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Populism: Identity is the Issue; Eradicating it is Not the Solution

Populism feeds on the evocation of conspiring evil elites, but the politics of hope cannot be eradicated as if it were cholera.

Gabriele Galantara, "Il congresso socialista di Bologna", copertina de L'Asino del 10 aprile 1904 (Da Wikimedia Commons)

The more the discourse of the populist forces is confusing, unrealistic, ideologically violent, closed to others’ rationale, lacking perspective, in contrast with the democratic, universalistic and humanitarian values, the more appealing it is, and the more it is able to set the political agenda, as well as the collective emotional scene. People see their lives change without perceiving why and in what manner it is occurring. This creates a sense of uncertainty and helplessness that finds its most effective antidote to be the vilification of others. In effect, those who have an enemy have a clear idea of themselves, of what must be done, why and for what reason. What then must be done? There is only one path…

From the moment it entered was elected into office, the League – the ultra-right, sovereigntist populist party led by the Deputy Premier and Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, has increased its approval rating among the Italian population. The latest polls indicate it is now the leading political force, with about 1 out of 3 Italians thinking about voting for it (the Lega’s potential constituency has been calculated to be about 40%). And this is in spite of the fact that many of the actions carried out by the Minister have had an emotional impact, but very limited practical outcomes; they were ways to mobilize feelings against Europe and migrants, rather than to find solutions. Just to give one of the many possible examples, a few days ago Salvini claimed that the 184 immigrants that landed at Lampedusa (the small island south of Sicily that is a favorite gateway for the migration route from North Africa) would be repatriated to Tunisia that regulates the timeline and manner in which repatriation takes place, and which establishes a very different procedure, as the Tunisian government reminded him.

In certain cases, Salvini’s claims and announcements of decisions have produced emotional activation only, ranging from feelings of satisfaction and agreement – in seemingly a large segment of the Italian population – to concern and indignation, as shown by the harsh reaction of the  Luxembourg Foreign Minister, Jean Asselborn at the recent Vienna conference on migration.

Unfortunately (for Italy and many Italians), in other cases, what one might call the “smash mouth politics” practiced by Salvini and other members of the Italian government, does wreak serious damage. Indeed, it leaves very critical issues unaddressed (e.g. the delay in the start-up of the reconstruction of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa) or it makes things even worse, as in the case of the uncertainty generated by the contradictory claims on the budget policy, the only effect of which is to make the cost of the national debt more expensive (i.e., the spread has risen to 300 points) – hundreds of millions of euros that instead of being used to fuel socio-economic development, will have to go towards paying the increased interest on the debt.

On the other hand, what is happening in Italy is not an isolated case. The latest instance comes from Sweden – at the political election held in that country on 9th September last, the right-wing, populist, sovereigntist, anti-immigration party – Sweden Democrats – increased its previous result by 5 points, reaching 17.5% of the electorate. And it is hard to see the rise in anti-immigrant nationalism in that country as the reaction to critical economic conditions or to the risk of an invasion by migrants. On the other hand, it seems that the result of the election of the next European Parliament is already given – the wave of sovereigntist, ultra-right, populist forces are expected to outperform the competition and to make the mainstream parties marginal.

It would seem that in Europe – and not only in Europe, if one looks at what happens on the other side of the Atlantic –  a surge of irrationality has deeply affected how public opinion approaches political and institutional affairs.

The more the discourse of the populist forces is confusing, unrealistic, ideologically violent, closed to others’ rationale, lacking perspective, in contrast with the democratic, universalistic and humanitarian values, the more appealing it is, and the more it is able to set the political agenda, as well as the collective emotional scene.

Since last Spring, when the populists came to power in Italy, incidents of racial crime in this country have increased dramatically – some people have been shot at merely because of the color of their skin. Now,  people are more or less the same as last year; what has changed is the mood, the feeling of being in a war against an incumbent enemy (migrants, Rom) and the consequent sense of normality and impunity associated with the violent reaction against specimens of these categories of foe.

Actually, it is hard to negate that in most Western countries many people seem to direct their political orientations in a way that is inconsistent with their interests. At the same time, it seems quite clear that what is appealing in the populist and anti-migrant claims and actions is not their capacity to solve critical issues, but their ability to attune and mirror the feeling of frustration and anger widespread among large strata of society. People call for reactions, not solutions.

Yet it would be a big mistake to think that this is just a matter of loss of rationality. People have not suddenly gone crazy. Just as a fever is a symptom of disease, but also the way the body tries to cure itself, the growing support for populist parties has to be considered the way of satisfying a deep demand that finds no other way of being addressed.

In this perspective, it is useful to take a closer look at the populist discourse. When one does so, one finds two intertwined elements at its core. On the one hand, the populist discourse is inherently paranoid, that is, it is based on the reference to an enemy. The elites are the main target – populism is based inherently on the evocation of the evil elites that conspire to pursue their dark and illegitimate interest to the detriment of the “just” (the people, intended as the mythic, idealized counterpart).  Usually, the category of the enemies is enlarged, encompassing – depending on the case – migrants and/or Muslims, and/or other countries, and/or European institutions and so forth. On the other hand, populism is characterized by the proposal of short-term policies in which goals overlap methods/strategies, and in so doing, what has to be accomplished becomes what is done. A typical, widely analyzed example of this facet is provided by the populist economic policies adopted in several Latin-American countries: the defense of the people’s purchasing power and the fight against inflation, which should be the goal of an economic policy, are transformed into the content of the policy (i.e., into the method), for example by legislating to impose a price freeze. The effect is a momentary, ephemeral improvement of people’s conditions, followed by the paradoxical increase in inflation and a worsening of the economy and consequently a further aggravation of the conditions of the poorest segments of society, namely those designated as the beneficiaries of the policy. In brief, populists do not solve problems; they satisfy people’s desire to believe that things can change and can be addressed quickly and fairly. Populism has been defined the politics of hope.

It must therefore be recognized that the support for populist forces does not depend on the extent that they are able to address issues effectively, but reflects the extent to which the populist discourse is able to satisfy the people’s demand for identity – i.e., the sense of being an “us” filled by the perception of a threatening enemy from which to defend themselves – and of powerfulness –i.e., the sentiment that it is possible to change the state of things, making good win over evil.

This recognition is usually followed by criticism, both of the populists – accused of being incompetent, demagogic, transforming politics into propaganda, and of the people who find them appealing -accused of being irrational, naive, lacking not only civic sense, but also humanity.  This criticism may be consoling, but it is a totally ineffective strategy if the aim is to put up a levee against the current rift in the democratic institutions and universalistic values on which Western societies are grounded. The demand for identity and powerfulness cannot be eradicated as if it were a cholera epidemic. The fact that this demand is expressed in a way that is considered wrong does not make the demand wrong. Quite the opposite, while it is true that the solutions proposed by populist politicians are ineffective and counterproductive, it is also true that when a counterproductive solution takes root, it means that the demand it addresses is just as serious as the unavailability of alternatives.

Thus, what is very much needed is to understand what fuels such a demand, what has made it so strong compared even to the recent past and what alternative ways of satisfying it can be pursued – ways that have to be both competitive with the siren call of populism as well as capable of advancing the project of the democracy in a time of globalization.

In this direction, thRe.Cri.Re. Project has put forward a series of analyses and proposals. In a nutshell, the core idea is that globalization has made people unable to grasp – cognitively and emotionally – the actual dynamics that deeply affect their lives. People are frustrated and radically affected by processes (e.g. the financialization of the economy, the mechanisms underlying climate change, technological development, geo-strategic equilibria) that are not merely hard to understand; they are beyond the very possibility of being represented. People therefore see their lives changing without perceiving why it is happening. This creates a sense of uncertainty and impotency that finds its most effective antidote in the affect-laden reaction of vilifying the other. Indeed, one who has an enemy is one who has a clear idea of who she/he is, what has to be done, why and what for.

Is there a different solution to the demand for identity and powerfulness apart from vilifying the other? No conclusive answers can be provided. Yet, it is worth having faith in a positive response. More specifically, the venture should embrace two main complementary strategies. First, the reduction of the socio-political drivers of uncertainty and powerlessness, in order to attenuate the conditions that make the demand for identity so radical and pervasive in broad segments of society. This means, for example, increasing the local community’s cognitive and political capacity to govern the conditions on which people’s lives depend, giving more visibility to the decision-making circuits underpinning important economic and institutional phenomena, hindering the feeling of the end of history – the feeling that no change is possible – and restoring the trust in  politics as the way of tackling critical issues (e.g. economic inequality) and more in general of designing a better future. Secondly, a new political and institutional deal of which the core is the construction of social and cultural infrastructures of citizenship (e.g. community projects, civic arenas, new forms of political participation) that valorize identities (e.g. people’s sense of belonging, their linkages to the community, their local traditions) and, at the same time, are able to promote the pursuit of universal aims – respect for diversity, inclusiveness, intercultural dialogue and cooperation. Not easy to do, but there is no other path.

 

 

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