Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 16, No. 10, October 2020
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Roots of Populism & Vanishing Liberal Democracy

Keith Zeff

This page combines two articles:
Roots of Populism, Fifty Year Perspective, 17 May 2020
Vanishing Liberal Democracy, Fifty Year Perspective, 30 August 2020


Roots of Populism

The populist and nationalist movements that seemed to coalesce following the collapse of the Soviet Union have been portrayed as continuation of long-growing discontent in response to rising inequality over the last fifty years. In Age of Anger, Indian author Pankaj Mishra describes a much longer path, from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to current manifestations of rejection against government authority.

The Age of Enlightenment, lasting roughly from 1620 to 1780, challenged Christianity’s legitimacy as the sole source of tradition and faith in an unchanging natural order ordained by God. The Enlightenment challenged that perspective, introducing scientific thought and reason as means of understanding a world which, through human intellect, could improve the existing order.

As the Enlightenment advanced understanding of natural processes, the industrial revolution changed the way people lived. Mishra describes the period as “one of the most extraordinary events of human history: the advent of a commercial-industrial civilization in the West and then its replication elsewhere… an ethic of individual and collective empowerment spread itself over the world, as much through resentful imitation as coercion, causing severe dislocations, social maladjustment and political upheaval.” Industrialization generated great wealth and great inequality.

A period of revolutions, anarchist bombings and assassinations followed through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Russia’s Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries in 1881. An anarchist attacked investors at the Paris Stock Exchange in 1886. French President Carnot was assassinated by an anarchist in 1894. Italy’s King Umberto was assassinated by an anarchist in 1900. U.S. President McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901. And Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist, setting the stage for World War I.

The legacy of late 19th and 20th century imperialism set the stage for conflict in the developing world: “the division of the Middle East into mandates and spheres of influence, the equally arbitrary creation of unviable nation states, unequal treaties with oil-rich states.” Nationalists in Asia and Africa – Ataturk, Nehru, Mao, Sukarno, Nasser, Nkrumah – explicitly aimed to “catch-up” with the West. “Socialist as well as capitalist modernists envisaged an exponential increase in the number of people owning cars, houses, electronic goods and gadgets, and driving the tourist and luxury industry worldwide…leading their countries to convergence with the West and attainment of European and American living standards.” These countries experience some of the world’s greatest inequality to this day.

The political resurgence of nationalism “shows that resentment – in this case, of people who feel left behind by the globalized economy or contemptuously ignored – remains the default metaphysics of the modern world…. And its most menacing expression in the age of individualism may well be the violent anarchism of the disinherited and the superfluous.” The inequality that is the rallying cry of progressives worldwide today had its roots established 400 years ago.

Vanishing Liberal Democracy

The history of Turkey’s slide from democracy to dictatorship was explored in a previous post to Fifty Year Perspective. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, AKP, came to power in the general elections of 2002, promising to oppose the “corrupt system,” and to restore “respect” to the “real people,” against the “despised elites.” Led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan as president, AKP engineered changes to Turkey’s constitution that expanded powers of the presidency. Erdogan then instituted limitations on civil liberties, press freedom and judicial independence and responded to civil protest movements by jailing opponents, among other authoritarian measures.

Authoritarian leaders utilize a broad assortment of measures to achieve and maintain power. Creating an alternative reality that turns a real or imagined event into a conspiracy that will harm the country, effectively rallies people to a leader’s cause. A case in point is the 2010 crash in Smolensk, Russia of a plane carrying Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president, and over 90 politicians and military personnel. While evidence indicated the crash was an accident, the president’s twin brother, who led the ruling political party, used the tragedy to destroy public confidence in the government and media.

Hungary’s leaders have created a threat to the country in the form of an invented conspiracy accusing billionaire George Soros of bringing illegal migrants into the country. In her recent book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, historian and The Atlantic columnist Anne Applebaum refers to Donald Trump’s entry into politics with the false premise that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Trump spread the “birther” theory to connect with disaffected voters. In office, Trump attacked the norms of democratic governance. As Daron Acemoglu wrote in Foreign Affairs,  U.S. institutions were vulnerable to Trump’s attack because public trust had been quietly ebbing away from them for some time.”

The measures dictators take to attain power appear in country after country. As in Poland, presidents of Venezuela, Turkey and Egypt accused opponents of conspiracy against the government. Opponents and vulnerable minorities have been attacked and jailed in Russia, Turkey, Belarus and Egypt. Expertise has been disparaged in Brazil and Hungary. News media outlets have been taken over or shut down in Poland, Egypt, Russia and Hungary, among others. Presidents of Venezuela and Poland claim the “moral” right to lead. Xenophobia, racism and homophobia are endorsed in Hungary and elsewhere. Elections in Bolivia are manipulated and voting privileges are withheld in numerous countries. Friends of dictators are protected, given government contracts or jobs or awarded with privatized public functions.

Authoritarian measures emerge increasingly in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy, demonstrating that the appeal of authoritarianism is not limited to new democracies. Acemoglu warns, “When democratic values come under attack and the press and civil society are neutralized, the institutional safeguards lose their power. Under such conditions, the transgressions of those in power go unpunished or become normalized. The gradual erosion of checks and balances thus gives way to sudden institutional collapse.” The trend is endangering democracy in countries with long democratic traditions, as well as newly-democratized countries.

Keith Zeff has been a city planner and a commercial real estate researcher for many years. His education includes undergraduate degrees in architecture and a graduate degree in political science. Fifty Year Perspective is designed to address the longer-term concerns. The perspective of 50 years was chosen to respond to those in business, government, and private life who may have said: "I am doing this for my children and grandchildren." Two generations – fifty years.

"Not everything that is faced can be changed;
but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

— James Baldwin (1924–1987)


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