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When democracy becomes populism: Palin, Malema and the...

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When democracy becomes populism: Palin, Malema and the rise of the unread

He’s a reactionary who’s hated as much by conservatives as he is by liberals, which is why the theories of John Lukacs are so edifying to read. Not that the people he writes about actually read him. As a profile of Sarah Palin in the latest issue of Vanity Fair seems to suggest, the politics of proudly unschooled nationalist populism are back in the ascendancy in America. Sound familiar? By KEVIN BLOOM. 

In his 2005 book Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, the Hungarian-born American historian John Lukacs puts forward the argument that the greatest threat to “our civilisation” is the backwards slide of liberal democracy into national populism. The primary target of Lukacs in the polemic is the US’s Republican Right. He claims that US conservatives have abandoned their founding principles of order, tradition and stability in favour of a political strategy that invokes external and internal enemies, and he cites leaders who manipulate the masses by appealing to “the myth of the people”. There’s nothing particularly new in this, except the fact that Lukacs is a self-confessed reactionary who despises liberals as much as he despises conservatives. His only allegiance is to a clear-eyed analysis of politics in the current age.

Also, during the course of his long career, Lukacs has served as a visiting professor at John Hopkins University, Columbia University, Princeton University and the University of Budapest, so even if he in turn is despised by Americans on both the Left and Right, he presumably knows what he’s talking about.  He has written over thirty books, one of the most significant of which, The End of the 20th Century and the End of the Modern Age (published in 1992), points to nationalism as the world’s most dangerous political force.

“Populist nationalism,” writes Lukacs in the book, “as distinct from the now almost extinct variety of the liberal nationalisms of the 19th century, is a modern and democratic phenomenon. Populist nationalists are self-conscious rather than self-confident, extroverted, essentially aggressive and humorless, suspicious of other people within the same nation who do not seem to agree with some of their populist and nationalist ideology. Hence they assign them to the status of minorities, suggesting – and at times emphasising – that such minorities do not and cannot belong within the authentic body of the national people.”

The book, when it was published, got mixed reviews. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called it “naïve” in parts, specifically for its neglect of the US’s role in the Persian Gulf War and its focus on America and Europe at the expense of the rest of the world. But it’s possible that Kakutani might hold a different view now – she was of course writing before 9/11 and the phenomenon of George W Bush. By 2005, when Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred was published, the views of Lukacs seemed to inspire much more sympathy amongst the critics.

In 2010, applying the phenomenon of Sarah Palin to his theories, Lukacs can tend to come across as something of a prophet. The rise of populism and the decline of classical democracy is reflected for him in the vulgarity and debasing effects of modern mass culture. The $150,000 worth of clothing and accessories bought by the Republican National Committee for the vice-presidential candidate and her family in 2008 might be a case in point, symbolising as it does a crude attempt to pander to the material values and consumerist heart of her constituency.

But it’s in the way that Palin silences dissent within the ranks that her character as a populist would appear to come through most stridently, at least according to the criteria of Lukacs. A profile in Vanity Fair that ran in the October 2010 issue describes how “Palin’s connection with her audience is complete,” and how those who don’t adore her – because, unlike the others, they don’t see themselves as “just like her” – have almost no way of deciphering the person behind the carefully constructed facade.   

“Her on-the-record statements about herself amount to a litany of untruths and half-truths. With few exceptions – mostly Palin antagonists in journalism and politics whose beefs with her have long been out in the open – virtually no one who knows Palin well is willing to talk about her on the record, whether because they are loyal and want to protect her (a small and shrinking number), or because they expect her prominence to grow and intend to keep their options open, or because they fear she will exact revenge, as she has been known to do. It is an astonishing phenomenon. Colleagues and acquaintances by the hundreds went on the record to reveal what they knew, for good or ill, about prospective national candidates as diverse as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Barack Obama. When it comes to Palin, people button their lips and slink away.”

Self-conscious rather than self-confident? Extroverted? Essentially aggressive and humorless? Palin would appear to tick all the Lukacs boxes, along with just about any other populist of the modern era – Juan Peron, Hugo Chaves and Benito Mussolini are names that come to mind – and along with many from early history too. Not that Palin is a Mussolini in the making, of course, just that she exhibits the core characteristics of this political caste, which, again, essentially draws its power by setting up the masses (“us”) against the elites (“them”).

There’s an obvious comparison to be made locally, and it’s one that’s been made before – by the columnist and author Jacob Dlamini. In April this year, writing in the Business Day, Dlamini offered a convincing piece under the header “Why Malema is the South African Sarah Palin”. The idea for the column came from an American friend of Dlamini’s, a person with a scholarly interest in US and South African politics, who emailed through a list of parallels: the proud ignorance (Palin’s enrollment at four colleges before she earned a communications degree, Malema’s “100% Zuma, 20% woodwork”); the contempt for the media (Palin’s phrase “lamestream media,” Malema’s phrase “bloody agent”); the shady financial dealings (the Palin Alaskan administration’s friendship with the state’s oil industry, Malema’s “National Tender Revolution”).

There’s also a strong similarity in the way the two figures handle internal dissent. Vanity Fair’s paragraph above on Palin’s rule by fear is echoed in the following observation of Dlamini: “It does not require a degree in political science to realise that the only people kept awake at night by thoughts of Malema are his comrades. They fear the little thug in ways they could never fear, say, the Democratic Alliance.”

Things get especially menacing, though, when held up against the final defining feature of Lukacs. Are Palin and Malema equally suspicious of other people within the same nation who do not seem to agree with some of their populist and nationalist ideologies? It goes without saying. Do they assign them the status of minorities, suggesting – and at times emphasising – that such minorities do not and cannot belong within the authentic body of the national people? Take your pick: ““hardworking, patriotic, liberty-loving Americans,” “the common people,” “bastard tendencies,” “counter-revolutionaries”.

Such rhetoric, for Lukacs, is not only the locus of hatred and fear that populists must consistently return to for succour and support, it is also the site of the potential breakdown of democratic values. In this, as he suggests himself, Lukacs echoes an observation of Alexis de Tocqueville: “Majority rule is tempered by the legal assurance of the rights of the minorities, and of individual men and women. And when the temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more (or else) than populism. More precisely: then it is nationalist populism.”

So does America exemplify the defining qualities of a nationalist populist state? Does South Africa? The answer is clearly closer to “yes” on the latter. America under George W started to look remarkably like an idiocracy, but Barack Obama has done a lot to inject some rational perspective into the equation. Still, if there’s one thing populists know how to do with aplomb, it’s how to stage a comeback. Palin, who was essentially written off after the 2008 US elections, has returned to public life stronger than ever. It’s currently looking likely that she’ll make a formidable run for president come the next elections, and 7,000-word profiles in Vanity Fair – especially if they’re self-proclaimed “hatchet jobs” – are only going to help her cause. The common people have nothing but contempt for media outlets that employ words of more than four syllables.

Which brings us back to Malema. What to say, except that he’s once again the most prominent feature on the media horizon, like an endless “worst of Idols” loop. Populism only dies once it has swallowed itself whole, once it can no longer deliver on its promises and has run out of people to blame for its lack of delivery. Hugo Chavez remains in power thanks to Venezuela’s vast oil resources; Palin’s ascendant star has everything to do with the fact that Alaska’s oil reserves are owned by the state. As Dlamini points out, Malema’s not there yet, but he’s heading – textbook-style and at impressive speed – in the right direction.

And Zuma’s ANC, despite their best efforts to silence him, have no-one but themselves to blame. The country’s slide from democracy into nationalist populism was confirmed at Polokwane – it’s proving nigh impossible to put the beast back in the cage. DM

Read more: Profile of Sarah Palin in the latest Vanity Fair, “Why Malema is the South African Sarah Palin,” Jacob Dlamini in Business Day.


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