Es ist das gemeinsame Kennzeichen von Populisten: das Definieren des Volkes. Wer ist Bürger? Wer nicht? - Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan | India

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21.05.2019 | Michael Zichy
It is a common hallmark of populists: “Defining“ the populos. Who belongs? Who does not?

Michael Zichy Foto: Herbert Rohrer, Wildbild

Dear friends,
Jonas and I decided to respond independently to the letters from Ágnes and Yvonne to make the discussion even a little more polyphonic than it already is.

Victor Orbán is commonly considered a prime example of a populist. Ágnes says that this characterization is too imprecise. To make the classification more accurate, she, therefore, draws an important conceptual distinction and offers a more detailed characterization: she distinguishes between genuine populists, who actually have the good of the people in mind, and those who only pretend to do so. This second genre, which could be described as the pseudo-populist, includes the policies pursued in Hungary by Orbán. Ágnes describes his politics as ethno-nationalist, because it focuses on the welfare of the nation, understood as the community of indigenous Hungarians, not on the welfare of the people actually living in Hungary. All people living in Hungary but not of Hungarian blood, such as Jews, Roma, and of course all refugees, are not considered Hungarians; consequently, Orbán's concern doesn’t extend to them, whom he looks upon as constituting a threat to genuine Hungarians.

I would like to tie my first probing thoughts to this conceptual distinction. Is the distinction between real and pseudo-populists sound? After all, it is a common feature of all populists that they define who “the people” really are. The definitions may vary, and accordingly, we could then distinguish between different forms of populism. The common characteristic of all populists is that they pretend to be the only ones who represent the true interests of the people as so-and-so defined. On these grounds, populists then claim to be the sole legitimate representatives of the people. However, if we look at populist politics soberly, we have to conclude that this is exactly what they are not.

The strategy of populists is to rely on simple messages and strong, especially strongly negative emotions.

Theoretically, and as Ágnes claims, a genuine populism could actually exist, a populism that really had the interests of the people in view. But I think this is rather unlikely, for structural reasons. What I mean becomes clear when we look at how populist politics creates the impression in the people that it represents their true interests. The strategy of populists is not merely to speak a down-to-earth language, but further to rely on simple messages and strong, especially strongly negative, emotions. Only then are they able to bring the people’s blood to the boil and be assured of their approval.

But it’s obvious that the simple slogans and recipes with which populists go peddling their wares in no way do justice to the complexity of reality. Populists, therefore, can’t help but sooner or later betray the interests of the people. Populists either don’t know this, in which case they are honest but stupid, or they know it very well, in which case they are clever but dishonest. I think most populists fall into the latter category: they pursue certain interests - a political agenda that is basically no longer capable of appealing to a majority, preservation of their power, individual enrichment - and use the people as a vehicle to enforce these interests. Like Orbán: it’s possible that he is also pursuing a deeper political agenda of which he is truly convinced, but his populism primarily serves his narcissism, his hold on power, and an oligarchy of, as Ágnes says, “nouveau riche”. Orbán has built a kleptocracy in Hungary, where his clique shamelessly enriches itself on the national wealth. In other words, people have been played for suckers.

Now such a policy can be effective only if the people are susceptible to it and allow themselves to be played for suckers. And that brings us to the question of democracy, which, as Ágnes and Yvonne suggest, doesn’t seem to be up to the current challenges. Democracy depends on responsible citizens, who can think rationally about their interests and understand, evaluate and, when necessary, back or discard the corresponding political decisions. But are there (still) such citizens?

Doesn’t a generation that grew up in peace and never had to fight for its freedom lack the experiences of where populism leads?

Are the people (or at least a not inconsiderable part of them) simply too stupid? Or - and this seems to me rather be the case – have the world and political contexts become so accelerated, so complex and so confusing that most people, who after all only want to get a grip on their lives (and in this already often reach their limits), are hopelessly overwhelmed? Weren’t the expectations raised by politics so high that they could only lead to disappointment and frustration? And finally: doesn’t a generation that grew up in peace and never had to fight for its freedom lack the experiences of where populism leads and of suffering and war, so that it can’t really imagine the worst and can’t see the danger posed by populist politics?

The question of the crisis of democracy and the causes of populism brings me to Yvonne’s text. I found it difficult, partly because it is difficult to understand, partly because it sometimes seems to me contradictory, partly because it seems to me to convey an underlying, terrified and at the same time angry premonition of the bad end all this will come to, and partly because it touches on painful matters.

Das Volk Painful - and absolutely necessary - is that Yvonne questions things taken for granted by reminding us that the populism debate we’re having here is profoundly Western, still quite unthinkingly assuming that the West is the model for the world. Such an attitude dismisses the experience gained in other parts of the world as irrelevant or at best of secondary importance. But what would change in our assessment if we didn’t consider liberal democracy but rather populism as the norm, if we didn’t consider the West but the rest of the world as the norm? What if the Western conception of the rational, self-determined individual was really a very strenuous form of existence, not at all desired by many and not realizable for many? Then the attractiveness of populism would consist in its being closer to the nature of man, because it corresponds more to the “inner desire” for leadership, as Yvonne puts it.

And perhaps the anger of the people towards the elite stems precisely from this: that the elite, who are self-determined, rational and successful, present themselves as a role model which for many is not achievable, not viable, not even desirable. Especially since the model too often turns out to be a mirage, because the elite not infrequently prefers drinking wine rather than the water that it preaches should be imbibed. Populism would then express both the frustration of being duped by the elite with its hollow high standards and the desire that politics should finally take the lead and responsibility and make those decisions which are necessary – even if they hurt. Populism would thus be an expression of the desire for paternalism that frees citizens of their responsibility, their overburdening and their powerlessness.

This brings me to the second point that pains me: Yvonne’s candidly acknowledged schadenfreude that the hypocritical West is at last stumbling over what is considered normality everywhere else, and that its high ideals are being overtaken by reality. Because – so we might interpret this - populism can also be understood as an answer to the fact that the West has betrayed its ideals, that they are hollow and meaningless. As understandable as the reaction of glee at the lurching of the West is, it still hurts.

For the ideals which the West emblazons on its banners and which it - who of course would want to deny it – has all too often betrayed, betrays and will continue to betray, can’t be held responsible for the betrayal committed in their name. We may be happy about the downfall of the West, but can we really be happy about the downfall of these ideals? Aren’t in fact democracy, the rule of law and, above all, human rights values that should be upheld? Even the pluriversalism mentioned by Yvonne, which is ultimately somehow about recognizing as far as possible the otherness of the other and making room for it, couldn’t survive without the idea of respect for the other and his right to live his life in freedom: it can’t exist without the idea of basic human rights.

The reason for the current upheavals lies in a deep fear of the future.

I would like to take up a third and last point from Yvonne's text. Scattered passages there make statements about the causes that lead to populism: the mendacity of the West, which betrays its ideals, the “inner desire to have a caudillo as sovereign”, “pent-up pressure,” particularly in the face of a censoring political correctness that forbids us to say what we feel, and finally the “most abiding of our fears as humans, the fear of the other”.

I think that the causes can be named more precisely: the reason for the current upheavals lies in a deep fear of the future, in a feeling of disorientation and overburdening, and in an impotent rage against politicians for doing nothing to change this condition (and instead, so the nagging suspicion, only looking out for themselves); in short, in the alienating feeling of having been left alone in the world and no longer feeling at home there. Responsible for this condition is a coincidence of different causes, each of which is already dangerous on its own, but which together produce a highly explosive mixture. Without laying claim to comprehensiveness, I would like to mention seven of these causes.

There is, as a kind of world-political framework providing the menacing basic melody, the global political instability that has followed the collapse of the Iron Curtain. If after the Cold War things were looking rosy for the West so that it even began to fantasize about the “end of history” (Francis Fukuyama), the struggle for world political domination is now once again in full swing.

There is, much more real for people, the new terrorism, which threatens to strike suddenly anywhere. There is globalization and, in its wake, the global economic crisis that has ruined the lives of many, endangered many, and damaged the confidence of almost everyone in politics (especially as it is widely believed that the responsible banks were saved and their bosses spared due punishment).

There are global migratory movements and - above all, in Europe - the refugee crisis, which has generated insecurity, seem to threaten the customary way of life, and in Europe led to a loss of confidence in politics because many fear that the governing politicians are not willing or capable of protecting the people of their countries against uncontrolled intruders.

There are the new media with their tremendous potential for manipulation, against which no responsible approach has yet been developed.

There are new technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, automation, genetic manipulation and so on, with whose development hardly anyone can keep pace, but which will transform our lives fundamentally. And there are the longer term, probably the greatest threats of all: climate change and ecological collapse.

The pressure caused by all these threats demands, as Yvonne says, an outlet. One that has always worked brilliantly is the scapegoat: the others, those who speak another language, those who have a different skin colour, those who have different manners and who wear different clothes, those who are somehow perceptibly different – the refugees, the Jews, the Americans, the blacks, the whites, the elite, at any rate the others – they are to blame for everything. And then disoriented anxiety turns into focused fear, fury turns into concentrated hatred, and with this comes a sigh of relief, for the enemy has now been identified and the real threats can be forgotten. This is an ancient human mechanism, and this is the real, the primitive recipe of populism.

Yours sincerely,