the face of forces that make all aspects of life more uncertain and unequal. Their rage and fear is being channelled into a politics of exclusion that preys on their hopes for betterment. ‘What’s needed is something more radically democratic,’ says John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney, ‘a new politics of equitable redistribution of power, wealth and life chances that shows populism to be a form of counterfeit democracy. Once upon a time, such political redistribution was called “democracy”, or “welfare state”, or “socialism”.’16

The volatility we are seeing, where the political skies seem to be darkening, paradoxically also represents a moment of hope. It means people are fed up with business as usual and there is a hunger for change. Progressives have to step up for the hard slog to achieve it.

  1. Held on 15 March 2017.
  2. nin.tl/Wilders-prog
  3. ‘Neoliberalism: the deep story that lies behind Donald Trump’s triumph’, The Guardian, 14 November 2016, nin.tl/neo-triumph
  4. ‘In defence of left-wing populism’, The Conversation, 29 April 2016, nin.tl/pop-defence
  5. ‘Face the facts: populism is here to stay’, The Conversation, 29 August 2016, nin.tl/Moffitt-pop
  6. Jeff Sparrow, ‘Here’s a formula for bursting elitist anti-elitism’, The Guardian, 20 December 2016, nin.tl/Sparrow-formula
  7. Amnesty International Annual Report 2016/17, nin.tl/AIAR-2017
  8. Kanchan Chandra, ‘Authoritarian India’, Foreign Affairs, 16 June 2016, nin.tl/Chandra-India
  9. Jan-Werner Müller, ‘Capitalism in one family’, London Review of Books, 1 December 2016, nin.tl/LRB-Muller
  10. Constanze Letsch, ‘Families live in fear and isolation as Erdoğan leads a witch-hunt’, The Observer, 12 February 2017, nin.tl/CL-Erdo
  11. ‘Google, democracy and the truth about internet search’, 4 Dec 2016, nin.tl/CCfakenews and ‘Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media’, 26 Feb 2017, nin.tl/CCMercer
  12. Pew Research Center, nin.tl/pollPew and Tom Watson, ‘“Fake news” is changing the way we see the world’, The Independent, 22 November 2016, nin.tl/Watson-FN
  13. nin.tl/Euviews
  14. Elja Looiestijn, ‘Hoe Flavia de populisten versloeg’, VPRO gids, 4 February 2016, nin.tl/KleinerOL
  15. Owen Jones, ‘It’s not game over...’, The Guardian, 31 December 2016, nin.tl/JonesAustria
  16. ‘Populism and democracy: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?’, The Conversation, 2 November 2016, nin.tl/popKeane

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