What is Populism?

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published What is Populism? by Azmi Bishara, in response to the pressing need to address the growing threat of populism sweeping the globe. As right-wing movements spring up across Europe and America, challenging the boundaries of the mainstream established parties, new and unconventional politicians have risen to surface. This book approaches the issue by starting from the theory of democracy and its structure, and by separating the phenomenon of populism in democracies, revealing its distinctiveness from countries with authoritarian regimes where it is difficult to distinguish between the populist and popular elements of the opposition. The book also discusses the sources of populism in democratic discourse itself, in the structural tensions of democracy, the elements of populism in the discourse of mainstream parties, and the socio-economic sources of the current populist political mood.

This book (216 pp) consists of four chapters, the first of which addresses populism and the permanent crisis of democracy. This chapter breaks down the three structural tensions that represent the perpetual crisis of democracy manifested in new circumstances. First is the tension between the democratic dimension of popular participation based on the assumption of moral equality between human beings and the liberal dimension grounded in the principle of the protection of human freedom, dignity and private property from the state's grasp and relates to the balance between state powers on the one hand and the protection of rights and freedoms on the other. The second tension is found within the democratic dimension itself between the concept of popular self-government in contrast to the need for representation through organized political forces and elites. The third tension appears between electoral representation and the presence of non-elected forces such as the judiciary or state bureaucracy. While decisions are made by the majority vote of the popular representatives, these non-elected forces also have an impact on the making or amendment of decisions.

In addition, Bishara finds that the growing distrust of parties in developed and developing democracies, the increasing weight of personality in politics, and the escalation of visual media and networked communication are all factors that lead to the rise of independent politicians from one party to another, dependent on stardom. These factors have allowed media demagogy and the infiltration of corrupt businessmen who, in the eyes of the public, are qualified because they gathered their wealth outside the political system, and because they speak in simple language. Populist politics does not stem from its affiliation with the common people but from speaking the language of the common people. Amateur politicians based on public relations and stardom emerge, causing great damage to democratic institutions and instead of restoring confidence, they deepen the mistrust of democratic institutions.

In the second chapter, Bishara argues that populism targets parties, media institutions, and institutions to monitor and control power, and its goal is to reach a populist democracy that is based on the direct relationship between the leader and the community defined by this leaser as the rightful people. Politicians at this stage do not represent organized parties or groups as much as they turn into actors; that is, they play roles, and they search for social rifts so they may exploit partisan divisions. Bishara claims that the socio-political development dividing left and right is transforming into other divisions. For there are currently significant intersections between what was called left and right in the negative attitude towards globalization and from institutions, the democratic state and parties and liberalism.

Bishara goes on to analyse the lack of confidence in and public alienation from democratic institutions in the next chapter. Here he examines the ability of democratic institutions to protect the achievements of democracy in the West from Trumpesque populism. This chapter also sees the conversation turned to Egypt and Tunisia, and the lessons that can be learned from both cases. Bishara questions whether the democratic system has lost its attractiveness in the fourth chapter. Bishara says that the illusion that right-wing populism uses tools for irrationality while traditional left-wing and right-wing parties and political elites that are characterized by their rationality is a common mistake. The popularly isolated forces of our time, such as the traditional Marxist-Leninist left, or those which have turned into elitist cultural currents, are under the illusion that they are rational, and that their popular retreat is due to their rationality, and that the solution is to return to the struggle for domination by addressing emotions and other populist strategy.

Ultimately, Bishara does not agree with the conclusion that liberal democracies are in a state of decline based on the data inferring the high level of income and education in authoritarian states. This indicates the stability of authoritarian regimes. But the question that must be asked about developed authoritarian states is not supposed to start from the fact that this development constitutes a crisis for democracy, but when will these factors produce the opposite of authoritarianism? What is the possibility of these regimes transitioning to democracy because of the expansion of the middle class and the spread of education, and with them the need for freedom of opinion and expression and the desire to participate?

Read Also