The disruption of populism during a crisis

by May 4, 2020 0 comments

In times of disruptive changes that have complex and overlapping reasons, populists tend to boil it down to one or two explanations to suit their ends

The most repeated cliche in advertising and marketing circles is the word “disruption.” It implies breaking away from the norm and using jarring ways to attract the attention of potential consumers towards a product or a service. But as with most post-modernist ideas this, too, became an automated norm that lost its meaning beyond being just an exciting word to throw around. Nevertheless, American author David Von Drehle explains this idea of disruption as being part and parcel of a mindset that eventually aided the rise of neo-populism.

He sees “disruption” as a glorified recklessness which may excite and even enrich hip, young entrepreneurs, but isolates those whose livelihoods are still dependent on what is wrecked in the name of such disruption. Drehle equates this with the nature of populism ruling various countries, especially the US, India, Brazil, Hungary, Italy, the UK, the Philippines, Venezuela, Pakistan, and do on.

Populism gains currency in times of major economic and social changes. Such changes can trigger an optimistic outlook, as they did with the rise of science and brand new economic and political ideas, which aided the growth and influence of the middle classes from the 18th century onwards. But these changes also leave behind a trail of failures which can dramatically transform an optimistic outlook into a more paranoid one.

This is the scenario in which populism thrives. When these changes grow roots, they establish their own elite. And it is this elite that are targetted by populists. In his book The Populism Explosion, John Judis writes that things remain in check as long as the elected and unelected political elite work to deliver sustained prosperity to the masses and steadily improve the nation’s living standards. But if this process is dented by an economic downturn, things can get ugly.

Political analyst Patrick Liddiard writes that populism emerges when political and economic elite leave out vast sections of the polity from the decision-making process. The reaction to this gets compounded during an economic crisis. He adds that, whereas the entry of new players in a democratic process should bode well for a democracy, it in fact ends up shattering it when this process is initiated and enforced by populists.

According to Drehle, in times of disruptive changes that have complex and overlapping reasons, populists tend to boil it down to just one or two explanations. For example, during the early decades of the 20th century, when revolutions were erupting, wars were being waged among dying monarchies, new political ideas were being shaped and Western societies were rapidly shifting from rural to urban, “the typical populist boiled it down to a problem of corrupt railroad barons and Jews.”

Drehle adds that it was the widespread impact of World War-II which suddenly eroded populism’s appeal.  This, followed by competent leadership, broke the back of early 20th-century populism. Many political analysts are predicting that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to play a similar role in eroding the appeal of neo-populism. Daniel Linsker writes, “Populist governments, reliant on their need to constantly convey positive messaging that bolsters their support, have struggled to take the decisive, forward-looking action that the Covid-19 crisis demands.”

Linsker adds, “More than ever, populist leaders now face a credibility problem. Obsession with the spread of the virus is leading the public to seek answers from experts and specialists, and self-isolation provides people with more time to look for information.” This is exactly the opposite of what populism seeks from the polity.

The glorified disruption peddled as something revolutionary and anti-elite is likely to devour the disrupters themselves, as the pandemic wrecks economies and lives. Yet, true to form, some populists are trying to win back the initiative by creating a scapegoat.

Perpetrators have simply revived the tactics of a time when the US spent billions of dollars to portray China as an evil entity out to destroy humanity.

Failing to stop the communists from taking over China in 1949 — and after fighting a gruesome war with the Chinese army in Korea — a book appeared in 1951 by Edward Hunter, Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Mind. It quickly became a bestseller. So much so that Hunter soon produced a sequel. In the book, Hunter claimed that the Chinese had invented an elusive brainwashing technique to create a slave race.

Hunter was neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist. But he still managed to impress the US Government. Hunter’s tomes inspired the US Government to spend billions of dollars to understand this brainwashing technique. The US Government also brought in a host of psychologists to study the files of American POWs in China. All this amounted to nothing in the end.

There is no doubt that the current authoritarian Chinese set-up bungled the handling of the outbreak of Covid-19 in China in its delay to report it. If it had warned the world and not tried to hide the outbreak, the world would not have been in the mess it is now. But to populist leaders around the world, this mistake can be transformed into  something a lot more insidious, especially during times of their failing.

For pro-China populist regimes, however, such as the one ruling Pakistan, the guns have been turned towards a provincial Government (in Sindh) that is not headed by the ruling party. Thus far, the Sindh Government seems to be substituting for China as a scapegoat.

(Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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