Populism: The Hate-fueled Craze Threatening The Western World
The humblest citizen in all the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring.” — William Jennings Bryan, the first golden boy of American populism.
The people pour out in numbers, wielding flags and cell phones, chanting for change, challenging the atavistic institutions they believe have kept them down. Some throw molotov cocktails, some use force; but most are young and fiery and armed with nothing but truth and a voice.
It’s 2011. And this is the Arab Spring, where the citizenry of Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan connected through social media and staged protests to attempt to overthrow the existing powers.
They wanted what the Western world had, what they had glimpsed and touched and in some cases, for those educated abroad, had even tasted, if only briefly. Democracy at work. Seemingly real meritocracies, where all can come and rise limited only by their own drive, intelligence, potential, willing to contribute. These were movements fueled by the people, populism at its finest, and were touted around the world as a sign that those savages in the Middle East had finally come around.
Now, only 5 years later, the Arab world is in disarray, sending refugees all over the world into nations whose native populations are still recovering from one of the worst (if not the worst) international recessions since the advent of globalization. And the fear of these refugees, who in the eyes of their white hosts resemble the very terrorists they are fleeing (brown skin, undecipherable accent, strange body scent, non-western garb), is fueling a new global populism, one threatening to overthrow the very foundations of supposedly rock-solid Western nations.
If spring 2011 was the Arab Spring, this may go down in history as the Populo-Nationalist Summer of the Western world. And just as the Arab Spring seems only to have plunged the region into perpetual chaotic hell, so too may this event wreak havoc on Western civilization.
Europeein’ All Over Us And We’re Tired of It
On May 9th, Austria’s chancellor Werner Faymann, the EU’s longest-serving leader after Der Angela Merkel, stepped down from his role atop the great Alpine nation. His party, the Social Democratic Party ( which along with the People’s Party has called all the shots since the WWII liberation) has been destroyed in elections by the Austrian Freedom Party, a populist movement with strict border control and anti-Muslim legislation forming the sharp point of their revolutionary spear. Even more, the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate Norbert Hofer is one of the final two running for the top spot, the first time such a far-right politico had a very real chance of taking the throne and the first time (again, since WWII) that neither the People’s Party nor the Social Democratic Party had anybody in the running.
While Austria’s situation is the most drastic and right now most immediately threatening, similar movements fomented by angry citizenry calling for change have overtaken Europe. Many echo the Freedom Party’s closed-borders/anti-Muslim cries. Some are calling for the dissolution of the EU, or simply the exodus of their nation from the EU, or the end of Teutonic austerity policies that are fucking up their southern economies. Here’s a sampling, from the powerful to the pee-ons:
France has had a problem with other ethnicities for a while. From intolerance of Romany “gypsies” to a disdain for poor Muslim immigrants, it’s an inconvenient truth that nobody wanted to talk about in Europe’s great historic capital of culture. Until the recent rash of terrorist attacks, especially the concert-hall slaughter. Now populist political parties are gaining ground with vehement anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric. However, given its role as intermediate by the northern powers and the southern pee-ons, it is also embracing the populism of its Mediterranean neighbors, calling for a restructuring and possible breakup (or at least weakening) of the European Union.
In fact, there are seemingly only a few nations that want to keep the European Union as it is. And that list of course is headed up by the current powerhouse of the EU, Germany.
Angela Merkel, die fraulein with the biggest balls at the table, who has stood toe to toe with all comers, has been brought to her knees by a populist anti-immigrant party in her own nation. Despite her hard line on austerity that many say has actually hurt the southern EU members (aka: the scapegoats for the EU’s financial problems) and no less than economist-of-the-moment Thomas Piketty says has failed, Merkel has finally proven able to compromise. After she decided that Germany would stay a place of refuge for Arab immigrants (still trying to beat that whole ethnic cleansing hatred Nazi thing, I guess), the Alternative Party took her down. A recent flurry of election wins has led Merkel to change her tone and make steps to tighten up the borders. Of course this means the many refugees fleeing civil wars and jihadist massacres at home will be trapped in crumbling war zones, which will no doubt simply increase hatred of the Westerners who encouraged them to destabilize their corrupt governments and fight Islamic terrorism and then abandoned them when it became inconvenient.
But no, Germany is following suit with the other Western nationalists and tightening borders to keep the struggling out of their ivory tower. Ironic considering that a nationalist fervor that’s not anti-Immigrant but anti-globalization, and often anti-Germany, has fueled populist uprisings in southern EU states, the most prominent of which is Germany’s new “enemy,” the Greeks.
Oh Greece. Les infant terible. Thing is, Greece’s troubles aren’t necessarily due to some philosophy of laziness, or lack of discipline, or whatever else Merkel and the Northern judges have deemed – in fact, their economy was doing okay (maybe a little behind but as a nation run by C students, America should appreciate that) until it crashed along with everybody else’s. Unfortunately, with their money policies essentially dictated by a central bank in which they had little say, they were given the asskick of austerity without the shot in the arm of aid (aid being what a nation gives to certain states that are falling behind others within the same nation, e.g. the fact that the south would have collapsed into dystopia were it not for the very government support its citizens are now decrying in their calls for limited government). The extra-national nature of the ECB was essentially the biggest cause of the Greeks’ current quagmire. So their populist, anti-EU, anti-Merkel radical leftist parties have been responding to a citizenry tired of being shit on by the rest of the EU’s media and leaders. And in a move to shock all, far left and far right (liberalism from Syriza and the Christian radical Independent rightist party) were joined together by populism and, specifically, by populo-nationalism. Their populo-nationalism wasn’t aimed at keeping out immigrants, but instead presented jingoist indoctrination of their European oppressors, especially Germany. And the people, hungry and unemployed, demanded reparations or at the least demanded that the bailouts given them by the Kraut-ruled ECB be accepted as reparations and all supposed demands attached to them be broken, including, of course the failed policy of austerity. And these disparate extremist wings united in their hatred, of Merkel in particular and their “enemies” in general.
Amazing the American analogues, where Bernie and Trump, while polar opposites, couldn’t be more similar in their quest to overthrow the political status quo (though the current American governing establishment against which they’re both railing has helped the U.S. to have pretty much the most solid recovery from the Great Global Recession of all nations except Germany)(while Greece’s anger at Germany is somewhat justified, even if that doesn’t erase the fact that their populist movement is fueled by hatred). Makes sense that we follow Greece down the populo-nationalist rabbit hole. The Greeks hit upon Democracy before we pretended we invented the idea; of course the rest of the West would follow those silly olive-lovers with their big thoughts.
Still, this anti-EU Greek populo-nationalism is somewhat different from the fiercely anti-immigrant nature of more stable nations’ populism. Its echoes reverberate through many of the struggling southern EU nations instead. And one of the most interesting echoes is Spain since, of course, that’s where globalization, the most-cited cause of every populists’ struggles today, all started.
Similar to Greece, Spain’s economy was middling along until the recession hit and a combo of falling tourism and the lack of international banking powerhouse cities left Spain to pick up a lot of the pieces. Merkel’s austerity policies essentially did the same thing to Spain as they did to Greece.
But this concept of international cooperation and trade and immigration really all started here. Over half a millenium ago an Italian dreamer rebuffed by his own nation went to Spain and got their support to sail to the other side of the world. Consider him discoverer or destroyer, Christopher Columbus made Spain the wealthiest nation in the Western world for a while. Spain traded with the rest of Europe, built factories in poorer countries (especially the Netherlands) to focus on distribution and management as is the wont of the leisure class, and soon that wealth went throughout Europe. Everybody else quickly moved to take up colonies in the Americas and objects pulled from the American ground became the gunpowder of a European wealth explosion. An ancillary result of this, of course, is the founding of a nation that would go on to become the leader of the Western worlds. A nation which at this very moment is being threatened by a call to dismantle the very system that made it in the first place.
The Movement of the People?
Populism on its face is the most democratic ideal there is. The rule of the people, the idea that when enough average folks align they can override the elite few. One of the most famous populists was William Jennings Bryan, a Nebraska politico whose fiery speeches whipped the average people into a frenzy against the wealth gap that defined the gilded age. He fought trusts, fought imperialism, fought for free silver; was a presidential nominee three times but never a president. After a series of election and policy defeats, he finally resigned and went on to such notables as fighting the concept of evolution and Darwinism in the Scopes Trial.
American populism, though, has had some serious success stories. Populist movements set the 8-hour workday, built unions to end inhumane workplaces and absurd wealth disparities, and brought to heel the robber barons.
Populism is also an essential theme behind the scourge communism. The uprisings in Latin America and Southeast Asia were events in which the people took back the power from the establishment. Che’s ideas were based in the simple belief that there should be no field worker peasants starving and dying of basic diseases while their paler-skinned overlords lived like kings. That doesn’t sound unreasonable.
One of the greatest flaws in “power to the people” is that groupthink rarely leads to good conclusions, especially as the groups grow larger. Even more, leaders of such movements take on near-religious status in the eyes of their large crowd of hungry and disenfranchised if only because they become something for those poor befuddled citizens to grasp. Worship begets power and power intoxicates the man (or sometimes woman) who holds it. Until he or she becomes a new type of overlord, and soon the people’s gains begin to stop and often roll back. Especially when the insularization that usually accompanies populist movements eradicates the outside influences and cheaper products and external checks and balances that have ushered in arguably the most rapid gains in social evolution and well-being in the history of humanity. (As an aside, even if you decry modern civilization (and I understand it, having moved out to my own little slice of nowhere) if it wasn’t for global influence and infrastructure, we wouldn’t have supermarkets or affordable automobiles or the Internet on which you’re now reading these words, not to mention films or books or music or anything else that makes life worth living).
Hitler stirred up a German citizenry suffering under debilitating punishments delivered by WWI victors by giving their frustration a target. He found a visceral enemy towards which he could direct their hunger-fueled hate, a minority with large enough numbers to be readily visible but not enough power to put up a huge fight. A group that had traditionally been mostly immigrants due to its constant persecution. The Third Reich’s anti-Jew fervor is simply populo-nationalism taken to its final conclusion.
So why populism? Why now?
Why are people today, in one of the most prosperous societies in the history of humanity, against the globalization that has made it possible for them all to have the appliances and conveniences that make their lives more comfortable than that of any previous generation?
Anger and desperation can cause people to forget logic and decency and focus on their own path to glory at the expense of everybody else. The crash of 2008 had global reverberations like no other action besides war. And while the world seems to be on a better path, recovery has been slower than anybody wanted, to the point that now, nearly a decade later, many people are still fighting just to pay their bills and keep their families fed. And such prolonged struggle, especially juxtaposed against the fat and happy lives of the never-before-so-visible privileged elite (thank reality TV and gentrification for that), will inevitably lead to frustration and a call for change. But given the complexity of this situation, there are a lot of unknowns and no immediate solution. So these disenchanted and disenfranchised reach for anybody and anything to explain it to them and, given a lack of explanation, they just want somebody to promise to stop it somehow.
For example, terrorists threaten our well-cultivated illusion of safety so leaders looking to take advantage of that fear, give the folks direction: Fight it by eliminating all people who may in some way resemble the perpetrators of these isolated but terrifying (if only because of their randomness in a mostly-organized world) actions. And that xenophobia could be one of the biggest threats to the well-being of our modern society.
Take the recent incident with Guido Menzio. Catherine Rampell wrote a great editorial about this but the broad strokes are: A woman on a flight sat next to a taciturn, accented ethnic man on a flight, saw him writing what she thought were Arabic letters for some plan to destroy America, reported him, and he was pulled off the plane and interrogated. It was discovered he’s a professor and famous economist who was working on an equation for a model about price-setting that he was about to present following a paper he wrote. Here’s the real threat of terrorism.
See, Guido Menzio’s theories on pricing can have a great impact on the efficiency of purchasing in America. His is a mind that America needs if it wants to keep up its role as a global leader of commerce. That role is what drives American industry, which is what most of those populists need so they can get the very jobs they’re angry over losing. Why would a man like that, who could get a job anywhere, want to stay in a country where he’ll be treated with distrust and disrespect simply because of the way he looks? Where the people his mind will help decry the open borders that allowed him to come here?
The fear of all darker-skinned foreign-born distilled by El Trumpo threatens to destroy America’s hope for any immediate improvement, which is ironically the only reason given by constituents of his who deny that their support is based in bigotry.
But Populists Just Want To Be Great Again
One of the most “admirable” beliefs of the populo-nationalists is that they’re not about hatred; they’re just tired of seeing their opportunities go overseas or to immigrants. They want to break up international trade and separate from international alliances and unions because they think (falsely) that imports are costing their nation the well-being it enjoyed in a more individualized world. And it makes sense that the denial of importation of manufactured goods should go hand in hand with the rejection of the import of the most valuable resource in the world, human talent.
Many of the world’s greatest iconoclasts were immigrants, bringing unique skills and gifts to improve upon their chosen societies. The French may have had their issues with the Romany but Django Reinhardt is possibly the most influential French musician of the 20th Century. Muslims are revolutionizing European football. And it’s been said so many times by now it hardly begs repeating but I will: America attained its level of supremacy specifically because it embraces the influences, labor and minds of people from all over the world. It is an immigrant nation and how many Bill the Butchers decrying the fresh off the boat will have to be put down like the mad dogs they are before people finally realize that xenophobia is unacceptable, that the denigration of immigrants is as anathema in a modern, civilized America as domestic abuse or slaughter of the weak? When will we realize that populism and nationalism can lead only to ruin?
Because as the Western world gets torn apart by the growing threat of populo-nationalism, the people powering the takeover will find themselves a prisoner of their own hatreds and still no better than they were before. In many ways actually worse. While ideals and sentiments inflame one’s soul, they often have no real-world power for change. And lacking a palpable effect, they are easily misdirected at the visible scapegoat because to take the time to try and find the real root cause slows down the momentum of any great movement.
Let’s face facts: Populism almost always amounts to large-scale mob rule. A globulous ball of flesh and anger vibrating with unease against the abstract. And such masses will soon destroy the healthy body in which they preside, a body made strongest by its heterogeneity.
The Western world in general, and America in particular, is in grave danger of this internal consumption. Two out of three presidential candidates are fomenting populist rage in Americans frustrated with a system moving so fast that for many it seems impossible to catch up (as well as a recovery moving too slowly for many who are tired of working so damn hard and were raised to believe that their gains would be as great as their parents’). But nothing substantial lies behind the appeal of populism. There are no success stories of populist movements that take over whole nations because populism on a large scale often amounts to a fight against the evolution of the world. And for better or worse, there’s only one one inalienable law of the universe that we must not forget as we increasingly find ourselves between Scylla and Charybdis: Evolve or die.