“Revolt Against the Elites: The Rise of Populism from Thailand to the Tea Party”

February 23, 2014 • The World at Yale • Views: 1024

By Mitchell Hightower

Poynter Fellowship in Journalism and the Council on East Asian Studies brought Dutch journalist and academic Ian Buruma to speak on what he sees as a wave of populism spreading across governments worldwide.

Buruma sees the populism of today astypically right-wing political movements catering to masses rather than “elites,” and centered on the preservation or revival of a national cultural identity. He began his talk by discussing the movements’ pasts, asserting that though numerous states had populist minorities throughout the 20th century, their leaders were typically mere “joke figures” on the political landscape, whose movements major conservative parties would sooner or later absorb.

This process of continual assimilation of the populist changed, says Buruma, within the past two decades. “Populism,” he says, “has hardened and become much more powerful.”

Western Europe provides key examples. Specifically, Buruma points to Geerts Wilders of his native Netherlands, who leads the conservative and decidedly anti-Islam Party for Freedom. France’s Marine Le Pen leads the Front National, another party that concerns itself with protecting conservative values and national identity, as well as seriously limiting immigration. Both states have also begun to direct their criticism towards the integration-minded EU, preferring national pride over European pride.

“This is not new,” Buruma reminded the audience (France’s Front National, for example, is a long-established leading political party). “What is news is that there’s so much money behind it.” Populist movements are increasingly financed by businessmen, he says. Populist leadership like the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in India or the AKP party in Turkey may be “traditionalist in cultural values” but still pro-business and pro-globalization. While a populist-led state like Thailand may gain popularity from economic support of rural populations, in many cases populists may do little to alleviate the economic anxieties of their constituencies, but bond with the people in the realm of culture.

Cultural conservatism and nationalism bring together various European and Asian populist movements, as well as the American Tea Party, but there are differences among the movements. The European right-wing populist’s advocacy of the “large state” is drastically different, for example, from the Tea Party’s insistence on states’ rights and the “small state.”

A tea party demonstration in Washington DC (courtesy of Creative Commons)

A tea party demonstration in Washington DC (courtesy of Creative Commons)

Buruma traces this rise in right-wing populism to the decline of “liberal idealism” over the past twenty years. There has been a “breakdown of a consensus that was formed in 1945,” he says. “In the midst of the misery of World War II … there was a wave of idealism . . . a widespread consensus that things couldn’t really go back to the way they were before the war.” Part of the change was to “break down the idea of nationalism, that nations should gradually make way for the EU, the UN, and so on.”

With the end of the Cold War, he says, the urgency of change declined. The fall of the USSR and the end of communism dealt a serious blow to leftist idealism. A feeling arose, he says, that “all forms of idealistic effort lead straight to the gulag, that idealism was dangerous . . . [this] left a vacuum that was only filled by the neo-populism that we see all over the world.”

Buruma is not thrilled by the flourishing of this ideology. “A new boost of idealism is necessary, though I’m quite pessimistic,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going to happen without a new crisis.” Though of course, one shouldn’t wish for a new Depression in order to push out another New Deal, or for another disastrous war to halt the rise of nationalism, Buruma does hope something can be done to inspire “a new populism from the left.”

Mitchell Hightower is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at anthony.hightower@yale.edu.

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