Poisonous politics of Us vs Them
As history shows, an ever-rightward progression of populism eventually leads not to greater peace and international cooperation but, rather, to intra-state turmoil and international violence.
While not all populists are fascists, they both use similar language and tactics. Not only are their simplistic “solutions” incapable of solving the complex problems of the real world, but their ideology prevents them from taking the kinds of steps that would unify people.
Barry Eichengreen, in “The Populist Temptation,” defines populism as “a political movement with anti-elite, authoritarian, and nativist tendencies.” It appeals to the dissatisfied by dividing society into “the elites and the people” while portraying mainstream politics as an “elite conspiracy” that works against the will and the interests of “the people.”
It retains some of the romantic ideas of previous centuries, especially in its conviction that “the people” possess “a basic common sense, passed down through traditions, religion, and community” that can be drawn upon to correct the mistaken policies of the elite.
They pose as “no-nonsense” leaders who speak that direct, common-sense language of the people — which elites deride as “politically incorrect” — as telling it like it is: direct, over-simplistic, dismissive of expert opinions, and untroubled by inconvenient facts.
They look for ways to demonstrate the forcefulness of their will — often while manifesting a “menacing undercurrent of violence” — in order to distinguish them from existing officials who are accused of being either unwilling, unable, or incompetent to respond to the people’s grievances. Inherently dismissive of listening to or respecting the point of view of those who disagree with them, they portray dissident voices as illegitimate which should be ignored or even suppressed.
Eventually, this creates an atmosphere unmoored from reality and facts, a condition that renders citizens increasingly susceptible to conspiracy theories and fake news. The political, social, and cultural turmoil created by the First World War and the Great Depression set the stage for the emergence of populist nationalists in the 1920s and 1930s.
Likewise there have been many unsettling cultural changes in the past 50 years, combined with the economic and political policies pursued by the United States and Europe since the 1970s, which have created the current environment in which right-wing forces thrive.
Only a generation after the Second World War, Western governments began to embrace policies that not only favored wealthier citizens but also weakened unions, strengthened the already-dominant bargaining position of business owners over workers, and repeatedly pitted laborers, cities, and regions against each other in competing for a decreasing number of well-paid jobs.
While globalization has helped many in the work forces of less wealthy countries, in the West only a minority of the well-educated have managed to prosper while most workers have experienced vanishing jobs, shrinking benefits, and stagnant wages.
The consequent devastation has been most sharply felt in small towns, rural areas, and sections of the country where once dominant occupations have disappeared.
It appears that it was Western governments’ inept response to the great recession of 2008 — imposing austerity policies — that, for many citizens, clarified just whose “side” their governments were on.
The 21st century so far has brought economic tensions to a near boil throughout the West. Citizens struggling to hold onto or find new jobs can easily view refugees and immigrants as intruders, believing that they were competing with them for scarce employment.
There is also little doubt that the mix of unusual languages, customs, and religious beliefs further contributed to the feeling among the economic and culturally marginalized that they were losing their way of life, their very culture. This helps explain the apparent puzzle that citizens who constitute most of the population can nonetheless come to see themselves as victims.
The playwright Shakespeare, who also lived in tumultuous times, was interested in how societies can become infected with all sorts of corruption and disorder.
In the play “Othello,” the general’s mind is poisoned by clever and insidious words that alter his perception of reality and feed on his most primitive emotions.
None of us are immune to the poisons we willingly allow into our hearts and minds. Like Othello, once welcomed in, they will cause our worst suspicions and inclinations to grow stronger.
The author was a member of the Iowa State House of Representatives and also served in the Iowa executive branch, before his retirement in 2004. He now lives in Oregon.