Where do we go now? – Five years of #populism (2015-2020)

They were so powerful they wrote the laws to benefit themselves. They got away with everything because they banked on us, all of us, to trust the system, that was our vulnerability and they took advantage of it. (…)
Everything we’ve been through led up to this one moment: the greatest redistribution of wealth in history. We just Robin Hooded those evil motherfuckers! *

In February 2015 appeared the first post for Political Observer on Populism. It was titled Sheep in New Zealand, Pinocchio and Robin Hood. It discussed topics such as Brexit, the role (and style) of Yanis Varoufakis in the unfolding economic crisis, the possibility of an “Italeave” promised by Five Star Movement and Lega, the political use of conspiracy theories, and so on. The benefit of using Twitter to spread the content of the blog seemed self-evident, although over time the air has become increasingly toxic, like in every other commercial social media. As long as it will be worth it, the Twitter account will remain active: probably, however, it won’t be for much longer. What matters is the content published here, the exchange of ideas it feeds, the connections it creates, the people saying “keep the good work up”. This blog already constitutes a powerful tool to better understand populism®, it gives voice to the most brilliant scholars on the topic, and if you want to contribute pass by –> here.

Half a decade later POP is still around and Brexit too, modern Godot which will surely come but not today, maybe tomorrow. Lega and Five Star Movement have formed a government together — which already ended in farce — and contrary to their promises they never mentioned leaving the Euro. The book Varoufakis wrote in 2015 (Adults in the Room) has now become a movie. Populism has been normalized and mainstreamed even in Germany and Scandinavia. Podemos governs Spain together with PSOE, crystallizing and institutionalizing the instances of the Indignados, bringing the previous cycle of struggles right into power, waiting for the new one to reject its compromises. In 2015 Obama was going towards the end of its second mandate, now Donald Trump (under impeachment) and Boris Johnson lead a plethora of populist and nativist politicians with a terrible haircut, which however does not qualify them as a working class phenomenon.

In the meantime, the unfolding of history in front of our eyeballs taught us that no country is immune to populism and nativism, Poland and Hungary can hardly be considered liberal democracies with Fidesz and PiS in power, and Green parties seem to finally be able to compete with right-wing populism for the votes of disillusioned voters who no longer feel represented by mainstream parties. After the Great Recession and the refugee ‘crisis’, climate change and global warming seem to be the third critical juncture of the 21st century. In the next decade they will probably fill the news in a cyclic repetition worthy of Sisyphus. The economy goes down, a wave of refugees, global warming cannot be ignored anymore, the economy goes down, a wave of refugees, etc etc…

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2019 saw protests raging around the world: Chile, Hong Kong, Algeria, Catalonia, Brazil, Venezuela, Iran, to mention just a few cases. The Gilets Jaunes and the scandal about Cambridge Analytica ideally connected street protests against old-fashioned capitalism and a global movement against “surveillance capitalism”. Direct democracy proved to be easily manipulated, a new nationalist wave is crossing the continents, and authoritarian tendencies confirm more than ever that democracy is not the only game in town. Spain spent months discussing about Francisco Franco’s remains, Portugal discussed the possibility of a museum (or study center) about the dictatorship in Salazar’s home town, and in Italy the crypt with Mussolini’s tomb has been re-opened to the public. The past is coming back and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore it. It’s the fascist Zeitgeist, baby.

Two parties that are exceptionally good at exploiting the lack of historical perspective are the League and the Five Star Movement. In a country like Italy, that created fascism and then found more convenient to hide behind the Resistance, selective amnesia opened the doors of power to (post)fascists already in the 1990s. I was asked to write an article about their ideological roots, and in a few days this piece took form. It is not the first time I talk about these two parties, but I never did it at such length, and I believe that the type of populist discourse they articulate, post-ideological in one case and nativist in the other, offers an interesting insight into the kind of populism that will characterize the 2020s.

Enjoy the reading…

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Populism in the hybrid media system

In this article, Niko Hatakka presents the idea that the hybridization of the media system affects populism as a political logic to the point that it makes it less likely to constitute a corrective for democracy. This is the case because, even though populist movements do not have to be anti-pluralist or illiberal, the hybrid media system will make them appear like they are. As he claims in his book, media systems of the 21st century are hybrid: the access to the public sphere has become more inclusive and horizontal, allowing more people to get involved in defining how we should view the world. But what does it mean for the articulation of “the people” when anybody can speak or be perceived to speak in the name of “the people”? 

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Interview #36 — The Far Right Today

The Far Right Today is Cas Mudde’s new book. It is extremely recommended for academics, but its clarity, scope, and tone make it a great read for everyone interested in knowing what form the far right takes in contemporary politics, its origins and causesleadership styles, and its links to issues such as religion and gender. Most importantly, this book is a great read for those who want to know what can be done to protect liberal democracy’s pluralism and minority rights.

The book brings you across neo-Nazi skin subcultures of Mongolia and Malaysia, the Japanese gaisensha (vans covered in propaganda slogans and fitted with loudspeakers), Eastern German football hooligans, Nemzeti rock, and femonationalism, with a particular emphasis on cases such as India, Hungary, Israel, Brazil, and the United States. The variety of cases examined, the clarity of the language, and the diversity of topics considered, contribute to offer a panoramic view of the contemporary far right with vivid colors and unsettling details, but it also offers an engaging and necessary pro-active section on how to respond to the challenges posed by the far right.

Enjoy the read.


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Interview #32: Media Opportunity Structures for Populism

In this interview, Nicole Ernst argues that while Twitter and Facebook are now essential elements of the political sphere, traditional media are not dead an it would be a mistake to overestimate the influence of social media.

On the other hand, social media are definitely a populist paradise (Facebook more than Twitter). Indeed, they allow politicians to create a connection with the people by sharing elements of their private lives, emotions, and feelings. Moreover, they provide a selective exposure that reinforces the populist beliefs of the public, and by criticizing the mainstream media as servants of the ruling elites they create a sense of community.  

Mainstream media give space to populist content generated on social media because populist messages are often controversial, emotion-evoking, dubious, and polarizing. Populist actors also tend to take extreme positions on hotly debated issues, while journalists pay attention to what populist politicians argue on other media channels – especially on social media – and incorporate those arguments into their newspaper articles. This means that populist politicians do not use social media solely to bypass traditional news media but above all to influence the news media agenda with their posts and tweets.

This interview completes a trilogy on the relationship between populism and the media. The first —with Dominique Wirz— on populism and emotions is here, while the second on populist citizens and their media diet —with Anne Schulz— is here.

Enjoy the read.

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