What is populism? And why should we be vigilant?

'We cannot dismiss buffoonery as harmless, as fodder for knowing jokes'

The centre cannot hold. We are almost a century from Yeats penning those words, and again the political and social climate of the continent - and the broader world - is in turmoil. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst//Are full of passionate intensity."

From Orban in Hungary [pictured below] - who has succeeded in shutting down a university, the CEU, and who advocates an 'illiberal democracy' - to Erdogan in Turkey, who has imprisoned thousands of civil servants, intellectuals, and political activists, the myth of a stable, ever-expanding democracy, which respects pluralism and values inclusion, is burst.

Beyond Europe, there are the 'strong men' authoritarians, Duterte in the Philippines - boasting of his plan to eradicate drug use through extra-judicial killings - and more recently the pro-torture Bolsonaro in Brazil, whose only problem with the brutal dictatorship of the past was that it did not kill enough opponents. And then there is Trump, who, like proponents of Brexit derides experts and expertise, punching down at minorities and the vulnerable, and trading on a politics of fear and division.

Insider is, bluntly, hard put not to settle into a funk on occasion, with the depressing nature of world politics, and the apocalyptic potential of runaway climate change. And yet, there are glimmers of light - some of local origin. The moves, last week, by Labour senators Ivana Bacik and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, to restore citizenship eligibility to children born and raised in this country has made international headlines as a counter-example to the trend of 'illiberal' politics.

In looking at the nasty and mean-spirited politics of Trump, Brexit, and more, one thing checking any tendency towards a sense of smug superiority on the part of Irish observers, is the 27th Amendment. Passed in 2004 with 80 per cent in favour, and supported by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the then Progressive Democrats (whose ghosts still haunt Galway politics in particular ), that amendment removed automatic birthright citizenship, fuelled largely by outlandish - and later debunked - claims of 'waves of women' (barely ) arriving in the country before giving birth on the runway tarmac.

The language of that amendment leaves it to legislation to determine entitlement to citizenship. With polls now showing majorities in favour of restoring birthright citizenship, and recent individual high-profile cases of Irish-born non-citizens gaining broad support, there is an opportunity to reverse (at least partially ) the wrong that was done, and demonstrate through our politics, our commitment to inclusion and to caring for "all the children of the nation equally".

Fake news, populism, and other problems

However, one - largely symbolic, given the limited numbers directly affected - legislative fix does not change the challenge of the age, and it is difficult to narrow down exactly what the core of that challenge is.

Is it 'fake news' - the problem of internet communication technologies (from Facebook to WhatsApp ) being weaponised with the help of data mining techniques, to undermine democratic discourse and social cohesion? Cass Sunstein is among those who has been warning for decades now about the destructive potential of 'cyber cascades' - the notion that urban myths and compelling (if untrue ) narratives will travel faster than attempts to correct or innoculate against them.

'We know what Orban means when he suggests Soros is not 'really' Hungarian. We know what Trump means when he talks about 'real Americans'. And we know what sort of nostalgia motivates Brexiteers and their mentality of 'make Britain great again'

We seem to be living in an era of meme warfare - once predicted by Kalle Lasn of Adbusters magazine - with a side-helping of the appropriation of progressive organising techniques by regressive forces.

Or maybe the issue is populism. Whatever that is. When Jan-Werner Muller sat down to write about the phenomenon in his helpful book What is Populism? that question was his first challenge. It is a term that is widely used, and which can be particularly easily challenged in an era that derides experts and expertise. Muller suggests that being critical of elites is a necessary but not sufficient condition - criticism of the status quo is not, in itself, the problem here (Insider would have to plead guilty as charged if that were the case - as, Muller notes, would "every presidential candidate in the United States" ).

Anti-semitism and xenophobia

George Soros.

Populists are anti-pluralist - they argue an exclusive moral right to represent 'the people' - and, paired with this, Muller posits that populism is a form of identity politics grounded in exclusion and polarisation: us versus them; the people against the 'enemies of the people'.

It is in the suggestion that there is an 'authentic people' who can be distinguished from the broader polity that democracy faces a crucial challenge. Orban's attacks on the Central European University are centred, rhetorically, on attacks on George Soros [pictured above] - who has helped establish and fund the university, through his Open Society Foundation. Soros is a Hungarian Jew by birth, and his name (and that of the OSF ) are often used as dog-whistles by those seeking to engage in anti-Semitic tropes.

'Some weeks previously, concerns had been raised by the Irish Jewish community about Peter Casey's use of tired, and dangerous, stereotypes of Jewish people'

We know what Orban means when he suggests Soros is not 'really' Hungarian, when we threads the argument that liberal values (and those who hold or champion them ) are somehow 'alien'. We know what Trump means when he talks about 'real Americans' - and when he approves the rescinding of passports (and citizenship ) from some living in border counties. And we know what sort of nostalgia motivates Brexiteers and their mentality of 'make Britain great again'.

Closer to home, we know what Peter Casey [pictured below] meant when he claimed not to see Travellers as Travellers - a particularly Irish form of colour blindness that in failing to recognise Travellers, erases them from our cultural, political, and social landscape.

Closer to home...

peter casey

Casey is not, as his subsequent interviews have made clear, a particularly sophisticated analyst. Unlike, say, Steve Bannon, he does not view himself as calculatedly playing a multi-dimensional chess game. The opinions he has vomited out, however, have played on stereotypes and exclusionary populist rhetoric, and encouraged potential fellow-travellers on that journey back from the hard-won inclusion and tolerance.

Many of those who voted for Casey argued that it did not make them racist or anti-Traveller. They did not vote for him because of what he said about Travellers, they claim - but because of what he claimed about those on welfare supports, because he 'spoke his mind', because he would 'shake things up'.

It is almost, Insider notes, as if there is a playbook not only for populists, but for those who are persuaded by their rhetoric. We heard the same from Trump supporters in the US - it was not his attention-grabbing racism they voted for, but there was something in his willingness to *be* racist, to identify other (often vulnerable ) groups who were to blame for various social ills, that attracted them.

In the case of Casey, it is worth noting that it wasn't his anti-Traveller stance that first flagged him as playing with essentialist anti-pluralist identity politics. Some weeks previously, concerns had been raised by the Irish Jewish community about his use of tired, and dangerous, stereotypes of Jewish people. Casey refused to engage with concerns about his remarks, and there was no attention to them in media interviews or similar coverage.

When the media did start taking Casey's comments seriously, it lacked the sustained critical attention it deserved. Media coverage of populists - from Casey to Trump - often treats 'whacky' remarks and beliefs as 'infotainment', to be thrown out for amusement, as if 'we' are all consuming news reports through a lens of irony, and at one remove from potential dangers.

If there is one lesson Insider takes from our recent experiences, it is that we cannot dismiss buffoonery as harmless, as fodder for knowing jokes. It behoves us all to remain vigilant - "Things fall apart" should be a warning, but it need not be a prophecy.


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