Populist politicians such as Donald Trump and Narendra Modi had triumphed over their electoral rivals before the pandemic. COVID-19 appeared to threaten populists in power by creating an unprecedented political and economic crisis. But, in fact, the pandemic has strengthened their hold over democratic states and societies worldwide at the expense of the rule of law and civil liberties.
What is Populism?
The term “populism” is widely used now to refer to a manner of political speech (1) that enables some to speak on behalf of all, namely, an imaginary notion of the “people.” Put simply, populist parties and politicians rail against “elites,” whom they accuse of betraying the populace.
Populism is a peculiar turn in the history of modern representative democracy amidst the deepening sense of economic, social, and ecological crisis across the world. It is driven by a general sense of anger and anguish at the inability of neoliberal globalization to deliver on its utopian promise of unlimited economic growth under unfettered free markets. Over the past decade, voters have turned to populist leaders, from Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi. These leaders have taken the reins of the state and acted in the partisan interests of their supporters, taken to be the “people,” at the expense of their detractors, labeled the enemies of the “people.” In doing so, they have transformed the rules of democratic politics by stripping them of any liberal precommitments to the rule of law or the civil rights of all citizens, not merely their supporters. Democracy sans liberalism implies a political regime in which majoritarianism prevails over the rights and liberties of individuals.
Populist responses to COVID-19
The arrival of COVID-19 this year seemed to pose the gravest threat so far to populists in power across the world. Populists thrive on an anthropocentric politics that places a well-defined human community at its center. This residual humanism, paradoxically enough, breeds an intense ethnonational politics, nurtured by public anger against the status quo, including protected minorities and migrants presumed to profit at the expense of an authentic “people”. However, a virus, as a non-human agent of change, warps these familiar terms of politics by putting all humans at risk, obliterating the lines we draw between “us” and “them.” COVID-19 has thus compelled populist leaders to respond swiftly to prevent public morale and popular support from plummeting.
The recommended measures to curb the spread of the virus, most notably social distancing and the use of face masks, have been met with ambivalence by populists. Trump has wavered in his public health pronouncements, acquiescing at times to his public health advisors and contradicting them rudely at other times. Bolsonaro and Johnson underplayed the salience of the virus until they caught it. Erdogan, Modi, and Duterte have urged citizens to adopt the recommended measures without enforcing them in any significant way. Indeed, in varying degrees, populists suggest that the virus is both here to stay and will go away on its own.
In countries ruled by populist leaders and parties, there has been a marked tendency to scapegoat certain groups as threats to the “people.” In the US and EU, immigrants have been prime targets, and anti-Chinese sentiments have been harnessed ably, particularly by Trump. In India, Muslims were attacked and blamed for the pandemic in the spring, although the Chinese have gradually become the chief object of popular ire. In Turkey, the law-abetted conversion of the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque has turned a moment of national crisis into an opportunity for Erdogan to further undermine the secular opposition to his government. In the Philippines, following the approach taken during the nation’s “war on drugs”, those violating the new public health orders were characterized as enemies of the “people”. Scapegoats, whether inside or outside the nation’s borders, are those deemed by populists and their supporters to be outside their conception of the “people”.
A heightened sense of public anxiety during the pandemic has, despite appearances, proven rather useful to populists. An anxious public has been matched by an unusually calm populist leader enforcing socio-political order. With the exception of Trump, every populist leader has presided over a surge in nationalist sentiment and in their popularity ratings. The democratic opposition has been virtually reduced to silent spectators amidst an unprecedented crisis. Although Trump experienced a brief dip in popularity for his initial handling of the pandemic, he now seems back on track for a close electoral contest with the Democratic nominee Joe Biden. In countries such as India, Turkey, and the Philippines, by comparison, the pandemic has visibly united national publics and papered over preexisting class, gender and regional divides.
The virus and its tragic impact on human lives and economic losses have, oddly enough, not stemmed the populist tide in democratic politics worldwide, but have, in fact, deepened it. In the middle of a once-in-a-century public health crisis, populist leaders have called on citizens to rally around the flag and bear witness together to a painful struggle against a faceless enemy. One can scarcely name a country in which the “people” have not responded in overwhelmingly positive terms. Liberal critics of populist democracy have invariably been the most vocal skeptics of policies undertaken by populist leaders and governments. But it is precisely these critical and skeptical habits of mind, for instance, towards limited public health resources and invasive surveillance technologies, that have marked out liberal opponents as antagonists of a struggling, albeit heroic, “people.”
Founding new nations and states
Populist leaders outside the West such as Modi, Erdogan, and Duterte now resemble messianic prophets more than mere politicians. Their charismatic leadership has inspired national cults and political rituals that cut across class, gender, rural-urban, and intergenerational divides. Modi in India has, for instance, inspired youth by his rise to power, and some of his devotees have made him a metonym that they can wear on their faces. The propagandists of these cult leaders portray them as men who remade old, decaying republics corrupted by the characteristic greed and venality of politicians. Erdogan’s dismantling of the secular republic in Turkey may, to his followers, appear as a revival of the foundations of the Ottoman empire by Mehmet II. But the remaking of old republics anew poses its own political and economic challenges. The pandemic now appears to be the latest of these challenges to be tackled by these prophets of renewal.
Prophetic cults in Western societies might appear inchoate, by comparison, but they ought to be recognized in similar terms. Consider, for instance, American evangelicals, a key bulwark of support for the embattled Donald Trump. On issues that matter to this base, such as immigration or abortion, the not-so-pious Trump has surprisingly turned out to be their most reliable advocate. For the evangelicals, Trump is neither a bully nor a failed businessman, but a divine instrument carrying out God’s work. Similarly, Bolsonaro has, in the minds of his supporters, lived up to his middle name, literally Messiah. More secular-minded voters, too, view the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro, and Johnson as messianic leaders who seek to make nations whole again by restoring them to glorious imagined pasts. In these restorative projects, it is difficult to miss the myths of a lost golden age in which racial purity and global dominance went together. For nations that triumphed over the forces of communism and fascism, populist supporters might say, what is a mere virus?
The central challenge for the new populist prophets of renewal is to rebuild nations and strong states that serve the “people,” not a miniscule minority of globe-trotting cosmopolitans. The pandemic has made it abundantly clear across democracies worldwide that the benefits of neoliberal political economy accrued primarily for the few rather than the many. In India as much as the United States, the utopian idea that uninhibited trade makes everyone better off sounds like an ignoble lie. The virus itself traveled along circuits of global trade and capital laid out for the benefit of a profiteering few. Unsurprisingly, China is as much the object of populist chagrin today as tech entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. The political ambivalence of Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Google in these moments of madness is logical enough. Their data centers and customer bases dot a new global digital landscape that is divided into revitalized nation-states governed by the new populist prophets. It is not farfetched to suggest that we are witnessing a new confluence of interests between emerging digital surveillance states and global tech giants.
Even then, the pandemic has shown how macroeconomic growth remains elusive for populists worldwide. Degrowth might even be the inadvertent price to pay for the new sense of national cohesion and the new digital infrastructures of democratic states today. From Turkey and India to post-Brexit UK and the post-Trump US, national economies stutter, inequalities in income and wealth grow steadily, and slogans replace policies. Undoubtedly, the virus has cruelly exposed the underbelly of neoliberal economics, particularly its neglect of healthcare for all citizens, but it has also affected the poor and middle classes disproportionately, particularly women and racial minorities among them. Resurgent nationalism is not exactly socialist in its economics: it does not redistribute income and wealth among the mythical demos (4). On the contrary, it may impoverish them to the point that the majority of people suffer moderate to severe economic hardship, which further incites populist tactics of scapegoating and exclusionary nation-building.
Beyond the China Model
It is tempting to think that the populist turn in democratic politics today is, ultimately, authoritarian in character. Yet the world’s leading authoritarian regimes in China or North Korea are not in the grip of populist politics. Whether before or during the pandemic, authoritarian regimes in, say, East Asia or the Middle East have hardly sought to allay popular fears over personal well-being and security. Military rulers in Egypt and Pakistan as well as monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, much like the Chinese communist party-state, have avoided taking responsibility for the sudden and rapid spread of the virus. Indeed, for these regimes not accountable to the demos, a combination of lies, cover-ups, and misinformation suffices.
Nor is it the case that populist democracies are mimicking an imaginary China model. The key features of this model – rapid export-oriented economic growth, a meritocratic party-state, and a commitment to technocratic governance (5) – are strikingly absent in democracies today, whether in the United States, Brazil, or Hungary. Oddly enough, dissent and criticism of the supreme leader in China now seem more likely than in democracies dominated by populism. In the latter, critical voices of opposition are branded “anti-national” by democratically-elected governments. In Turkey, the Philippines or India, even before the pandemic, opposition to the government and its leadership was characterized increasingly as treason. Now, uneasy silences replace dissenting voices in what were once vibrant pluralistic democracies.
Far from unsettling or unseating populist leaders and regimes, the panic unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted their political fortunes. The virus has allowed populists to claim an unalloyed sovereignty, acting on behalf of entire nations and bringing the full weight of state bureaucracies to bear on the problems at hand. Yet the performance of public health systems in populist democracies has lagged well behind those of well-functioning welfare states in Germany, South Korea or Vietnam. Where the rule of law has been shown to be weak, say, in India or Turkey, civil liberties and media freedom have been curtailed severely during the pandemic. In the United States, by contrast, the constitutional conflict between liberalism and democracy is now played out daily in public view. Liberal democracy, the post-WWII contract between capital and labor in the Cold War West, teeters on the edge of despair and defeat.
As the virus wreaks havoc on our minds and bodies, it is easy to lose sight of its arguably greater impact on the body politics of democracies worldwide. With the unraveling of the tenuous ties between constitutional liberalism and electoral democracy, a new fascism stares us in the face. Democracy not only risks being reduced to a tyranny of the majority, but some claim to rule in the name of the “real” or “authentic” people and all others are characterized as adversaries rather than opponents in an open marketplace of political ideas. Such a prospect is fascist insofar as it entails the capture of state power by fringe or extremist groups led by charismatic autocrats who claim to represent the entire populace and justify the use of political violence, often extra-legal, to accomplish their political aims. If we are to imagine a fairer alternative in this era of digital capitalism, we ought to divert populist energies into a fundamentally different way of doing politics rooted in social justice and ecological sustainability rather than power and profit.
- Benjamin, M., “The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation“, Stanford University Press, 2016.
- Mueller, J., “What Is Populism?” University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
- Pankaj, M., “Age of Anger: A History of the Present“, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
- Houle, C., and Kenny, P., “The Political and Economic Consequences of Populist Rule in Latin America,” Government and Opposition, 2018.
- Bell, D., “The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy“, Princeton University Press, 2016.