As populists continue to gather force, experts say something more than anti-incumbent bias is at work in global politics.
In the wake of Brexit, the election victories of Donald Trump, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador and, last week, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, populism is an ascendant force in contemporary global politics.
But is this more than just run-of-the-mill anti-incumbent bias?
Benjamin Moffitt is a senior lecturer in politics at Australian Catholic University and author of “The Global Rise of Populism”:
“I think it’s a fair judgment to make that we are seeing some kind of shift. It’s not as if populists are taking over the world, but there is obviously some kind of move across a bunch of different contexts. This isn’t just about Europe, this isn’t just about the States, this isn’t just about Latin or South America. There’s a shift to, or maybe back to, more strongman populist leadership styles, and that’s happening around the world. It’s not one-offs anymore. It’s not these kind of weird little flukes.”
Moffitt uses a three-part test to identify the particular style of populists from the political right and left.
The first distinguishing feature of a populist, he says, is their framing of politics as a battle between the people and the elites. Populists claim to represent the hardworking everyman whose sovereignty is threatened by corrupt elites.
Second is the use of “bad manners” by populist leaders. “To your listeners in the U.S., you know what I’m talking about,” Moffitt joked. In spurning the niceties of political discourse, populists attempt to define themselves as truth-tellers who gladly reject the social habits of the elite.
“The third feature is that there’s always a performance of crisis, breakdown or threat. There’s always this perception that society is on the verge of something terrible happening, there’s a crisis, there’s huge threat and the populists have the answer.”
In Brazil, Bolsonaro fits the populist mold
Read up at all on Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro and it’s clear he fits Moffitt’s definition of a populist.
Despite being a 26-year veteran of Brazilian politics, Bolsonaro framed his campaign as a battle against entrenched politicians, whom he accused of siphoning money out of state-owned firms and engaging in widespread corruption. His quest for enemies didn’t end there, as he warned of migrants diluting Brazilian culture, and even falsely accused a political opponent of trying to turn young people gay.
Bolsonaro’s “bad manners” are similarly easy to spot. Among a deep archive of offensive remarks, he once commented that female lawmaker was “not worthy” of being raped due to her looks.
Cesar Zucco Jr. is a political scientist at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a Rio de Janeiro think tank:
“His career, basically, has been about making bold and politically incorrect statements about minorities, about the past dictatorship in Brazil, about torture by the military government, so he was a bit of a way ‘out there’ figure during his very mediocre years in congress. He basically made a career about spinning for very unusual and extremist positions in congress.”
Defenders of Brazil’s nascent democratic system note with particular concern that Bolsonaro, a former military officer, surrounded himself with other former military leaders and repeatedly downplayed the brutality of Brazil’s military dictatorship of the 1960’s-1980’s.
Given his tendency to see politics as an “us vs. them” competition, in which certain political opponents and critical members of the press ought to be jailed (or drug users warrant execution without a trial), some experts say Bolsonaro’s tight embrace of Brazil’s military and security apparatus harkens back to a darker time in Brazil’s history.
“If you have a military that has a tradition in the 1960’s of persecuting the internal bogeyman that was the threat of communism back then, and now you’ve spent a whole political campaign constructing your political opponents as your enemies, and then you bring all the military people into government, it starts adding up.”
Even if critics’ worst fears of Bolsonaro aren’t realized and Brazil’s democratic checks and balances withstand the new president’s shock to the system, Zucco Jr. said the country’s contentious brand of politics is about to get even nastier.
“His first statements, from what I’ve read, he’s not only trying to keep his base fired up, which would imply an electoral campaign mode for the next years, which will be terrible because it’s highly divisive. But he’s also trying to appoint non-politicians, military and technocrats to the cabinet, which would suggest a go-it-alone strategy.”
Goodbye, Angela (and all that she represents?)
Standing in sharp opposition to Bolsonaro is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is perhaps best known for her coalition-building and thoughtful, managerial approach to government.
But last week Merkel announced that she won’t seek another term as the leader of her Christian Democratic Union party and won’t vie for another term as chancellor in 2021. That news triggered a flurry of (perhaps premature) political obituaries, most of which sang Merkel’s praises and highlighted her unusual rise to power.
Joyce Marie Mushaben, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Missouri St. Louis and author of 2017’s “Becoming Madam Chancellor: Angela Merkel and the Berlin Republic,” says the chancellor’s background endowed her with a set of skills unmatched by any leader in Europe:
“She was a pastor’s daughter under a system of so-called godless communism, which means that she has a unique and deep commitment to human rights and freedom of movement norms. She was a physicist, and so her approach to politics has always been, let me look at the problem, let me think my way through it, let me look at my variables and then come to a conclusion, which is not how most politicians behave.”
Merkel remains relatively popular, but Germany’s political landscape has changed in the 13 years she’s been at the helm.
In recent years, the far-right Alternative for Germany grew from a fringe party to Germany’s third-largest. Moshaben says that rise complicated Merkel’s task of coalition-building and prompted some within her own party to argue that a more outspokenly partisan approach would help draw necessary contrasts with its opponents. That may prove to be a wise approach in time, but it’s not in Merkel’s DNA.
Though her successor will have big shoes to fill, Moshaben is confident Germany’s political system will avoid replacing Merkel with a firebrand the likes of Bolsonaro.
“Most of the people who comprise her administration are people with long experience in politics, who’ve worked their way up through party systems as opposed to well, let me just say the current [U.S.] administration randomly picking people out of a friendship circle whose main purpose seems to destroy many of the existing government programs. The people who move into politics in Germany really believe in government but just want government to do a better job.”
What can we learn from the rise of Bolsanaro and the fall of Merkel?
The history of populist movements offers little solace to those hoping for a shortcut back to more restrained governance, Moffitt said.
“This is not a time anymore for slow politics or deliberation. What we’ve learned is that populists don’t stop being populists once they’ve been in government,” he said, citing the longevity of other leaders he categorizes as populists, including Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
To the contrary, Moffitt said populists, including Trump, are likely to stick to the playbook that got them elected in the first place.
“Their challenge is to continually find enemies outside their own group of power and identify them, so they’re always still considering themselves the underdogs. We kind of see Trump doing this, in terms of his saying that there’s machinations of the ‘deep state,’ that the ‘fake news’ media is up against him – so there’s all these enemies still to be identified and he’s up against it. You never really act as if you’re truly in power. You’re always with the people and the elite are still frustrating your demands.”
“A lot of popular commentary would hope that these things are kind of episode and populists kind of just go away. I don’t think that’s happening. If people are concerned about populism, I don’t think we can just pretend anymore that it’s something that’s just going to pop up and disappear. It seems like some of this discontent about the way politics is being done, discontent about forms of representative democracy we have hanging around and settling in for the long run.”
“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas at U.N. Headquarters in New York.