As right-wing populists take over

Protesters clash with Capitol police during a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 US presidential election results by the US Congress, at the US Capitol Building in Washington, US, 6 January, 2021

One of the most significant political events witnessed in the 21st century is undoubtedly the rapid rise of right-wing populism. When the United States, India and Brazil – three of the world's largest democracies, have adopted this form of a political ideology in governance during this decade, then certainly this phenomenon has gained widespread influence. Other countries, especially in Europe, are witnessing a similar pattern of shift towards a right-wing populist rhetoric and have swiftly gained momentum in these countries. However, the initial advent and gradual growth of this rhetoric (or political ideology) did not occur overnight.

A Harvard article titled ‘Why Right Populists Beat Left Populists (in the West)’, defined populism as a style rather than an ideology. Populists are politicians who often pit the “people” against the “ruling elite” or “establishment” (who often become corrupt and despotic) and gain massive influence and following in the political arena of a nation. They tend to depict an image where they are the people who are the only ones representing the ‘’common man’’ and his plights. Problems such as inequality, rampant corruption and lack of public services often fuel anti-elitist sentiment among the general masses. Hence, right-wing populism, is the form of populist rhetoric coupled and fuelled by right-wing politics such as nationalism, far-right ideologies etc.

This rapid and alarming growth of right-wing populist politics in the political scenario of many countries around the globe is an issue of concern. First of all, unlike left-wing populism, the rise of right-wing populism has less to do with economics, even though there are several economic issues associated with its expansion worldwide. Left-wing populists in the 20th century rose to prominence, primarily as they presented themselves as the ‘’vanguards’’ against imperialism and elitism in society. Extreme income and social inequality between the small ruling corporate (or capitalist) establishments and the large working class contributed to their rise. They worked to bring reforms in the economic structure of the countries, trying to favour the working class and provide basic necessities. However, all this came at the cost of democracy as communist nations embraced this form of beliefs andprinciples.

The undemocratic nature of countries that adopted this ideology, often led to high levels of bureaucracy in the ruling-class that in turn eventually resulted in immense corruption. This again is one of reasons that contributed to the steady downfall of this political ideology. Likewise, the left-wing populists tried to paint an anti-imperialist narrative worldwide. Yet, it turned out to be a serious hypocrisy from their side. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is the most vital of the many instances the hidden imperialist agenda of communist regimes, that adopted left wing populist rhetoric, have been exposed. In the end, though, the Soviets were humiliatingly ousted by the Mujahideen, nearly a decade after the invasion.

Now back to the issue of right-wing populism. Right-wing populist politics has often less to do with economic factors. They are often driven by social and cultural reasons. For example, the issue of Brexit. The supporters of the Leave Campaign (mostly Conservative voters) were more adamant and committed to the cause of Britain’s exit from the EU, even if it meant the British economy would slide into recession.

Europe and North America have been witnessing a vast influx of immigrants, beginning since the late twentieth century. From the neoliberal economic policies adopted and implemented by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to the massive scale of globalisation in the past few decades due to advancement of communication and transportation technology, has left Western nations exposed to people coming from all over the world, stemming from multiple ethnicities and backgrounds. Avoiding internal armed conflicts, resisting despotic regimes, improving standard of living through education and economic opportunities – various issues have contributed to the steady rise in migration to the Western world from the developing world. Interestingly, immigration has played a significant role in emboldening right-wing populist rhetoric in the West.

A significant portion of western masses (especially the culturally and socially conservative class) seem extremely weary of immigrants. They tend to see immigrants as people trying to undermine Western and European values and forcing them to completely integrate with European culture and adopt western values, often at the cost of leaving their own traditions and practices.

The War on Terror is an ideal example to explain this situation. Following the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by US and coalition troops and later the Arab Spring and the rise of terror organisations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria following the start of the civil wars, has led to a massive flood of refugees fleeing turmoil in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world to West, and Europe in particular. This has certainly not gone down well with the socially and culturally conservative class in Western society, whom the right-wing populist politicians tend to woo and appeal the most. Consequently, far-right parties and their sympathisers have started to gain massive followings as these groups aim to paint a picture showing them to be the only ‘’forces fighting the invaders’’ and to create a notion where their European values are under attack. There has been a massive campaign also by these groups, spearheaded by populists, to gain an upper hand in these situations by appealing to the conservative class of voters, who tend to be the most concerned of all groups.

Far-right groups and parties such as the English Defence League and UKIP in the UK, politicians such as Marine Le Pen in France and Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary are examples of people and groups sympathising far right views and implementing right-wing populist tactics to appeal to large segments of the general masses, for the most part due to their anti-immigration policies. Conspiracy theories like the “Great Replacement’’ have also gained popularity and approval of the common people in these countries.

Culturally driven voters are more committed than ideologically driven voters. Ideologies tend to be superficial, however culture, religion and centuries old traditions are more deeply rooted

Although the above points are vital reasons behind the rise of right-wing populism, the story did not start here nor does it end here. Recently, successive Western governments, whether conservative or liberal, had adopted and implemented progressive reforms in their tenures. Steps such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage, pro-immigration policies and many other reforms thought to be progressive in nature seem to be despised by the socially conservative segments of the society, who tend to be religiously and culturally observant. These reforms which have attracted and gained support of ‘progressive minded’ voters (who are predominantly college educated Gen Z youths) in the West, have changed and transformed the societies in those countries. In an increasingly progressive society, a large portion of the people is feeling like a ‘fish out of the water’. Voters of the culturally conservative segments of the society had begun to feel alienated in their own countries and expressed their disapproval of the prevailing social and economic orders by voting for people who seemed to share their concerns. Right-wing populist politicians took their chance in this situation and took a dig at the ‘’establishment’’ to lure voters.

Culturally driven voters are more committed than ideologically driven voters. Ideologies tend to be superficial, however culture, religion and centuries old traditions are more deeply rooted. With new situations, new ideologies are born. Capitalism, Socialism, liberalism – these are ideologies that are born due to circumstances and are altered, substituted or even cease to exist as circumstances change in the society and the wider world as a result. That’s why culturally conservative voters are apparently more dedicated to their cause.

Former US president Donald Trump, who appealed to his primarily white, Christian, non-college educated voters (a significant portion also being white-supremacists) due to his ‘America First’ rhetoric by issuing travel bans, regulating the influx of Mexican immigrants to combat drug trafficking, imposing tariffs on Chinese imports into the country – all of these kept gaining massive approval of his voters and supporters even though the multiple scandals and poor handling of the pandemic situation during his term could have tarnished his image and support. In the next election in 2020, even though he lost, it was a tight race with a slight margin.

The storming of the US Capitol and the large-scale pro-Trump rallies are a testimony to that. This has also exposed the United States' steady turn towards this prevailing ‘style’, and is likely to become the new façade of the country in the coming years, with militias like Boogaloo Boys and Proud Boys having strong and considerably large bases. Right-wing voters who form a huge bulk of the country (one could argue nearly half of the country), are also dissatisfied, especially after seeing a Black president and now the first female vice-president of colour, because in the end, according to them, the US is a White-Christian country whose values are constantly being ‘violated’.

A comparable picture can be seen in India. A nation currently submerged in ‘far-right Hindu nationalist dystopia’, after passing series of draconian acts. In 2015, the current BJP government, who are hard-line right-wing populists, was accused of favouritism in a military contract with France, which came to be famously known as the Rafale Deal controversy. They wereaccused by the opposition of by passing a state-owned company in favour of a private firm owned by the brother of the wealthiest business magnate of the country. Such incidents can shake the base of the populists who tend show that work for the people, but turn out to be ‘sell-outs’ working for the elites. However, the BJP’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric was still successful in securing the trust of their far-right base, which was reflected in their stunning 2019 general elections victory.

Major global and regional players are moving towards this new style of governance. Populism is not itself the issue to be concerned with. Populist movements have played a significant role historically in the modern world to stand up against the rampant inequity in societies, initiated by the ‘malicious’ elites. But, far-right elements have transformed into the main force propelling the current populism, which can lead to a notable amount of concern. It is only a matter of time before the right-wing populists completely take over!

*Shah Radifat Islam is a student of Grade XI, Scholastica School, Dhaka and can be contacted at [email protected]