On Populism

On April 28, 2017, members of Liberty Discussion Group came together yet again to deliberate over one of the most heated topics in contemporary politics—Populism. From Indian PM Modi’s rise, to movements in Europe, President Trump chapter in the US, President Duterte Chapter (close to home gain) in the Philippines, and again recent developments in European politics, analysts have used the term “populism” to explain these events. In order to deliberate over what it means, and what implications it holds for countries like Nepal, and for democracies around the globe, two reference articles for this edition of discussion session were picked by the group upon suggestions from some of the members of the group.

The first one, Why Populism Challenges Democracy from Within, by Marc Fleurbaey urges readers to look into the structural aspect of a democracy – “the will of the (majority) people” and attempts to draw parallels between the populist movements we are seeing in the West.

The second one, Populism Is Not Fascism, by Sheri Berman is an attempt to have people restrain themselves from confusing one with the other, with a strong message nevertheless, that an unchecked Populism can very well in fact lead us to Fascism.

The discussion kicked off with some deliberation over what populism actually means, how that could affect government decisions, and what implications it holds for a democracy. The group quickly observed that there is not a uniform definition of populism, and the term was subjective for most. While some members argued that there are different versions of populism—thick and thin, others opined that all political decisions have to be populist in order for the politicians to secure votes for themselves and hence, populism could encompass all political decisions. Some others argued that there has to be a ‘we’ vs. ‘they’ factor (and such feelings could be the result of growing social distress and economic inequalities) behind every notion for it to be called a populist movement, irrespective of whether it comes from the people themselves, or a politician feeds the notion to a people intentionally manipulate them to rise to power. Other few argued that populism is a result of confusing between ‘what a majority of people agree on’ and ‘what is the single largest group whose members significantly agree to make a unified direction of all affairs.’ The latter idea generally tends to take advantage of a group of people that genuinely feels that they have historically been wronged by a group, and a charismatic leader manipulates with a well-crafted political strategy.

The fact that the discussants could not agree over single definition of populism affected a lot of discussions pertaining to its implications for a democracy. While the discussants were not at one over whether populism is a good thing or a bad thing, per se, some members argued that populism could mean a significant threat to democracy for when the populist leader rises to power then s/he also holds the power to govern the entire citizenry through the lens of the majority, and this could quickly mean that democracy is used to run people’s lives (limiting people’s choices) instead of being used as a tool to make a decision when no other tool can help.

A overwhelming number of participants in this edition of discussion meant that not all issues that were initially raised could be deliberated over. However, the same also meant that the members were quick to carry forward the discussion over to facebook, sharing videos and further articles to gain more insights on the rise of populism, the meaning of the term, and how it could affect people’s lives.

Please follow the video links below to catch-up on some of the post-discussion session developments, and join the Liberty Discussion Group over at facebook to partake on the online discussion.

Links on Populism and politics in Nepal and how populism is reshaping the world.