Opinionista Ebrahim Rasool 8 June 2018

Is populism creating a crisis for democracy?

We don’t have to be populist to beat the populists, but we do have to learn the lessons that gave populism its ascendancy today. Unless we understand the tone and content of the discontent we will not be able to give it direction.

I was part of an exhilarating panel discussion hosted by the Skoll World Forum at Oxford University in the UK, to examine whether populism was creating a crisis for democracy. Anne-Marie Slaughter, academic of note, foreign policy specialist in the US and an author particularly noted for her recent writings on gender equality, moderated the discussion with myself, the president of the Obama Foundation, a Turkish novelist and a journalist.

Each one of us tried both to bring a global perspective as well as our respective national perspectives to the discussion on populism and the state of democracy. South Africa’s ability to utilise its democratic space – first in the ruling party and then in the country – to effect its current transition from Jacob Zuma to Cyril Ramaphosa was the unlikely cheerful story in the Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre.

Populism, of course, is a polite description to avoid acknowledging that American and European leaders and governments are capable of extremism. While there is a gap between populist and extremist behaviour, the line dividing them is very thin. To admit to the White House or Westminster or the parliaments in many European countries being occupied by extremists may be a bridge too far for Westerners.

However, populism may be a form of inert extremism, until it is able to harness the power of the state – legislative, regulatory or military – to unleash its dread on people through travel bans, dismantling social security, deepening surveillance, and sanctioning, if not fomenting, war. Clearly this is beginning to happen in the West, and this mainstreamed and institutionalised extremism is complementing the informal, insurgent extremism on the margins of society, most often in the name of Islam and Muslims.

Populism always has the genetic predisposition to be dangerous and devastating. But it does not always start that way. It starts as the proverbial canary in the coal mine that warns of toxicity, constriction of oxygen and the possibility of imminent danger. Populism similarly indicates the presence or emergence of grievance, discontent, alienation and humiliation.

When heeded, as with the 1890 Populist (People’s) Party in the United States, that warned of corporate excess, it resulted in fundamental reform towards progressive taxation and the protection of public goods from corporatisation. Populism, therefore, certainly has an ear for disquiet and discontent in society and the failure by the middle ground to respond to the signs, or to become technocratic in response, or to be bereft of strategy, is often the difference between a benign and malignant populism.

In its malignant form, populism may become more the proverbial fox in the henhouse, feigning concern but then heightening fears and fomenting mayhem, feeding on the innocent. Unfortunately it is the malignant form of populism that has mutated into our contemporary extremisms. The malignancy in populism, despite the correctness in recognising discontent, lies in the steps beyond recognition of discontent: the discontent is often attributed to conspiracy – someone is doing this to us; this necessarily leads to the identification of an enemy – that group is to blame; the enemy must then be demonised and otherised; they are all the same bad people, and such targeting can often result in unleashing incivility, intolerance and conflict in society. Recognition of discontent often leads to its exploitation.

At the heart of this process is a deep anti-intellectualism, despite hifalutin language, especially in its left variety. The suspension of reason and the excess of presumed moral self-righteousness allow the assumptions of the populist to remain free of scrutiny and interrogation. In this scrutiny-free zone, the stereotype will remain supreme: all Muslims are terrorists and all whites are robber barons. In these lie the seeds whereby the greater good is sacrificed at the altar of sectional, often identity-based, interests; and the pursuit of justice and equity get lost in the maze of identity politics. It is in the politics of blame and complain, identity and interests, emotion and anger that the fertile ground emerges for a leader more befitting of a cult than a party, more charismatic than substantive, demagogic rather than strategic, and focused on the quick wins, not the long haul.

From such leadership emerge the more insidious dangers of populism, other than the hate and anger it generates and the conflicts that it foments. The insidious impact on society varies across the political spectrum. On the right, populists pursue tax exemption for the rich and social spending reductions for the poor with devastating impacts on the fiscus as well as the survival capabilities of the poor. On the left, populists tend to distribute what is not grown, and therefore should be borrowed, and skew expenditure priorities away from the long-term towards the immediate interests of the base. In all of these there are enough cheerleaders for specific measures with the capability of drowning out the voices competing for the long-term or alternative priorities.

A transitional society like South Africa, with huge deficits in skills, may well decide that investments in early childhood development that follow the child progressively to university are the best long-term strategy. But because toddlers don’t march, populism can derail this completely to advantage those in the final stage of the education cycle, who may carry cognitive and skills deficits into university, but have the power to be heard. Thus populism can alter the long-term trajectory of a nation.

Populism’s impact undermines the democratic well-being of both citizen and nation. In the USA citizens are asked to cede liberty for security, to earn their patriotic credentials by silencing their conscience and voice, and to diminish their rights – especially through decreased privacy and increased surveillance – in order to diminish their vulnerability to an enemy.

The last three decades have seen the American nation complicit in the demise of their own democratic well-being. The problem with contemporary populism, however, is that in its main-streamed form it has earned legitimacy through a cardinal point of democracy – the electoral process. And while elections, and participation therein, may remain important, populism shows that the middle ground cannot place all its eggs in the electoral basket. It has to have a vigorous and robust extra-parliamentary foundation from which to assail populism, to engage its adherents, to re-populate the middle ground and to contest for sustainable policies, while not denigrating elections.

The challenge of the middle ground in defeating populism may well be to appropriate that which gives populism its appeal without the inherent dangers. We don’t have to be populist to beat the populists, but we do have to learn the lessons that gave populism its ascendancy today. The middle ground has to recognise and then organise the discontent in sections of society, often arising from the inadequate or unfinished business of transformation – such as land reform in South Africa – or from the continued alienation and marginalisation of certain demographics, particularly young people. Unless we grapple and understand the tone and content of the discontent we will not be able to give it direction. The direction could range from appropriate governance responses by those decried as the elite, to leading responsibly the community and civil society opposition to tone deaf decision-makers.

This direction starts by outlining the core demands implicit in the discontent in a set of public demands that both says to the disaffected that we understand you, and says to the decision-makers this is what we must respond to. This effectively must be the platform for engagement, trade-offs, sequencing and programming among competing demands from competing vulnerable groups.

Alternatively, the various bigotries suffered by different communities must be shown to be complementary by virtue of its single source, the communities then brought into conversation, thus ensuring that victimhood is neither monopolised by a single group to the exclusion of others, nor used to foment competing victimhoods.

It is in such intersectionality – when apparently contradictory or competing vulnerable groups find common purpose – that the greatest threat to populism lies: the populist government that institutionalises bigotry against those who are different from the idealised notion of the nation; or who assaults the poor and vulnerable with misguided measures disguised as policy; or the non- or quasi-governmental populism that seeks to exploit or hijack sectional discontent (historical grievances of Muslims) in order to mobilise for its bid for power. Intersectionality ensures that populists cannot pick winners among the disaffected and marginalised, but that systemic social challenges require systemic and sustainable programmes, with minimum unintended consequences.

If victimhood is the feeding ground of populists, then its antidote is agency, driven by empowering information, institutional access, intersectional voice and programmatic purpose. We need particularly to turn young people into agents of their own destiny before they are embedded in victimhood.

Populism appears to speak the language of ideology, but ideology for it is like the clothes you put on for that day’s weather. The most prominent populists in South Africa started off as virile capitalists, competing for tenders to the point of corruption, when they were kingmakers with access to power. When ejected into opposition they became the most rabid socialists. But historically in South Africa, from the anti-apartheid struggle through the transition and into the emerging democracy, the fine distinction between the populist manifestations today and popular politics was the lodestar that prevented the black majority from replicating racism by diminishing the power of nativist claims in our discourse. That distinction helped immunise us against the prophetic and millenarian appeals of populist leaders, in favour of leaders who became popular through substantive, strategic and sacrificial leadership as part of collectives.

Populist leadership in South Africa could easily have flourished in pitting sectional identities against each other, but struggle leadership chose to make popular the complexity of non-racialism in a racialised society when the popular Freedom Charter declared already in 1955: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white!”

Unfortunately, the last decade in South Africa saw a hundred-year popular approach yield to a populist strain, first within the ANC and then morphing into a competition between a dominant faction in the ANC and its expelled Youth League who became the Economic Freedom Fighters. The point of legitimacy for both populisms was the incremental nature and slow pace of economic transformation.

On this soft underbelly of post-apartheid South Africa, the two competing populisms battled for who could be most radical in promising economic transformation – the one effectively harnessing the state for a scorched earth programme and the other, with no prospect of governing, ramping up the expectations of young people for instant deliverance. What both shared was a voracious appetite for feeding at the trough in the name of transformation. From such populist excesses, the ANC must now recover its popular instinct, acceding to the need for speeded transformation, understanding that expectations have been heightened, recognising that, ironically, the populist decade has impeded the ability of the economy to deliver on expectations, but ensuring that the discontent is addressed.

The recipe for a popular agenda lies in how apparently divergent discontent is cohered into a set of public demands; how communities and people are schooled in mobilising and organising inclusive campaigns around these demands; how to construct coalitions through the careful negotiation and characterisation of grievance and common purpose; and how the language of anger and outrage is harnessed for the greatest inclusion and consonant with the capacity of the majority and not the adventurist appetite of the leadership core.

Mostly, populism yields to the popular when there is the conviction that some day you may have the power and responsibility to make good on what you now demand. Populists are more successful chasing power than utilising it. Populism is, therefore, the domain of permanent revolutionaries, perpetual oppositions or charismatic campaigners. Because populists often attack the soft underbelly of society, popularists must be empathetic and transparent, not reclusive or technocratic, in resolving the underlying causes of discontent while ensuring the long-term viability of society.

Ultimately, we must never tire of ringing the alarm bell to warn that populists are one step from extremism, and all populisms appear benign until they find a power source for their plug. Then they are a heartbeat from authoritarianism. DM

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