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A Brief History of Populism: From the Berlin Wall to the Walls of The Mind

In the last century populism was a progressive tool for social emancipation, but that has now been turned into a conservative device for building consensus

A protest in Berlin, September 2016, against Trump's electoral promise to buil a wall at the Mexican border (Photo: Flickr)

If these four years of Trump have taught us anything, it has been the unimaginable credulity and gullibility that plagues a huge part of a public opinion willing to believe anything, no matter how absurd.

The dawn of the twenty-first century could be considered a cultural watershed for western societies; a line dividing two ideological eras.

One of the main dynamics of the previous period, namely the two hundred years from the French Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union, was the contrast between an aristocratic and bourgeois class on one side, trying to guard their long-held privileges, and social-democratic populism on the other, trying to extend some of these privileges to a wider swath of society.

Former president Trump during a rally in Missouri. Photo: Charlotte Cuthbertson

During this period, socio-economic competition between rich and poor for the control of resources resulted in a gradual but steady process of top-down redistribution of wealth, and the resulting flattening of social inequalities coincided with the period of greater prosperity in human history, marked by enormous advances in the social, technological, scientific and cultural fields.

With the collapse of the Berlin wall and the disappearance of Soviet communist authoritarianism, the end of the twentieth century seemed to usher in the triumphant affirmation of democratic ideas but, more than democracy, what we got was the triumph of market principles, especially in its wild and unbridled American form.

The end of the US-USSR duopoly and the onset of globalization shifted the epicenter of economic growth from the West to developing regions. The resulting collapse of manufacturing activity in Europe and America accelerated the disappearance of economic opportunities for a large segment of the workforce whose prosperity had grown steadily throughout the twentieth century.

The loss of these economic opportunities created a new social discontent among the working class which, being also less educated, lacked the cultural tools to decode an increasingly complex reality. This in turn has made it easy for this social froup to become prey to a new form of populism, no longer progressive and emancipating but reactionary and authoritarian.

This process has been happening both in America and in Europe, fueled on both sides of the Atlantic by similar transformations of the economic landscapes and by new phenomena such as the drastic increase in migration and the rise of social media with its unfiltered amplification of what is often biased, partial and misleading information that greatly contributed to destroy the traditional epistemological moorings that constitute the cognitive common ground of any society.

Here in America, as it often happens, the contrast could not have been more striking. In the twentieth century, progressive populism emancipated large numbers of the poor and dispossessed by opening their eyes to the exploitation and abuse suffered in Pennsylvania steel mills or Georgia cotton fields. Liberal social achievements such as child labor laws, the civil rights movement, trade union organization and access to higher education have been the tools that have lifted enormous numbers of people from poverty.

With the advent of the new “ideological era” however, this trend seems to have been reversed. Economic transformations such as automation and outsourcing have again widened the gap between rich and poor and, with that, increased social discontent.

This new widespread sense of unease resurfaced at a time when the American conservative movement had long been at work attracting members of the working class; those “blue collar” voters who had historically made up the Left’s electoral pool.

“History”, illustration by Antonella Martino

For members of these social groups, voting Right meant going against their own economic interests, but if these four years of Trump taught us anything, it has been the unimaginable credulity and gullibility that plagues a huge part of a public opinion willing to believe anything, no matter how absurd.

In spite of its historical failures, the declared aim of progressive populism in the twentieth century was the emancipation of the poor and the dispossessed. The goal of the new right-wing populism, on the other hand, is the co-optation of these same masses to attract them into their own sphere of consensus while continuing to promote policies that are in the interests of the economic and financial elites.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the perfect example. Barack Obama’s signature law extended health care to over twenty million people who, up to that moment, had had none. An unprecedented public health initiative that the Republican Party tried to dismantle seventy times!

In the period of time from its approval in 2010 to its actual implementation in 2014, the ACA or Obamacare has become the scourge of the American Right which has wasted no time mounting a campaign of total disinformation about the nature and the effects of the law by inventing the most outlandish nonsense to discredit and distorting it in the eyes of the public.

Thanks to this manipulation of information, the law was initially extremely unpopular; a negative perception that lasted until the moment of its actual implementation.

Only after it came into effect, when people were finally able to experience its benefits firsthand and in real time, did the attitude towards the ACA radically change from skeptical criticism to enthusiastic support.

Photo: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

The building of the wall on the border with Mexico is one of the election promises that Donald Trump failed to keep. But, over the past four years, Trump and his republican enablers have managed to erect and consolidate an even higher wall: the wall of collective stupidity.

For the second time in twelve years, Democrats take the reins of American politics inheriting the rubble and destruction left behind by the incompetence and corrupt dishonesty of their Republican predecessors.

The damage to the social and national fabric caused by the irresponsibility and extremism of the modern American conservative movement leaves the newly-elected Biden administration a catastrophic legacy: the pathetic management of the pandemic and of the consequent economic crisis caused by it.

The most ruinous effect is that of a country split in half, divided by an invisible wall in which two halves of the population inhabit completely separate realities, one of which is based on outlandish and insane fantasies.

Attack on Capitol Hill. January 6, 2021. (Wikimedia Commons)

The only way to breach this wall of deceptions is by acting quickly at the legislative level by giving people concrete answers that, just like the ACA, can improve their quality of life in a practical, tangible and immediate way while neutralizing, at the same time, the distortions and the lies of the conservative propaganda machine.

The ideological core of any progressive movement has been and still remains that of mitigating the deep socio-economic divide that still exists in too many countries and in America in particular. However, at the moment, bridging this socio-economic divide means re-establishing the primacy of facts and reality versus the collective delusions unscrupulously propagated by an American Right that has devolved into a nihilistic cult. A cult that, given the weight this country still has in global politics, could, in the future, have disastrous effects for everyone.

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