The Problem of Modern Populism

January 3, 2024
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5 mins read

In this era, we will explore populism, a significant political concept. Populism is a term that spans across right and left, liberalism and anti-liberalism, democracy and autocracy. My inference is this: Populists can overlook this concept, pursuing their politics, but ultimately, the people may suffer. Meanwhile, politicians who claim to oppose populism can emerge with defenses for the world and democracy, making populists more conspicuous, thus shaping their own political success.

Life and Politics

Politics is a fundamental human function and trait. Humans are both creators and participants of politics; staying outside of it is not an option. What happens now indicates what will happen in the future. Concepts are extracted from life. For some, these concepts are targets. Populism, hard-won in our lives, now interferes in our daily affairs and is a target of politics. Politics continuously triggers new uncertainties and processes within its structure. How much control do we have over these? Life is a rapid cycle of innovations and the emergence of new ones, like a vast whirlpool, powerfully drawing everything around it.

We face a whirlpool created by populism, developed through globalization. Populism is an important issue that we need to take seriously or at least be aware of. This article will touch upon the historical journey of populism. However, I must first point out that our lives are undergoing significant transformation, influenced by the early 21st century; affecting countries, leaders, politicians, institutions, even you and me.

You must understand that I am not pointing at any particular country or leader. If the south of America has more problems, so does the north, but that’s not my point; I’m not discussing North or South Asia, Africa; nor the inside and outside of Europe; I’m talking about the world.

Transformation

Globalization is a fundamental topic of change. In addition, Climate Change and the Fourth Industrial Revolution are other primary subjects. Along with these three fundamental changes come global economic crises, socio-economic inequalities, wars, occupations, terrorism, mass migrations. The Industrial Revolution is significant, signifying a major transformation in technology. Life is redefining its rules, opportunities, and tools in every area. In the Digital Age, we deal with artificial intelligence and cloud technologies on one hand, and almost primitive behaviors, thus the need to address human rights, on the other. Thus, we are witnessing a major transformation and the uncertainties, opportunities, and magnitudes that come with it.

Development of Modern Populism

There was fascism in World War II. It was defeated by liberal Western countries and communist Russia. After the war, that is, after the defeat of fascism, liberal democracy and communist governance became rivals. This rivalry was experienced as the Cold War and a Bipolar World. Populism existed during the Cold War. It first emerged post-1945 as the ideology of protest movements and later became a ruling regime. We call this ruling regime modern populism. After the Cold War, the now Unipolar world is seeking something new, creating a massive whirlpool encompassing all areas. In these times, populism has emerged more powerfully. Today’s modern populism, now a ruling regime, needs to be sufficiently debated.

Politics and Democracy

As I mentioned, within this fast-paced life cycle, the opportunistic approaches of politicians are putting societies under strain. Instead of consciously embedding these concepts into their lives, they refrain from doing so. Especially with democracy, we face an even more significant situation. When people go to the polls, they either don’t know why they are voting for someone or are misled in their voting. While politics shapes itself, many important developments continue to impact people’s lives.

What is Populism, What is it Not?

Populism can relate to poorly formed governments, wrong political practices, emergence of authoritarian leaders, and the revival of racism. Any idea or action against liberal democracy is associated with populism. Neoliberals and populists, or vice versa, can oppose each other; however, in the process, the liberating feature of democracy can suffer. In this era, where globalization hasn’t settled yet, populism, like neoliberalism, is a political form within the circle of democracy. Populism is not fascism; fascism is dictatorship. Populism is a form of authoritarian democracy. It grows in places where inequalities increase, income injustice arises, and public representation loses ground.

Neo-Fascism

Even though fascism isn’t in power today, we cannot say that anti-democratic political movements or politicians have no connection to fascism. At this point, some neo-fascist movements are emerging. Collectively, neo-fascists and populists can engage in politics against liberalism, globalization, and imperialism. Within extreme right-wing movements, we witness the convergence of ethnic and religious discrimination and anti-liberal democracies. This is where extreme right-wing populist authoritarianism and neo-fascism appear.

Recall that after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin labeled the extreme right in Ukraine as neo-Nazi, but this characterization is incorrect. The neo-Nazi movement might be found in Germany, but the movement in Ukraine is not the same.

Former US President Donald Trump promoted many policies against Mexican immigrants and in favor of white supremacy during his 2016 election campaign. From that period, extreme right-wing segments in America began supporting Trump’s policies and found opportunities to update their organizations. Trump himself had no connection to neo-fascism; he was merely a populist leader. Some even claimed he was authoritarian. Ultimately, Trump appeared as a leader who started a wave of right-wing populism in America. Under these conditions, an alternative right movement found opportunities to develop in America.

America’s Choice

Current US President Joe Biden, a liberal-democrat, was already a target of those supporting illiberalism, anti-Americanism, and populists. Furthermore, by declaring autocracies as enemies, the Biden administration became a country criticized by various nations.

Essentially, defending democracies shouldn’t mean finding an enemy to oppose; rather, it should be more inclusive, educational, and exemplary. During Biden’s time, although America spoke of democracy, it seems that wrong strategies led to the emergence of more populist leaders. If this was a policy of the US, then my criticism arises here: just as efforts are made to prevent fascism, fighting populism should involve international policies that advocate for equality and legitimacy, stand against marginalization, and require careful action from every country.

Grey Zone Operations

Some authors draw attention to the fact that powerful intelligence services can create the conditions to fuel populism, thus easily achieving their countries’ strategic goals. These types of intelligence interventions are referred to as Grey Zone Operations. Consider this: in the competition between dominant powers like the US and Russia, intelligence operations can even interfere with democracies to expand their influence in various regions. Meanwhile, local and regional government structures within this grey zone may react with a security reflex or even be dragged into a civil war.

Reactive Movements

Generally speaking, populism, as a reactionary movement, should be noted: democracy won’t be destroyed; but if it were to be, it would no longer be called populism. At this stage, it’s possible to discuss fascism and civil war. But let’s just consider the situation within right and left movements. Countries act according to their political cultures when security risks increase or when they feel the need to react against a power. However, a shift towards authoritarianism may be inherent in this reaction. The populism seen in developing countries, defended by politicians, can be considered a legitimacy phenomenon. In such places, populism is a fundamental form of governance within democracy, a national movement with a leader. Such politics can oppose liberalism or socialism and target imperialism and neo-colonialism. From the opposition’s perspective, populist leaders can label their rivals as conspirators, collaborators, anti-democratic, incompetent. However, if a country has been subject to a Grey Zone Operation, the opposition might deserve such labels.

Correct Politics

I don’t know if correct politics is possible amidst such vested interests!.. I say this for the people of every country: neither neo-fascism nor populism is needed, only democracy is. If we are sincere, especially the US must immediately depart from its wrong policy path of the last forty years and firmly establish the foundations of politics necessary to embrace global development.

Wars were fought to bury fascism in history. Under these conditions, burying populism in history seems difficult… Using populists to nourish autocracies can never be the right strategy. It is not about raising enemies in swamps, grey, and dark areas; it is about developing people in clean, clear, open spaces and uniting them.

He was born in Çanakkale in 1961. He graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982 with a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. He served in various intelligence roles as a staff officer both domestically and abroad. He worked as an intelligence instructor and School Commander. He signed many documents published in the Armed Forces. He participated in the Bosnia and Kosovo Operations under NATO. He undertook special duties and administration in counter-terrorism efforts both domestically and internationally. He served as a Military Attaché. He retired in 2007 following his position as the Director of Air Force Intelligence. He held senior management positions in the private sector both domestically and internationally. He has published works, one of which is his latest book titled "Barış Pınarı." He is currently consulting, blogging, and providing commentary in the media on Intelligence, Politics, Defense, Security, Strategy, and Geopolitics.

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