Populism and the Democratization of Injustice

Jon B. Alterman delivered the keynote address of the conference “Untangling Popular Power: Rhetoric, Faith, and Social Order in the Middle East” organized by Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life (IRCPL). He gave this address at the Columbia Global Center in Amman, Jordan, on March 2, 2019.

It’s hard to capture the excitement the world felt about the Middle East in 2011. There was not just a sense that the region was undergoing a process of historic change, but that democracy was taking root, and it would improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. While the demonstrations in 2011 gained attention around the world, the combination of protest, celebration, and nationalism created a special sense of euphoria in the United States. As a country with a revolutionary past, Americans have a certain empathy for movements that seek to follow our lead. More than a connection to individual protestors, Americans seemed elated by the crowds. They connected to an American belief that the public was good and could be trusted. There seemed to be a widespread conviction that if power were handed to the people gathered in the streets, everything in Egypt would be fine.

In some ways, it showed a reflexive U.S. sympathy for populism. Although we don’t have a long history of raucous crowds surging at the direction of political leaders, there is a deep faith in the wisdom of the public and the justness of the majority. The Declaration of Independence reads:

All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

But this U.S. enthusiasm for public rule has always been tempered. From the early days of the United States, leaders shared a fear that unconstrained democracy carried its own perils, threatening to trample the rights of individuals and minorities. Writing in 1787 in the Federalist Papers, intended to secure support for ratification of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison warned that in a “pure democracy,”

There is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

The U.S. response, followed by democracies in the centuries since, was to have elected representatives to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens,” and have a large enough body politic to prevent a single faction from emerging.

This dialectic, between embracing the popular will and being wary of it, has been at the heart of American governance for more than two centuries. Part of me thinks that our hearts are with the majority, but our heads are with filtering decisions through an elite leadership.

From an American perspective, this tension has long been seen as useful. Rather than seek to resolve it, Americans have sought to preserve it and to manage it. Newer democracies in Europe and beyond came to embrace it as well, and it acted as a curb to populism long before populism was recognized as a phenomenon.

And yet, today, the seemingly sudden rise of populism stokes fears that this tension is giving way. Around the world, there are complaints that the elites are self-serving, stealing from the majority to advance their own interests. Conditions would be better, we are told, if the majority could rule, and advance the interests of the many instead of the interests of the few.

Populists’ appeal here is not to absolute equality. Difference is a feature of virtually all human societies. In any human group, some people have more power than others, and in most, some have more money. You might argue that such differences are even positive, creating incentives to reward desirable behavior.

Populist appeals make a narrower claim that a powerful minority is creating an unjust inequality, and they seek to mobilize the majority on that basis. Populists assert that neither political parties nor institutions can be trusted. The only way to protect the majority’s rights is to destroy institutions and create unmediated institutions that will implement the popular will. Different populist movements target different minorities—the wealthy, bankers, Jews, immigrants, or some other group. Populists assert that they have not turned their back on democratic principles; to the contrary, they claim to be supporting a democratic will that minorities subvert.

The rise of populism raises the question of: Why now? But the more important question is: What does populism’s past (or pasts) tell us about its future, given what we think we know about the future of the world?

To understand why now, it is useful to start with the question: Why then? The first populist party in the United States was comprised of U.S. farmers in the late nineteenth century who felt threatened by bankers and marginalized by an increasingly urban population. This was not a unique phenomenon—you could argue that it was populists who overthrew the Ming Dynasty in China in 1644 and that the Narodniks in the 1860s and 1870s were populists who sought to mobilize the Russian peasantry after serfs were freed. All of these movements arose in times of economic change, when the role of the state was in flux. In many cases as well, new methods of communication and rising mobility helped spread ideas more quickly and more widely than before.

Part of the spread of populism was the spread of politicization. According to a project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, just 57 percent of the eligible population voted in the 1828 U.S. presidential election, but the number shot up to about 80 percent by the election of 1840, when a populist-flavored campaign incorporating anti-Masonic elements threw out President Martin Van Buren, who had presided over the Panic of 1837.

Several things were going on. One was the public’s response to a general economic downturn. The second factor, which is related, was an increasingly urban population had more contact with government than was common when much of the population was rural and scattered. Residents of towns and cities were in constant contact with government officials and consequently became more politicized.

But there was also a third factor. Industrialization in the early 1800s, combined with an agricultural boom and a burst of infrastructure construction, brought both large-scale immigration and international finance into the public’s mind in unprecedented ways. The consequence was a surge in nativist sentiment and conspiracy theories about Catholics, Mormons, international financiers, and any number of other groups thought to threaten what was coming to be understood as the “American way of life.”

This nativist surge represents a growth in the individuals’ idea that they are directly and individually harmed by a system that neither serves their particular interests nor the interests of the majority, of which they see themselves to be a part. Their grievance against the minority, then, is something that they have a right to redress, as members of the majority.

Populism surged again after the Civil War, and the newly minted Populist Party ran a candidate in the presidential election of 1892 who campaigned on weakening the power of big business, banks, and railroads. The fabled orator William Jennings Bryan took up the mantle in 1896, winning the Democratic nomination for president in part due to his stirring speech attacking the gold standard for U.S. currency, which he portrayed as serving a small minority. Bryan argued that

there are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them. You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

In the 1930s, we saw new waves of populism in the United States, as the economy faltered, and radio rose as a medium. Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest and Louisiana governor, and then Senator Huey Long railed against the moneyed interests that they argued controlled the country. Like the populists of the earlier century, they cast blame on groups—Jews and communists in the case of Coughlin and corporations in the case of Long. But that was only one part of the equation. Unlike the populists of the century before, their approach was not only colored by the state, but they sought to actively engage the state in a wide range of initiatives: redressing imbalances between rich and poor, regulating industry, and abolishing the Federal Reserve, which they saw as advancing the interests of a small number of banding families. At a time when the role of the state in society was changing, the American populists of the 1930s sought to channel the rising influence of the state to boost the majority against the interests of the minority.

One could argue that Nazism and the other fascist movements that arose contemporaneously in Europe were also populist movements that captured governments and quickly morphed into totalitarian systems. There is a truth there: populism is not a stable form for a government to take. Populism seeks to elide many of the tensions inherent in democratic rule, but in doing so, it tends to make governance more volatile rather than less so. Populist movements rarely produce stable forms of government; instead, they tend to morph into something else. When populists achieve power, they need to make do with finite resources, make choices, and prioritize. Overnight, they become the elite, the very object they railed against. Minorities can be blamed and marginalized for a time, but governments in power find that minorities have often served useful purposes, that they cannot so easily be disposed of, and that their marginalization does little to solve the problems it was intended to. Populism is often a method to dislodge governments, but it generally does not provide a platform to sustain governments.

We saw lots of populist opportunists later in the twentieth century, but none came to very happy ends: whether Juan Peron, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Manuel Noriega, or Hugo Chavez, they came into office with great hopes, but left in a cloud of disappointment. The realities of governance crippled their accomplishments.

A couple of other things also conspired to weaken the appeal of populists as the twentieth century progressed. The first is that as the tasks of governments became more complex, it became harder to articulate easy solutions. Part of the populist approach is simplicity, but as more citizens had increasing and crosscutting stakes in complex government operations, it became harder to attribute broad problems to just a few. Governments increasingly prioritized governance, broadening their own bases of support. The rise of investigative journalism and the spread of communications technology also played a role, not only bringing transparency to government operations but also revealing the sometimes-thin analysis behind populist solutions.

The simple fact is this: You could be forgiven for making an argument ten years ago that populism had run its course, and we were on track for a technocratic, e-government future that brought services swiftly and efficiently to an increasingly well-served public.

And if you made that argument, you would have been wrong. In the last decade, we have seen a resurgence of populism. What can explain it?

It seems to me that several things are happening. Let me suggest five:

  1. Partly, as in previous periods, we see shifting economies, and in particular, shifting labor markets. Some individuals with training see their fields going away, with nothing to replace them.

  2. We see the return of greater disparities in wealth. In my periodic visits to Amman, I have seen the city’s malls rise one after the other. What I also see, and hear, are the voices of Jordanians who feel neither they nor their children nor grandchildren will ever be able to shop in those malls. Amman, Cairo, Paris, and London, not to mention Dubai and Riyadh, have seen a tremendous rise in opportunities to spend money on a daily basis, while salaries for the poor are flat or falling.

  3. We see governments falling behind people’s expectations as governments take on increasingly complex tasks, and citizens “touch” government services many times a day. Government failure in this regard becomes a daily irritant.

  4. We see traditional institutions playing smaller roles in people’s lives. Families live further apart, and family members spend less time with each other. This is true not only in extended families but in nuclear families as well. Hours of work are increasing and hours of leisure are increasingly regimented. Church attendance is down in much of the world; in the United States, weekly church attendance has diminished from just under 50 percent in the 1950s to something close to 35 percent today, with significantly smaller numbers among younger adults.

  5. The biggest change of all has been changes in communication, and especially the fading of traditional news organizations, which had reached their own accommodations with political power. In the new media environment, there is constant competition for attention, and attention comes from eliciting an emotional response. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously observed that social media does best when it taps into what is known in the Christian tradition as the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Apps and social media engage these feelings. Think about how many social media engagements you’ve had that were drawn on their opposites, the seven virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, gratitude, and humility. The rise of social media has changed not only the public discourse but also the public mood.

If you accept my analysis that each of those five trends contributes to the rise of populism we have seen around the world, we might look at these trends to ponder what the future of populism is likely to be.

  1. The economy seems likely to shift decisively in the coming decades, as automation spreads from manufacturing and data processing into labor-intensive services such as logistics and retail. The ride-sharing company Lyft estimated in its public filing documents that within ten years, it expects the majority of its rides to be in driverless vehicles. McKinsey estimates that somewhere between 3 and 14 percent of workers will need to change job categories in the next decade because of automation, and for many workers, that will mean not only a change in occupation, but also in place of residence, income, and self-identity.

  2. I’ve seen no studies that project wealth disparities forward, but I also see few governments committed to addressing these disparities. The decisive shifts toward redistribution have come either from revolutions or from the effects of the Second World War in Europe. These disparities do not seem to diminish sharply on their own.

  3. Government performance strikes me as an unknown because the issue is not so much performance in absolute terms, but rather performance in terms of expectations. Governments can play a role in managing those expectations, and they have an obvious role in meeting them. The danger is that success simultaneously creates a need for continued success and raises the bar by which that success is measured. Governmental goodwill can be earned, but it is a marathon.

  4. I am not sure how to project forward the roles of institutions in people’s lives. Arguably, here is the greatest opportunity for change, but it is also among the most complex things to change. In a recent book entitled Alienated America, American Enterprise Institute scholar Tim Carney argues that Donald Trump performed disproportionately well in the Republican primaries where civic institutions were weakest. As he wrote in a recent article:

    Trump’s best large county in the Iowa caucuses, Pottawattamie, had the weakest civil society—churches, neighborhood groups, volunteering, voting—of any large county in Iowa and is known for its neon-lighted casinos erected to bring in out-of-state gamblers. His best small county is notable mostly for church closures and the shuttering of its largest employer in early 2016. It also ranks at the bottom of the state in widely used measures of civil society.

    I see the same sorts of changes in the Arab world as well. In a soon-to-be published-paper, I wrote, based on 120 interviews in four Arab countries including Jordan, people explained that they spend less time with their families than they did just ten years ago, sometimes because of distance and sometimes because of the busyness of their lives. They told me how much less central the mosque was to their lives than to their parents. And they told me that they were fed up with tribes, who only made demands of them but couldn’t help them find a job or get an apartment.

    It seems to me that there are innumerable government policies that can facilitate these sorts of civil society engagements, and broader economic, social, and technological changes that might overwhelm any government effort. I think I know where this thing is headed, but it doesn’t seem inevitable to me, and I suspect there will be some lumpiness in how it unfolds.


  5. The last issue is communications technology. There has been a lot of change in this space since I first started studying it more than 20 years ago, but one trend is clear: government control has been steadily diminishing. In the Arab world, where governments often controlled telecommunications companies and monopolized radio and television into the 1990s, the rise of private sector companies, transnational broadcasters, app-based media, encryption, and a host of other factors have both loosened government control and dispersed innovation to hundreds of millions of producers of content. Governments have not lost influence, but they have lost the initiative, and they will not gain it back.

If we take the rise of populism to be fundamentally about the democratization of grievance—that is, the view among increasing numbers of people that they are part of a majority whose interests are being harmed by one or more minorities—we see ample reason for the trend to continue. I don’t see an obvious endpoint to the drivers I outlined above: economic dislocation, rising economic disparities, hobbled government performance, rising individualism, and a taste for media stimulation. If anything, they seem likely to grow around the world.

In the Arab world, these drivers are likely to work out unevenly. Generally, lower wages will slow the rise of automation, for example, but they will also put downward pressure on wages, as workforces grow without work for them to do in many places. Wealthier states are trying to alter the way they distribute resources to the population, and each is pursuing different models. Poorer states are redoubling efforts to attract investment. Governments everywhere are trying to improve performance, albeit with the knowledge that, often times, government effectiveness is inversely related to the number of government employees. This will come out in different ways in different places, but it feels to me like many of the pressures we see now will persist.

But at the same time, I am not despondent, and I am not fearful that the Middle East is fated to descend into a period of nihilistic hostility to the status quo. Populism is a sign of stress, but it is not a sign of collapse. The tendency toward populism is a sign that parties and institutions have failed to gain the confidence of the population, but it also spurs those institutions to win confidence anew. In a more borderless world, positive examples will be more visible, and some solutions may even cross borders, too.

While most of the academic literature decries populism as a regrettable aberration, and some describe it as a salve, I think it’s best to think of it as a sign that politics has fallen out of balance. Politics is ultimately about contestation. In that way, political conflict is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. Populists’ efforts to elide differences between interest groups and assert a simple majority privilege brook no compromise, but they also end up creating coalitions that oppose them. I don’t know of a polity that doesn’t have differentiated interest groups, and I don’t know of successful politics that doesn’t trade off priorities between them.

In short, I don’t see the rise of populist politics as a sign that politics is failing. Rather, I see them as a sign that politics is working. Rising populism is a sign that we need more politics, not that politics is not up to challenges of our age.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program