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The rise of  right wing populism: Meaning, reasons and implications

Sometimes as now people are in a rejection mode prompted by their frustration over the way things move against their interest and aspirations. In such situations, political and economic ideas run counter to the established rational way of thinking. There is a sharp rise in support for extreme right wing ideology in the contemporary world, be it Brexit, Germany, Australia, United States, South Korea or now France. Some analysts are worried about this widespread drift towards extreme right and think it is a retrograde movement. Others think that too much of liberalism in their country has led to encroachment of the space of maximizing their self interest in trade, investment, economy and given birth to problems of unemployment, inequality, terrorism and migration. They also believe that liberal democracies now need to transform them in strong states premised on ultra nationalism so as to safeguard their own territorial, diplomatic and economic interests. There is a demand for taking safeguards against the competing countries which irrationally exploit advantages of liberalism and discourage the adversaries and non-nationals to desist them from taking undeserved economic, diplomatic and strategic advantages.

There is a remarkable upsurge of right wing populism in Europe. The Austrian Freedom Party has become the most popular party in Austria; with its support growing fastest among voters younger than 30 contrary to the earlier prevalent view that associated the party with racism, even neo-Nazism. A few years ago it was not possible in a Europe that was supposed to have left such prejudices behind. The Freedom Party’s rise is not an anomaly. Across the once placid political landscape of Western Europe, right-wing upstarts have created what Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, recently termed “galloping populism.” He was referring to movements like the Sweden Democrats, the National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and other voices on the far right calling for their once open countries to close up and turn inward. But the insurgency is not limited to Europe. All the rising rightist parties are aligned with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in what they encourage voters to fear: migrants taking your jobs, Muslims threatening your culture and security, political correctness threatening your ability to speak your mind and, above all, entrenched elites selling you out in the service of the wealthy and well-connected.

Many of the European and American political leaders say that  “political Islam,”, “is the fascism of today, and that is what we have to fight.” Such claims would have once been met with outrage in Europe, but no longer. Amid the political backlash to the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, when more than a million asylum seekers from around the Muslim world came streaming into the E.U., a patchwork of populist movements have begun to call for Europeans to shut their borders to Muslim migrants, close Islamic schools and ban Muslim women from covering their hair or face in public. And they’re winning.

In recent months, the resurgence of nationalism across the E.U. has become so powerful that parties from the political mainstream have been forced to tilt sharply to the right as well, often retreating from their core principles of tolerance, openness and diversity. In France, some municipalities have banned Muslim women from fully covering themselves with so-called burkinis while swimming or lounging at certain beaches. The Danish parliament approved a controversial “jewelry law” in January that allows the government to confiscate valuables from arriving asylum seekers to help finance their accommodation.

Even the most seemingly far-fetched electoral upsets have begun to seem plausible, especially after the U.K. shocked the world by voting in June to leave the E.U. Brexit was driven in large part by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the U.K. Independence Party, which has long called for Britain to shut its borders. The result cost then Prime Minister David Cameron his job, and the impact on E.U. integration–and on the British economy–is expected to be severe. But Trump, notably, has voiced his enthusiastic support. He has even linked himself to the insurgent forces that drove the Leave vote by saying on Twitter that he would soon be known as Mr. Brexit.

It won’t end with the U.K. Right-wing parties in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere have called for their own Brexit-style plebiscites on E.U. membership. Faced with pressure from the E.U. to accept their share of refugees, officials in Slovakia, Estonia, Bulgaria and Poland have said they want to take only Christian asylum seekers or none at all. The nationalist government in Hungary even called a referendum on the issue for Oct. 2, and the results are practically a foregone conclusion: Hungarians are sure to reject the E.U.’s plan for refugee resettlement, further eroding the union. Even in Germany, where shame over the Nazis has long provided resistance to the pull of nationalism, the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has broken into the mainstream. In a local election in early September, the AfD got more votes than the conservative party of Chancellor Angela Merkel in her own electoral district (both finished behind the Social Democrats). In another local election, held in Berlin on Sept. 18, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union recorded its worst result in the capital ever.

What is right wing populism?

Right-wing populism is a political ideology that rejects existing political consensus and often combines laissez-faire liberalism and anti-elitism. It is considered populism because of its appeal to the “common man” as opposed to the elites. Populism is a political ideology that holds that virtuous citizens are mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognize the danger and work together.

Thomas Greven has identified three dominant features of rise of rightwing politics in Europe and America:

  1. Right-wing populism across Europe and the United States takes different forms depending on nationally specific factors such as political history, system and culture, but there are similarities. Populism’s central and permanent narrative is the juxtaposition of a (corrupt) “political class”, “elite”,or “establishment, and “the people”, as whose sole authentic voice the populist party bills itself.
  2. „ Right-wing populism adds a second antagonism of “us” versus “them”. Based on a definition of the people as culturally homogenous, right-wing populists juxtapose its identity and common interests, with are considered to be based on common sense, with the identity and interests of “others”, usually minorities such as migrants, which are supposedly favored by the (corrupt) elites. Right-wing populists are not necessarily extremists, and extremists are not necessarily populists. The latter, however, is very likely, as extremism lends itself to populism. The more ethno-centric the conception of the people, the more xenophobic the positioning against “the other”, and the clearer the desire to overthrow the democratic system of governance, the more likely it is that a right-wing populist party is also extremist.
  3. Right-wing populists also strategically and tactically use negativity in political communication. Supposed “political correctness” and dominant discourses are at the same time the declared enemies of right-wing populists and their greatest friends. They allow the staging of calculated provocations and scandals, and of the breaking of supposed taboos. As this resonates with the needs of the media in terms of market demands and the news cycle, right-wing populist receive a lot of free media.

Why the present wind of right populism is blowing?

The present wind seems to be blowing against morally correct liberal democracy, rise of neo-elites due to liberalization and globalization. During last three decades of liberal democracy and capitalism, privatization, liberalization and globalization were the buzzword. Roughly since 1980s, the world seemed to be revolutionized in the sense of economic reforms as well as aspirations for liberal democracy everywhere. There was a tendency to make the world a global village and establish modern democratic systems and welfare states. Even the developing economies started embracing market economy and economic integration through open and free trade. The result was increase in income, output and employment. But critics pointed out that the fruits of development and growth at the global level went asymmetrically to a few countries and at national level majorly to the elite and ruling classes.  Such analysts assert that the asymmetric and unequal benefits flowing from liberal states skewed the geopolitical matrices on one hand and deprived the common man of employment and a better living standard in the home economy. Thus the appeal of  slogans like “America First” or “no migrants please” or “bring manufacturing and business to America”  or “stop terror and lawlessness and give a semblance of presence of state” are consequence of such a new thinking. There are many such slogans ringing in Europe such as “Europe belongs to us”; “ the Burkini is a fundamentalist uniform”;  “Islam is not part of Germany” etc. Right wing populism is increasing.

There is hardly a democracy in Europe where that same sentiment would not ring true. Countries in the formerly communist East have been hit especially hard by factory closures, high unemployment and an exodus of young workers to the wealthier states of Western Europe. Trump and his doppelgängers along the Danube have been able to capitalize not only on fears of migration but also on angst over economic inequality, often with what seem like the same slogans in different languages. On immigration: Send them back! On Muslims: Keep them out! On the media: Full of lies! On the Establishment: Crooked! On the elections: Rigged! Even their tactics seem to run in parallel, especially when it comes to the politics of fear.

Is right wing populism good or bad?

Rise of right wing populism may be in accordance with the principle of economic, social and political isostacy- a natural rebalancing process, meant for “undoing the overdone” (by the previous systems). Nevertheless, for European elites, such chasms between feelings and facts are frustrating. The Europeans belong to the tradition of the European Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. They find it extremely hard to face down the emotional force of right-wing populism using rational arguments.

However, there are many problems. The fears fanned up by the right populism may not be based on truth. The use of propaganda not grounded in truth may be in lure of political edge over traditionally popular liberal democratic parties. Digital medium and social websites have made propaganda easier. It is common to see how lies are perpetrated unscrupulously to give an illusion of truth. We can see how refugee influx has been overstated in Europe. The influx of refugees slowed to a trickle in recent months after Europeans closed their borders to transiting migrants and reached a deal with Turkey to keep refugee boats off European shores. But that has done little to calm public fears of being overrun. In a 2015 survey titled “Perils of Perception,” the British research group Ipsos MORI found that Europeans tend to grossly overestimate the number of foreigners who are actually in their countries. In Germany, respondents said, on average, that 26% of the population was born abroad; the actual number is 12%. The discrepancy was about the same in France, Belgium, the U.K. and the Netherlands.

Also rather than giving solutions to the problems, the right wing populism may lead to provocation, instability and shattering of the systems as well as trust of the people. The right- wing- populist leaders talk about quick fixes and tailor made solutions of the problems, but  they may not be able to offer the people what they promise because things are not as easy to do as to claim. It will amount to betrayal of the people. We are living in a game theoretic framework in this competitive and hegemonic world. If Donald Trump thinks about ‘America First’, others would also think about ‘their country as first’. Protection by one country would lead to protection by other countries as well. If one country ignites ultra-nationalism, the other countries would also respond in the same coin.  The greatest irony is that people deep inside know that right wing populism is not an answer to the failures of liberal democracy, yet they cast their preferences in favour of right wing populism in anger. Rejection of the existing system is the main reason of people’s euphoria rather than acceptance of right wing populism.

What is the way out?

The answer lies in fearlessly and courageously standing in the headwinds of crisis times in which some pied pipers would try to use right wing populism to attract people for quick fixes, which would never be possible. Only rational thinking rather than impulsive feelings and anger can solve the problems of our times. Fishing in the troubled waters may be politically expedient, but regressive political and economic policies would entail a bigger cost. In post truth politics self righteousness is writ very large and this complicates problems making our stands irreconcilable.

Barack Obama rightly said in his farewell speech- “For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.  The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.  And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.  This trend represents a third threat to our democracy.  Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them.  But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.”

He further points out- “It’s that spirit – a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression, and build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but on principles – the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and an independent press.  That order is now being challenged – first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power.  The peril each poses to our democracy is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile.  It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right. …… But protecting our way of life requires more than our military.  Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear.  So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”

Angela Merkel has acknowledged that unhappiness over her refugee policy has helped drive some of her recent electoral losses, but she has also warned about the rising threat on the right. Merkel urged her fellow lawmakers to resist the “easy solutions” that the party is offering. “I am quite certain,” she said, “if we bite our tongues and stick to the truth, then we’ll win back the most important thing that we need, the trust of the people.”


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