Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Populism is on the rise globally, so we need to understand it. Populists seldom have economic plans or concrete programmes to offer – they win and remain in power by fostering anger, emotion, and division. Generally, they direct anger towards what we might call “trendy enemies”, which means those who are excluded from the populist’s demagogic rhetoric, such as immigrants and the “corrupted” and “elite” classes.
One early populist was President Juan Perón of Argentina, who put together a so-called third way of fascism as against capitalism and communism. His ideology focused on the working class and “the people”. One of its main features was its focus on enemies- excluding people, usually minorities, as dangerous to the health of the state. Such tropes are powerful even today. Donald Trump’s principal slogan was “America First” and Matteo Salvini’s “Italians first” while Marine Le Pen used “In the name of the people”.
As the scholar Cas Mudde argues, populism is a “thin-centered ideology” which pits what populists call “pure people” against a “corrupted elite”. According to populists, these enemies are responsible for society’s economic problems. Populism appeals to people who are dissatisfied with economic, social, and political problems which have gone unaddressed by the reigning establishment.
Appealing to common cultures and using lively rhetoric are effective means of persuasion. From Viktor Orbán to Jair Bolsonaro, or parties such as Alternative für Deutschland, UKIP and Lega, emotive nationalist ideas are appealed to. Such forces use a common language; of “the people” against “the elites”, “the enemies of the people”, and suchlike.
There are three type of “populistic voters” – first, citizens from older generations who represent both the nationalistic and populistic conceptions of voters (the “pure people”). These electors have developed a sense of ethno-nationalist ideology, so anti-immigration manifestos appeal to them. Then there are those who are tired of bad politics and corruption. This kind of political concern is typical of former or current left-wing voters. Finally, there are those angry about financial problems due to recession. Generally, this category corresponds with a low level of political knowledge- these people seek change in whatever form because of the deficiencies of the system as it is.
In a nutshell there is a populism for right-wing voters, one for leftists, and one for the sceptical or politically disinterested.
As we have seen, anger and frustration are at the heart of populist propaganda, probably because hate is easier to spread than clear political programs. In addition, the public is less interested in politics than it was in the past and is easy prey for simplistic, emotive messages. So, how do populists communicate such messages?
One answer is through social media. Given the vile rhetoric used by populists we must ask where freedom of expression ends and hate speech begins. YouTube prohibits offensive language, as does Facebook, but with more flexibility (it allows hatred to be expressed under the guise of sarcasm and irony). But monitoring social media is incredibly difficult- moderators make little difference, perhaps mostly because it takes so much time to analyse hateful content, not to mention the subjectivity of their assessments. Populism relies on social media to spread propaganda somehow or other, which allows echo chambers to unite hateful voices which would have had a harder time being amplified in the past. New methods of digital persuasion have been used by populists to manipulate people- the infamous company Cambridge Analytica’s being a chief example.
These are some of the salient features of dangerous demagoguery and populism. How do we combat it? We have to provide real solutions to the economic and political problems which lead to the discontent populists feed on. And we must strengthen our democratic institutions and increase political participation- a difficult but necessary task given that voter turnout has declined considerably since the 1990s. We should encourage active citizenship (think associationism and volunteering) and argue for a binding set of digital rights on the Internet. Most importantly, we all must be informed, and inform ourselves, about the issues that matter so that demagogues and populists have less chance of manipulating us.