When populism reigns supreme
Raleigh, North Carolina. In the mixed neighbourhood of Oakwood in this capital city of the state of North Carolina, where this writer was on a visit recently, in a front-yard among the myrtle grove, a handwritten poster hung with the words: “This 4th of July I don't feel very patriotic.” Strewn around it were small stuffed dolls and animals, a reminder of small children who were forcibly separated from their parents crossing into the United States from Mexico seeking asylum from drug-gang violence and other mortal dangers. Beside the poster, the short foreleg of a dinosaur statue propped up an American flag.
The misery of the infants and children was the result of the “zero tolerance” policy imposed on illegal immigration by the Trump Administration. Answering reporters' questions on separating small children from parents, President Trump's response was, “Just ask them not to come.”
A supreme example of the upsurge of populism in the world was Trump's victory in the Presidential election in 2016 against all predictions of political observers and the mainstream media. Donald Trump managed to create a support base among the electorate by invoking white male working class resentments and real or imagined fears about various things—non-whites over-running the country, global trade taking away American jobs, hordes of illegal immigrants depressing job markets and causing crime and violence, and Muslims waging a war on Western Christian civilisation.
Populism has re-shaped the political scene in Europe. Brexit, or UK's referendum to pull out of the European Union, and recent victories or increased popularity of rightist politicians railing against immigrant workers and refugees in Europe are manifestations of a wave of populist politics.
Politicians everywhere appear to be taking the cue and are trying to apply the populist formula to gain political advantage. Playing on people's fear and prejudices is an old populist trick. A populist support base once created is not easily shaken by logic or evidence. Outrageous words, actions and policy or non-policy seem not to affect Trump's support base.
A test for democracy and democratic institutions in USA would be the mid-term Congressional and Governors' elections later this year. This could open the door for President Trump's impeachment, which is a judgement about violation of law; but ultimately it is a political process dependent on Congressional action. Unless the current Republican Party majority in both the chambers of the Congress—the House of Representatives and the Senate—is changed in the November election, it is not likely that President Trump will be held to account.
In a generic sense, populism may be benign or even desirable in a democracy—if Merriam-Webster dictionary definition is taken, “the belief in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.” It is often linked to anti-elitism or protest against the undue privilege and power of a dominant group in society or politics.
Populism may be linked to left or right causes in the political arena. Columbia University political scientist John Judis distinguishes the economic populism of Bernie Sanders and the cultural populism of Donald Trump, in his 2015 book, the Populist Explosion.
Sanders, calling himself a democratic socialist, contested for presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 2016. He harkened back to a tradition of populism in USA since at least the 1890s. Farmers and industrial workers formed the Peoples Party, also known as the Populists, in 1891 and exerted considerable influence in national policy making in relation to workers' and trade union rights, a progressive tax structure, regulations of banks and the financial sector, and generally protecting people's welfare and political rights.
Progressive and people-oriented policies, government's regulatory functions and civil rights legislation that came about under President Franklin D Roosevelt and in the Kennedy and Johnson era had their beginning in the populist movement in the 1890s.
Judis contends that the right-wing populists are different in their approach which is to accuse the elite of coddling an ever-shifting third group—immigrants, blacks, terrorists, welfare recipients or all of them. This demagogy of finding a scapegoat gives right-wing populism its current appeal and a steady support base.
Closer to home, economist Wahiduddin Mahmud, wrote about “How democracies die and economies grow” (The Daily Star, June 11). Hybrid regimes, those prioritising economic growth over democratic development, Professor Mahmud argues, attempt to gain legitimacy by compensating for democracy deficits with a dose of economic progress. In the regime's populist calculation, the majority of people would then overlook trampling democratic principles.
Populism, as a strategy, is a staple in politics, and, as noted, can serve either general welfare or partisan purposes. In Bangladesh, the military regimes of both Ziaur Rahman and Hussein M Ershad played the populist game to buy legitimacy by revoking secularism from the national constitution and bringing religion squarely into statecraft.
The 2008 parliamentary election, recognised generally as fair, gave the Awami League led coalition an overwhelming majority and the power to bring about necessary constitutional reform. Not taking the high road, it did its populist calculation and cautiously brought back secularism into the constitution but kept Islam as the state religion. No matter that this co-existence made either of the notions oxymoron. By populist logic this makes sense to politicians.
The present debate about the quotas for civil service jobs is another instance of populism driving politics. A freedom fighters' quota in the 1970s, and perhaps for a generation afterwards, reserving jobs for the freedom fighters' themselves or for their children, made good sense.
Half-a-century later, is it logical to reserve this privilege for the grand-children and great grand-children? The Prime Minister announced in the Parliament that elimination of all quotas might be considered. But populism kicked in and the government seems to be back-tracking.
Not only that; the student arm of the ruling party as well as the law-enforcers have set upon student leaders raising quota abolition/reform demands.
In our education system, a field of professional interest to this writer, populist approaches have resulted in policies and decisions causing long-term damage to the system.
Cases in point are many. The expansion of the madrasas, both under government patronage and in the quomi system, without a hard look at the consequences for the students themselves and society at large is one. Another is the liberal expansion of both public and private universities without essential quality control.
Spending a large share of public education budget on stipends is popular with politicians, even when it is clear that spending on quality improvement rather than incentives for attending school is the real need.
The larger national interest demands that educational institution management, personnel appointments and performance evaluation and student affairs are kept out-of-bounds for partisan politics. Populist political calculations prevent such a step.
The irony, at least in Bangladesh, is that it was not necessary for the ruling regime to engage in the fine populist calculations. Had it taken the high road in 2008 and used its electoral advantage to enhance democratic culture and values, bring about proper constitutional reforms through a participatory process, strengthen rule of law, promote decentralisation with stronger local government, and rein in corruption, the regime and the nation would be in a much better situation. It is not too late even now.
Manzoor Ahmed is a professor emeritus at BRAC University.