Images from Osaka of heads of government hosted there by Japan’s Shinzo Abe were a reminder of the rise of populism in today’s world. Many of these leaders, including the US’s Trump, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Putin, India’s Modi, Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Turkey’s Erdogan, are ‘populist’ figures.
Not everyone named above is a populist to the same degree. In any case, the word ‘populist’ conveys only part of their political make-up. They also espouse (in different degrees) a nationalism that excludes many sections of their nation. They seem to welcome a concentration of power in their hands; and they appear to disdain political opponents.
Though no single word perfectly captures a combination of these different traits, ‘populist’ may be used to indicate the broad mix now visible at the top in country after country.
It is a mix that enthuses many while troubling others. The enthusiasts believe that their populist leader has raised their country’s profile in the world. The troubled see in the populist mix a threat to values for which humanity has long struggled: values like personal liberty, equality among all sections in a nation, and goodwill among the different sections.
In most countries, ‘freedom’, ‘equality’ (or ‘equal protection’) and ‘amity’ may be found in constitutional texts, but real life is a different matter. In some fortunate lands, judges, the police and the media uphold these values. In other countries, ‘security’ or ‘stability’ is allowed to override liberty, equality and harmony.
Whether he operates in Europe, North America, South America, the Middle East, Asia or the Pacific, a populist leader persuades his followers that all is well as long as he is in charge, and that the stability he offers more than compensates for declining freedom, equality and amity.
The populist chief is above rules and conventions. He monopolizes channels of communication and propaganda. His falsehoods are seen as exaggerations rather than lies, uttered for the nation’s good. His divisiveness is only a tactic against the nation’s enemies. His coarseness is only much-needed bluntness.
Attacks on his lies and divisiveness rally the populist’s base. For a time at least, he profits from such attacks.
The populist leader says (or hints, knowing that followers will be more direct) that it is time for ‘the true core’ to take their nation back from peripheral, inferior or undeserving groups that have expanded in recent years. This ‘true core’ – usually dominant in numbers, privileges and resources but allegedly restrained by years of appeasement and political correctness -- can now have its overdue revenge.
The whites of the U.S., their Russian counterparts, India’s caste Hindus, and Turkey’s conservative Muslims must take their country back from liberals who champion and mislead minorities and the underprivileged.
The ‘true core’ can take heart from the fact that the populist leader is tackling ‘the enemy within’. The latter requires no spelling out but is named from time to time.
Fortunately, the above is only part of our world’s picture. For one thing, even a populist leader cannot wish away all facts. (To give one example, Modi cannot ignore the millions of Indians who live in the Gulf and the Middle East.)
Moreover, populist leaders have to talk to one another. When Trump meets Xi, each gets a chance to recognize that confrontation has its hazards and a settlement its advantages. When Modi and Erdogan met in Osaka, perhaps they recognized, to some extent at least, that each was also meeting himself.
Two other realities may be more significant. Paralleling the surge in populism -- and in the narrow, negative and nativist nationalism associated with populism -- is an equally evident surge in the coming together of humanity’s diverse branches.
Thus, to give a single example again, the cricket world cup pulls together blacks, browns and whites on the UK’s streets and grounds. The World Cup attracts agnostics, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims (to name them in alphabetical order) into teams and audiences, even as Britain witnesses a bitter battle over Brexit, to the beat at times of populist drums.
The second reality is the existence in most countries, including those under populist leaders, of a great many persons who cherish free speech, equality and goodwill among all sections.
Coercion versus liberty. Hierarchy versus equality. Ill-will versus mutual respect. Contests are taking place on the world’s streets and grounds, and perhaps inside most of us.