Author: Olivera Z. Mijuskovic, philosopher
A brief review
In political discourse in recent times we hear too many times the word – populist or populism. Does an average citizen who is not from the profession of political or philosophical sciences properly consider the meaning of this terms and what are the ethical implications of manipulating with it?
Let’s start from the beginning.
Populist is usually related to the concept of a demagogue and it has roots from the Greek term dimagogós which has the meaning of a charismatic leader. This phenomenon dates back to Ancient Athens democracy which is at the same time a weakness of democracy. Demagogue does not address to the elites but to the ordinary people and thanks to them and in their name he carries out his decisions into practice. Often, decisions of such type of leaders are not in the interest of large masses, but their popularity and charm convince people otherwise. Demagogues support their own decisions often with the story about the national crisis and interests, and often used the force.
In political theory known dangerous demagogues were: Cleon, Alcibiades, Gaius Flaminius Nepos, Hitler and McCarthy.
But, we must be honest – there is no ideology that is not populist. In that sense what is populism actually, and why does it have a negative context in political practice?
Populism is closely linked to democracy. Populism is the power of the political elite to activate as many people to political action. Ideological background of populism is based on the civil rights of ordinary people, with a view to lessening the power of rich intellectuals and capitalists, or “enemies of some nation”. Often under the guise of this reasons, some populists obtained the benefit exclusively for themselves. Because of these reasons and because of the fear of the rise of populism such as the populism of National-Socialism in Hitler’s Germany, to be a populist is often pejorative in modern political practice.
However, populism in literal meaning is not too bad, but it`s too manipulative term. The rights of ordinary people are very important and in this turbulent time world politicians must have in thought that the center of their policy must exclusively be an ordinary man. This story can`t take a bad connotation to which we think when talking about populism. Manipulation of the rights of ordinary citizens and spreading national intolerance and conflict are extremely harmful. The manipulation with populism is one of the least ethical models of political struggle. Modern political practice is harmful without ethics, because the world is facing a crisis of boundless proportions – poverty, refugee crises, wars and destruction.
What are the pitfalls of right-wing and left-wing populism?
Right-wing populism is strongly anti-elitist and in today`s political scene they are against the EU and immigrations. They often speak about the state of law and they have very conservative views on some issues such as social justice, women rights or vulnerable groups.
Left-wing populism is anti-capitalist and anti-globalist, but they are pacifists and they are often against military operations in the world. Also they are very liberal when they speak about the vulnerable groups of the population and women.
Right-wing populism is very dangerous if their politics with very strong national connotations cross the borders, especially in time of economic crises when people are very affective and angry, in most cases without job. Also, conservative view about the science and rights of women and vulnerable groups can be very dangerous and can cause violence and anger.
Left-wing populism has defect because of just one reason – it can be seen like utopia and people can be disappointed if they expect too much especially in the times of austerity. As a matter of fact, politicians of left-wing must be honest with people and tell them that political practice when political party or social movement when they are in opposition is not the same as after elections, when they are in power. This is very hard for political practice. State power needs to be in relations with many political actors that are not from the same ideology and all the values that people expect can`t be done in practice in the original form. However left politicians must be fighters for the rights of the ordinary people and must have skills for implementation of decisions with the ultimate aim which is not harmful for the citizens. In that case that is not populism but political talent and true care for social justice.
In any case, the point is very clear – the manipulation of the masses is harmful and dangerous, every populism is not bad but it could be more useful for common people if political elites want that.
Dignified life (not poverty), the protection of human rights and world peace is what we must pursue as a policy of the 21st century.
The text is originally published at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs Global Ethics Network NY, on January 5, 2017 at 5:10am