Crystal Cordell on Authoritarian Populism

On November 9th, 2016, I woke up to see a mostly red US electoral college map. With a 9-hour time difference between France, where I live, and the West Coast of the US, polls had been closed for nearly 2 hours.

At that moment, my thoughts turned to what I would say to you today. You see, I had originally intended to question the way we think about the clash of civilizations. “Individual rights and aspirations for democracy,” I had intended to say, “must not be thought of as belonging exclusively to certain civilizations, not least because that would mean undermining the validity of universal principles, if ever those civilizations happened to falter.”

I would have preferred that events in my home country not impress upon me so sharply the importance of what I had to say to you today, but they have, and they urge me to make my argument with even greater conviction. The problem that confronts us today is not Oriental or Occidental, Northern or Southern; it concerns all of us what is happening politically in states across the globe today.

Many people in power or hoping to get there are selling citizens on a package deal: “We will protect you from the dangers of the world,” they say, “if you give us power.” What are those dangers according to populist leaders? “Economic competition due to globalization; political parties and governments disconnected from the people; and corrupt values that weaken families and societies,” they say.

Now, to protect people from such great dangers, authority is needed, so the sales pitch goes, the authority of strong leaders, the authority of the state. Only authority can protect. That is the hallmark of populist discourses that seek both to reassure and instill fear, promise justice, and pledge retribution, liberate some and censor others. Now, some analysts say that these discourses emanate from a demand from below. The people are dissatisfied, alienated from political processes. Populist leaders step up and fill the gap left by other political elites. 

That’s where it’s important to understand how authoritarian populism is different. Part and parcel of this brand of populism is the figure of the providential leader who will be able to restore a nation to greatness. The cult of personality allows authoritarians of all stripes to place themselves above political institutions and to use political institutions for their own ends, bending them to accommodate their ambition, breaking them when bending is not enough. And yet, authoritarian populists remain populists. They try to appeal to ordinary people, clothing themselves in the attractive attire of the political outsider.

So, are they the true spokespeople for the under-represented? There are at least two reasons to think not: one is empirical, the other theoretical.
First, empirically-speaking, authoritarian populists themselves tend to be elites. They present themselves as anti-system outsiders. But they inhabit the spheres of power inaccessible to ordinary people: financial and industrial power, legal power, media power, and the power of influence.

The second reason concerns what representation is meant to do. Representation is about refining and enlarging the public views, not coarsening and narrowing them. That was James Madison’s argument in Federalist Number 10, defending the the US Constitution back in 1787. The conservative Irish statesman Edmund Burke defended a similar conception of representation in a memorable speech delivered before his constituents in 1774. For him, the duty of the representative was to bring to bear unbiased opinion, mature judgment, and enlightened conscience in political deliberation rather than to follow blindly the wishes of the voters.

And, back in the 5th Century BCE, the Greek philosopher Socrates warned of the dangers of demagogues who flattered the people in order to rule over them. Those immoderate demagogues, warned Socrates, lacked even the capacity to rule over themselves.

So how come authoritarian populists are picking up momentum? Because they promise simple solutions to complex problems, feed into people’s fears, and place themselves on the side of renowned values and traditions. Together, these three strategies are a potent catalyst for authoritarian populism.

Let’s break them down. Can authoritarian populists deliver on their promises to protect the working classes from increasing competition in a globalized world? Any such promise must recognize the complexity of the issues at hand. Authoritarian populists refuse to do so. They promise easy solutions that are backward-looking: economic nationalism, a withdrawal from international institutions, a return to the supposed golden age.

Here’s why we should be wary: Superman doesn’t exist. Remember the fictional Superman could turn back time to undo the bad while leaving the good unchanged. Well, the fictional, the would-be Super-men and -women of Planet Populism would have you believe they can. And yet there is no return. We cannot undo history, technological advances, or the increases in productivity engendered by those advances.

Think about the manufacturing boom in the US or the glorious 30 years in France following the end of World War II. These supposed “golden ages” followed on cataclysmic conflict that decimated competition and destroyed infrastructure, creating a period of high demand. Bolstered by foreign aid, economies saw strong and rapid growth. Purchasing power increased along with consumption. And international trade, facilitated by lower trade barriers, helped maintain that purchasing power and high standard of living in those same countries where today we hear the sirens of protectionism singing their beguiling song.

The problem is a tariff war won’t bring back the boom. Now, think about the alternative to open trade. The alternative is slowing flows of capital, tightening flows of trade, and retreating flows of people. And, as many economists argue, the cost of stunted international trade, in terms of average real incomes, impacts both developed and developing countries. And actually, we don’t need populists keen on protectionism to bring about this alternative. The Great Recession of 2008 has already slowed flows of people, goods, and capital.

Now, in Europe, many authoritarian populists are using refugees to instill fear in people. It’s true that in the midst of a crisis it can be difficult for citizens to maintain perspective on the current situation. But it really is important to gain empirical perspective on this question.

Consider this: in Hungary, the October 2016 referendum intended to keep out refugees concerned 1,294 asylum seekers as per the EU agreement. That’s 0.01% of a population of about 9.8 million. In Lebanon, a country of about 5.8 million, there are over 1 million refugees fleeing violence, rape, and torture in Syria. That’s over 17% of the population in a country whose GDP per capita is 34% less than in Hungary.

“How about population flows from Mexico to the US?” you might ask. They’ve been on the decline since 2009. That’s according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

So, what authoritarian populists are really good at doing is maximizing their political opportunity, taking advantage of people’s incomplete perceptions of the present situation and offering a wall of false protection.

Does that mean there is nothing to be done? Absolutely not. Investing in making economic transitions creative and productive is possible, and that is future-looking. Investing in training young people and retraining the not-so-young, investing in the colossal, untapped profitability of clean energy technologies. These strategies are future-looking. But authoritarian populists are backward-looking. The economic nationalism they’re trying to sell us takes us in the same direction as recessions and wars when flows of people, goods and capital stagnate.

“But,” they say, “it will be good for the underdogs.” “We will help ordinary people who are not winning in the globalized world.” Can we believe them when they say they will be different, that they will bring equality and protection to those who need it most? It’s true that inequality remains prevalent today, including in developed economies.

Can we expect greater equality thanks to authoritarian populists? Well, experience shows that, all too often, promises of equality are betrayed to the clientelistic interests of the few and used as leverage to maintain the power of authoritarian populists no matter the cost.

But there’s more to it. We have to ask ourselves, “What is the vision of equality and justice that authoritarian populists are peddling with increasing success?” It’s a vision of exclusion and division. According to this vision, equality and justice can only emerge once those who have been deemed undeserving of equality or justice have been excluded from the nation. No, authoritarian populists are not just engaged on the side of economic nationalism; they’re also engaged in cultural nationalism, and that’s where the narrative comes full-circle. Voters might not know exactly how slowing flows of people, goods, and capital will stimulate the economy, but, then again, they don’t have to know. That’s the point of the package deal, the dismal economic story is supplemented by a warm narrative of belonging.

Like Socrates warned over 2 millennia ago, authoritarian populists flatter those over whom they seek to rule. Today’s demagogues do this in two ways: first, they tell their supporters that they and they alone are the true people. This is the strategy playing out in countries of different traditions and religions across many continents today. Inevitably, this type of flattery has an ethnic or cultural dimension. It implicitly or explicitly excludes.

Second, they tell their supporters that their values and traditions are the only true ones, the only right ones. And this is how the authoritarian populist discourse manages to seduce so many. If you haven’t been fully convinced about how your interests will be served by their policies, you will likely identify with the portrait of the genuine citizen they’re selling, and surely succumb to the flattering idea of your own moral superiority. That’s what they’re counting on anyway.

So, where does all this get us? If we look around the world today, the picture is pretty clear. In many countries where authoritarian populists are in power, the independence of the judiciary is being undermined, the constitutional structure of the separation of powers weakened. The media are increasingly being controlled by those in power, threatening liberty of the press. Pluralism is being stifled, purges of the opposition are taking place, and religious fundamentalism is gaining ground. The rule of law is not doing well where authoritarian populism has taken root. And misogyny is becoming mainstream again: women’s rights are regressing, women’s choices about their lives and destinies are seen as threats. And the rights of sexual minorities are being undermined as well. Legal protections against violence and discrimination are being denied LGBTI citizens. Security is being invoked to legitimize the control of free expression of sexual minorities.

So, what does this admittedly bleak picture show us? It shows us that authoritarian populism is authoritarian in two ways: first, it is politically authoritarian; it undermines constitutionalism and the separation of powers, and threatens individual liberties and the rights of the opposition. Second, it is morally authoritarian; it often uses religious rhetoric to shore up its own moral legitimacy, sacrificing vulnerable minorities on the altar of righteous indignation and denying women liberty and equality.

So, what can we do? Stand up for liberty, our own and that of others, particularly the most vulnerable. Use the heritage of freedom that exists in so many cultures and histories and memories to inspire us today. The phenomenon of authoritarian populism shows us that cultures or civilizations are not inherently or permanently superior or inferior, enlightened or misguided. Every society must affirm and reaffirm for itself its devotion to liberty.

In that sense, we must recognize that every civilization contains fault lines, the seeds of division, and the people willing to exploit those divisions for their own advantage. Every civilization also contains within it the seeds of hope and progress. Ordinary people who face the present open-mindedly and look to the future with hope, mobilized individuals who help to organize the peaceful and pluralistic dialogue within so many societies contributing to constructive deliberation.

And I conclude with a word to the political leaders of today and tomorrow, some of whom might be listening to me today. It is time for leaders, women and men of courage and character who are future-looking and concerned for the common good, to lead, to show by example that we will not flatter the worst instincts in the human soul, to recognize how fragile freedom is and how noble a responsibility democracy is, to dare to hope.

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