Since the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, many around the world have been living under a sense of disbelief. One nation after another saw the emergence of a strong nationalist leader, who vowed to protect the people from the disempowering forces of globalisation. This was shocking because it went directly against the notion that the world was moving towards a liberal, free-market community. The sudden rise of authoritarian nativists has threatened the very existence of this conviction. Many observers thus called this global phenomenon as a surge of populism. Populists— leaders who claim to derive their legitimacy directly from the people. They promise to dismantle the ruling elites and reform the system which they argue is inherently corrupt. The populists of today who could be classified into this simple definition range from Recep Erdogan, Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, Victor Orban, Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro to name a few. None of these individuals shares any affinity to a common doctrine or practices a similar kind of politics. And not all of them are political outsiders. Yet, there are four broad indicators on which all of them interact.
First is a project towards protecting the majority’s interests, mostly in demographic terms. Which can be through restricting immigration as it brings in foreigners or by demonising minorities that fall outside the self-defined ‘nation.’ In Israel, this takes the form of sponsoring settlements in the West Bank, and in Hungary, it means stopping immigrants from assimilating or even entering. Second, which follows from the same point, is the near emphasis on national security. Populists around the world own a near domestic monopoly over the discourse on nationalism. Which eventually feeds to their image as the only custodians of the nation from foreign threats. Protecting the border from foreign invaders, in the form of immigrants or terrorists, becomes an integral part of their policy programme. Third, is a logical progression from the first two indicators, which is that all these populists belong to the right. The form of right-wing politics they practice has little to do with economic issues than it does with cultural ones. That is why at one end you have Benjamin Netanyahu, who calls himself as the protector of free market capitalism. And also Donald Trump, who views tariff-free trade as a bad deal for domestic industries. Fourth, and the most critical factor that distinguishes the current crop of populists from fascists during the inter-war period (as many wrongly compare the two) is their reliance on a democratic majority for deriving legitimacy. Populists of today unlike the authoritarians of the Cold War era, do not directly aim at dismantling democracy. Instead, they employ democracy, by regularly conducting and winning elections, to legitimise their office to the global community.
The fact that in many occasions the elections are rigged or the opposition is jailed is another issue. But in many cases, populists have won elections in entrenched democracies like the United States, Israel and India. While Trump, Netanyahu and Modi have not explicitly suggested any disdain towards democratic procedures, many of their actions have subverted democratic norms. This gives the opposition in their respective countries a reason to allege that these leaders are a threat to democracy. Most of these parties belong to the left under their country’s ideological spectrum. As many of these countries are either in the process of elections like India or are on the verge of one. The left is gearing up to take back its place in the government. The question is— what is the state of the left in the age of populism?
Before we look for an answer, it is important first to understand the reason for this populist surge. Many academics ranging from Francis Fukuyama in Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Daniel Ziblattt and Steven Levitsky in How Democracies Die to Yasha Mounk in The People Vs Democracy to name a few, have explored the reasons for the current trend. Beyond their messages of doom, they recognise the irony in the kind of populism that has taken root. One just needs a look at the economic condition of the developed world. The enormous disparity in the wealth distribution and the stagnation of income are in fact a fertile ground for the resurgence of the left. Yet, virtually every modern populist practices politics of the hard right. So while the underlying problems have economic bearings, the outburst of the people takes a cultural or ethnic form. Then why has the left not capitalised on this opportunity? And why do we not see the rise of left-wing populists like Chavez today? The answer to these questions lies in the transition the left has been experiencing for the past two decades.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the entire world sensed a collapse of the Cold War ideological polarity. Around the globe, regimes that practised socialism gave way for the takeover of liberal democratic ones that opened up their respective markets. In this sense, the dominant left which based itself on class divisions waned all around the world. This was essentially a time where ideology took a back seat for a more centred politics. The dominant thinking suggested that many of the existing problems could be solved through a mixture of free-market and government regulations, famously labelled the ‘third way.’ Key decisions were taken by a new transitional elite through organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, that found themselves holding immense influence globally. At the same, in the developed world the left started reorienting itself to include the cause of many groups that were hitherto discriminated or were taken for granted. In India, this took the form of politics of Mandal, where many underrepresented subaltern groups asserted themselves politically through a new brand of socialist parties. The argument for this was a relatively simple one. As democracy progresses, it can only fulfil its promise of equality if it compensates to groups that have been socially excluded from power-sharing. This demand for dignity in the form group assertion is what gave identity politics on the left its modern shape. While the justifications for this form of politics are debatable, the consequence quite clearly is the division it has created within the left.
Today the left is caught up within these rising currents. Hence, there are three strands of the left that have different methods of tackling populism. First, are the centre-left proponents who still believe that they alone can unify the polarised electorate. In India, the Indian National Congress falls under this category and in the case of the United States, presidential candidates like Joe Biden of the Democratic Party. Their critics are a rising tide of old school socialists or ‘democratic socialists,’ a term coined by Bernie Sanders. Who himself is leading the charge for the Presidential nomination from the Democratic side. They realise that there is something immensely democratic about populism that makes it impossible for the centred left to tackle. After all, it is a form of popular resentment by the people who are the real stakeholders of a democratic polity. The things they are reacting against are basically what the centred elites represent. In the west, the support for this section of the left primarily comes from the younger electorate. But the left that basis itself in Marxist theory is more of an exception rather than a norm. Thus, one can find a left superstar in Alexandria Ocasio Cortez or Kanhayia Kumar, but at the same time realise that the movement they represent is long dead. Then there is a small but culturally powerful progressive strand that fights for the protection of smaller minorities. In the western world, it is this strand of the left that is consistently under fire from the supporters of populist leaders. When Fox News hosts systematically target college campuses for their political correctness, or the Republic Tv in India goes after protesting students of Jawaharlal Nehru University; they question not just their loyalty to the nation. But also their lack of awareness regarding issues that a common person faces daily. While these attacks clearly exaggerate the influence of college campuses, it does feed into the notion that the world currently faces a cultural battle. At one side is the right-wing nationalism of populists that proclaims itself as the fighter for the masses. On the other hand, is the liberal order represented by the intellectual elite in universities. All these trends are not monoliths within the left, but intersect every leftist movement. Which makes it even more problematic for a leader who wants to fight a right-wing nationalist. The left movement today has too many internal divisions to counter a fairly unified right.
Meanwhile, the left is losing a bigger ideological battle due to the internal divisions. In political science, there is a concept that explains the impact of populism on public discourse. The Overton Window, as the name suggests, is a window for the range of ideas tolerated in society. In the previous decades, the views of today’s populists were rejected by the public itself as they fell outside the boundaries of political correctness. Today, the window has shifted wildly to the right, and much of the populist discourse has become the public discourse. The left now finds itself in a political climate where much of its policies has become politically outdated. Confronting this situation leads to a dilemma. If the left chooses to soften down its agenda by recognising the need to pander to the majority, it risks being seen as weak. Contrary to this, if it still pushes for its conventional agendas, it risks electoral drubbing.
In India, the Congress is facing the first problem. Accused of practising ‘pseudo-secularism’ by the Hindu right, its leadership trying to reorient itself as a party that is proud of its Hinduness. But by applying the first approach, the party indicates a clear acceptance that liberal arguments for secularism have lost popular ground. Left parties like the Labour in Israel learnt this lesson the hard way. Peace with Palestine, which was its cornerstone, has slowly become a marginal issue, thanks to the economic boom and the emphasis on national security under Netanyahu. The Labour chose to put less emphasis on the Palestine issue during this year’s election. But without that issue, little differentiated the Labour from other parties. The Democratic party in the United States is facing the second problem. If it chooses Bernie Sanders as its Presidential candidate, which at the moment seems probable, the decision can alienate the median voter. They need to remember, that socialism is still a bad word for the majority of average Americans.
Hence, to defeat populism, the left has to present an alternative vision to the electorate. It cannot just fight elections on the pretext of saving democracy. Because populists of today stand for precisely the same. Their concept of a democracy is a simple majority rule. Their solution to the complicated problems of international trade is a simple tariff. And for the challenge of illegal migration is a simple act of deportation. It is their simplicity that is reassuring for most of the voters. The left needs to recognise this before it is too late. In the end, regardless of whether left parties bounce back electorally, the ideological impact of populism is bound to last for a long time.