MARK BEESON. What it is to be popular

At a moment when the world needs informed responses to complex problems that transcend national borders, a retreat to nationalist tub-thumping is the last thing we need. Yes, there are important questions about who ‘we’ are and whom national public policies actually benefit, but they are unlikely to be answered, much less addressed by the current generation of populists.  

There’s something rather odd and disquieting about politics around the world these days. It’s not just the fact that there is widespread disillusion and apathy among those fortunate to live in democratic societies. What’s really striking is that where political mobilization does occur, the activists are often contemptuous of democratic processes and the leaders they produce.

Exhibit A in support of this thesis is, of course, the current incumbent of the White House. Whatever else you may thing about Donald Trump, there’s little question about his ability to ‘fire up the base’. It’s been frequently pointed out that many of his supporters are white, not well educated men.[1] The explanation for their enthusiasm for Trump is that he claims he can bring back lost manufacturing jobs to America and restore the country to its supposedly lost preeminence.

It’s really doesn’t seem to matter to many Trump supporters that the long-term structural transformation of the global economy make this goal next to impossible, or that many of the principal beneficiaries of the supposedly ‘unfair’ trade relationship with China have been precisely the same members of the American working class whose living standards have been boosted by access to cheap Chinese imports.

Trump supporters are equally insouciant about their hero’s failure to ‘drain the swamp’ of the insiders who supposedly ran the country under the despised Obama administration. The fact that interests don’t get much more vested than ex-Goldman Sachs types like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin or Chairman of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn doesn’t seem to disconcert them either.

So how does someone like Trump get away with not just conspicuously failing to deliver much of his promised reform agenda, but actually entrenching some of the practices he formerly claimed to abhor? Part of the explanation must lie in the inability of individuals to make sense of complex debates at a time when the very status of ‘facts’ is in question and deliberately undermined by the administration and sections of the media that are sympathetic and/or uncritical.

Even where the media clearly tries to do its job and hold the powerful to account, they often preach to the converted in an electorate that is deeply polarized and divided by class, educational attainment, even lifestyles and diet. But while we may be able to generate a sophisticated and plausible analysis of the rise of populism in America,[2] its resurgence around the world suggests something larger and more enduring is going on.

The reassertion of national identities, even where they are based on highly romanticized, selective interpretations of history, is on the rise. It is not necessary to be a racist or a rabid nationalist to recognize that such processes are at least partly attributable to major social change and large-scale immigration.

Even before the recent influx of asylum seekers and the supposed loss of border control in Europe, much of Britain’s white working class population, for example, had long been unhappy about social transformations they associated with the loss of not only jobs but a sense of national identity, too.

The apparent indifference, even the sense of superiority, of elites whose experience of life in the same country is very different, only adds to feelings of resentment and antipathy. The quintessential example of disenchantment with technocratic elites is the growing hostility to the European Union, manifest most dramatically in Brexit, but far from an exclusively British phenomenon. On the contrary, from France to Hungary, populist politicians are on the rise and seizing the moment.

As no less an authority on politics than Shakespeare pointed out, ‘there is a tide in the affairs of men’, and some men – and women – are clearly taking his advice and taking it in the flood. The list of chancers and aspiring authoritarians grows longer by the day. The fact that the likes of Putin and Erdogan appear to have prospered and cemented their authority by trampling in individual rights and liberties is only likely to encourage others. When the Trump administration gives tacit or overt support to leaders such as Duterte in the Philippines and Egypt’s al-Sisi, then the attractions of an authoritarian style of populist politics become even more compelling.

Sadly, we are not immune. The rise of Pauline Hanson is a reminder that many in Australia – a lucky country if ever there was one – are susceptible to the siren song of populism, despite striking national advantages. The fact that Hanson is not terribly articulate or across the issues has been no impediment to her political success, either. Indeed, it’s seen by many as a positive virtue given their despise of expertise and elites.

At a moment when the world needs informed responses to complex problems that transcend national borders, a retreat to nationalist tub-thumping is the last thing we need. Yes, there are important questions about who ‘we’ are and whom national public policies actually benefit, but they are unlikely to be answered, much less addressed by the current generation of populists.

Mark Beeson is Series editor, Critical Studies of the Asia Pacific, University of W.A.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/dissecting-donald-trumps-support/499739/

[2] Chacko, P. and Jayasuriya, K. (forthcoming) ‘Trump, the authoritarian populist revolt and the future of the rules-based order in Asia.’, Australian Journal of International Affairs.

print

This entry was posted in Media, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to MARK BEESON. What it is to be popular

  1. Niall McLaren (aka Jock), Psychiatrist. says:

    When I was about 14, I read a book called “Something of Value” (by Robert Ruark). The title came from the quote: “If you take away everything a man has, you must leave him something of value.”
    Western neoliberal economics have taken away the jobs of the working class and allowed their identity to be threatened by rising inequality, immigration, gender wars, elitist snobbery and the like. Now the dispossessed are snatching back the only thing of value, their sense of national and tribal pride. Trouble is, their movement will be kidnapped and distorted by the plutocracy and we will all suffer in the long run.

Comments are closed.