By Janjira Sombatpoonsiri
From BREXIT to Trump’s presidency, and the prospect of Marine le Pen’s electoral success, right wing populism is sweeping across the West. Analysts and scholars have expressed concerns that this tendency could threaten the fate of liberal democracy, and its hard-fought triumph over other contesting political ideologies since the end the Cold War. The ‘End of History’, in other words, may come to an end. Activists and civic groups are now worried that the rise of right wing populism will open a Pandora’s Box for demagogues to promote their xenophobic agenda, as evident in the recently controversial travel bans. There is deep fear that populist leaders such as Donald Trump babysitted by Steve Bannon, and the likes will try to emasculate democratic checks and balances in the pursuit of consolidated power.
In this wake, calls for civil resistance of authoritarianism have emerged. Street protests have been staged to remind the enthroned populists of ‘people’s power’. Despite the necessity to safeguard democracy through civil resistance of populist leaders whose authoritarian inclination has been depressingly observed, it is important to acknowledge the fact that these leaders are democratically elected and supported by large segments of society. We may choose to believe that voters for right wing populist parties share chauvinistic and nationalistic opinions with their strongmen. However, popular appeal to populist figures has much to do with socio-economic decline constituents in the West have experienced. The increasing ‘oligarchisation’ of liberal democratic societies set a stage for dignity deficit, especially among white, non-urban, and working-class population.
For the past decades, middle class in the West generally found their lives unprecedentedly precarious due to unemployment and lack of social security. The post-Cold War era brought into force neoliberal dominance. The speed of economic globalisation means that manufacturing jobs have been taken away to countries offering cheap labour, while austerity policies – resulting in fiscal cutback in social expenditure – imply that individuals are left on their own to finance their increasingly expensive healthcare and education, to name a few. Digital automation and waves of immigrants looking for skilled and unskilled jobs in economically advanced countries do not help brighten the future of employment for middle class in the U.S. and Europe. Against this dimmed backdrop, the well-off have reaped the benefit from the process of globalisation. Meanwhile, political elites in Washington, Paris, and London are seen to have ignored this crisis of surging inequality as they continue policies economically hurting ‘the people’ who consider themselves the backbone of their societies.
Right wing populism is a ‘symptom’ of society polarised by economic injustice and the collapse of liberal democracy which has furthered the distance between political elites and their constituents. Populist figures such as Trump and le Pen could mobilise popular support sufficient to contest other liberal/centrist candidates because of their anti-establishment rhetoric addressing the crisis of liberal democracy. They acknowledge the injustice and humiliation inflicted on their constituents through the loss of jobs and neglect of the political class. Oftentimes popular anger is being diverted toward immigrants portrayed as a threat to economic and cultural security. Although xenophobia-based attacks should not be tolerated, scapegoating foreign immigrants can be understood as the expression of fear and vulnerability of those, who pride themselves of belonging to a once great nation/civilisation. Their increasingly precarious livelihood has configured a general perception that this great nation is in decadence. Populist propaganda – such as ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘Take our Country Back’ – responds to this perception and collective emotion attached to it. In the mist of lacking other political alternatives, right wing populist discourses provide hope for ‘the people.’
In this sense, social divide is a phenomenon parallel with the crisis of liberal democracy. Tackling right wing populism requires us not only to resist populist leaders with authoritarian traits, but also to comprehend why the vast number of population view populism as a hopeful alternative to the existing system. Resistance in the form of street demonstration and boycott remains an important tool for defending democracy. Nevertheless, it does little to address the ongoing social bifurcation. It is difficult to imagine that supporters of right wing populists – who despise the so-called ‘political correctness’ see liberal agenda as little relevant to their livelihood – would participate in progressive demonstrations such as the ‘Women’s March’, the largest single-day protest organised in Washington during the presidential inauguration. Does this mean that progressive protests would end up constituting an echo chamber where progressive agenda get circulated among those already convinced in the progressive ideas? Does it imply that while we resist Trump with various methods of nonviolent action, we have so far failed to understand underpinning causes of populist trajectory, and thereby missed the change to communicate with those electing populist leaders? Is it possible that protests serving as a liberal echo chamber can contribute to dividing society even more as protesters at times claim to hold higher moral ground than their populist opponents?
As a student of nonviolent resistance, I believe that it is high time to rethink how this body of knowledge can help counter right wing populism. Nonviolent resistance is more than taking to the street. It is political activism in the sense that it offers analytical tools to understand pillars of support of the ruling government, which normally include electoral constituents, bureaucracy, and the media. Well-crafted messages are conveyed to the general public pointing out the elites’ legitimacy deficit, and at the same time showing the availability to political alternatives. The messages amplified through persistent undertaking of campaigns should eventually be conducive to the realignment of allies. Shifting in alliance, especially the defection of electoral supporters of ruling government, allows activists to increase their political momentum in the pursuit of social and political changes. The implication is that those committing to nonviolent resistance do not only resist the power that be. But they also analyse how the ruling power’s discourses resonate with popular resentment, and help galvanise support to sustain its ruling legitimacy. This understanding allows activists to design campaigns that show empathy to groups across political affiliations. These campaigns would need to address structural underpinnings of collapsing political establishment, and offer a genuine platform for debating about alternatives based on economic redistribution, reconfiguration of power relations between the political class and the people, and political reconciliation of groups with different aspirations. Communicating with those you disagree – instead of reinforcing an echo chamber – is the key to the achievement of this platform.
The ideas delineated above are not completely novel. Examples of ‘communicating across the aisle’ appeared during the Civil Rights campaigns, where African American leaders tried to appeal to ‘white consciousness’, extending their political messages to convince white priests and white constituents to support the course of ‘black struggle’. In ousting Slobodan Milošević, the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’, Serbia’s pro-democracy movements launched campaigns in Milošević’s rural footholds, which had initially endorsed his ethno-nationalism. Their success lay in the campaign’s association of ‘healthy patriotism with the downfall of Milošević, and the creation of a peaceful Serbia. Beyond overthrowing a dictator, these campaigns aimed to bridge the gap that divided a nation.
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri is an assistant professor of the political science faculty at Thammasat University in Bangkok and author of Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia.
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