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THE CASE OF POPULISM

Nearing the United States of America’s 2020 election last November, the polarization between the supporters of both Democratic and Republican parties was fueled by the opposition against each other. Some more conservative people were getting more washed out from the present government and they demanded change, while the right movements were eager for the second term of the 45th president, Donald Trump.

Both parties hold strong values that create a crater between them due to their political views. However, there is a unique visible pattern in how Trump and his supporters ran his presidential campaign. In 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump was able to gain masses in his rallies by intending to undermine democratic norms. The term “Trumpism” emerged in 2016 and re-emerged in 2020 in which both movements took place by portraying the media as “the enemy of the people”, showing the refusal against an affordable public-health initiative, blatantly ignoring public opinions, and rallying to take action against the immigrants in order to save the jobs of the American folks and the economy of the United States.

During the same period, the Fidesz-KDNP in Hungary has gained mass support and votes in the election which allows him to impose several policies that cater to the majority group. When these events are being compared side by side, we can find the possession of the same characteristics among them: populism.

What is populism? Is it a movement, or perhaps a series of codes of conduct to promote popularity in politics? In this diplomatic review, the writer will first define populism as a growing public trend in the latest 21st-century political climate. Then, the writer will discuss the circumstances and factors that bolster the use of populism to achieve political agenda. Afterward, the writer will also talk about identity politics and how it is used as a tool for populism while talking about the escalation of populism as well as identity politics that manifest to several impacts. For example, identity politics-based policies and the rise of authoritarian government caused by populism.

DEFINING POPULISM

Based on the aforementioned cases, there are three main components of populism that we can note to further deconstruct populism; firstly, a populist leader who represents “the people”. Secondly, “the people”, who are portrayed as a homogenous crowd victimized by “the elite”. Thirdly, “the elite”, a contrasting group of people who are standing in the way of achieving the goals of the people. The populist leader and the people present themselves as a challenger to the current systems run by the elites, and therefore creating a division of society. This goes in accordance with Muller and Mudde and Rovira’s definition of populism. Populism is a way of doing politics in which “the people” are pitted in conflict against others such as various “elites”, local minorities, immigrants, foreigners. Muller stresses populists’ moralistic interpretation of politics: those on the side of “the people” are moral; the rest are immoral, doing the work of a corrupt elite. 

When it comes to a populist leader, this figure usually presents themselves as the ordinary folks, creating the illusion of a familiar friend who understands the people’s opinion and disappointment towards the government as a cause of economic downfall, the disdain of politicized multiculturalism, etc. Politicians with those characteristics, such as Donald Trump, usually point out the most popular opinions amongst the citizens. For instance, white supremacy is used as a momentum to emerge and hold an engagement with the citizens. 

Unfortunately, the issue with populism is its potential to create a made-up idea of who “the people” actually are. When a populist leader is claiming to represent the views of a country’s “true people”, the subjects are defined by the populist themselves. The claim that they made might be illegitimate and the populist’s understanding of the “true people” does not encompass the country’s people at all. Nevertheless, as non-ethical such politicians might sound, populism has been proven to successfully help politicians gain loyal, fanbase-like supporters who would later elect them during national votes, as they hold on to the collective beliefs that their concerns are being voiced out.

Another example of a populist leader is Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Considered a populist leader, he was able to open eye clinics, give out free food, and tank the cost of gasoline to less than 10 cents a gallon. None of these measures were ever previously implied in sustainable manners as the price of oil collapsed in 2014. However, if Hugo Chávez falls too under the definition of populist leaders, then a populist leader could loosely be any leader who promotes economic policies or social policies.

It is important to note that a politician who distributes all kinds of benefits and promises heaven and earth in order to win elections, who pretends to know what the “common man” thinks and feels, and who frequently attacks corrupt elites – is not necessarily a populist. The common denominator between all of the examples stated above is their underlying motive. By making massive use of uncredible news, information manipulation, fake news, and a controlled mass media, these populist actors are approaching the goal to make people believe that the current government administration does not comply with the idea of presenting themselves as “one of the people”. 

POPULISM IN INDONESIA

In Indonesia, the populism that arises has several differences from the one that occurred in the USA and Europe. In the USA and Europe, right-wing populism brings supremacy and immigrants as the main issue. The notion brought by the left-wing populist leader in Latin America revolves around social welfare and injustice as the cause of the market mechanism, but this notion will not be elaborated further in this Diplomatic Review. 

Neither left-wing nor right-wing populism is being the main agenda that is being used in Indonesia. Instead, each leader has their own way to promote their populist ideas that are used as their political strategy. This is why, instead of being known as the ideology, the populism agenda in Indonesia is referred to as Prabowo or Jokowi populism.

Prabowo’s agenda to utilize populism has started long before the 2014 presidential election. It took shape between 2002 and 2008 when he began his presidential campaign. When building his populist image, Prabowo looked to Latin America and was fascinated by Hugo Chaves, who also has a military background like him. These two have similarities, pinning foreign interest as the enemy of “the people.” In this case, “the people” are the oppressed community groups, such as farmers and fishermen.

Prabowo’s political program has three main points: economic nationalism, condemnation of the corruption by Indonesian elites, and an authoritarian subtext. Since the 1990s, his agenda was conveyed through presenting himself as the savior of the nation and to make Indonesia the “Asian Tiger”. When identifying the reformation causes, he described the case as a result of corrupt elites and the conspiracy by foreign nations. He believes that the democracy post-Soeharto has become much more “liberal” and too closely based on the Western conception of democracy. Prabowo argues that an “authoritarian leader”—by this, he means himself— is more suitable for Indonesians.

Along with the presidential campaign for the 2019 election, he publicly thanked the 212 movements and interacted with one of the most important figures of Indonesia’s right-wing and Islamic political stance: Habib Rizieq Shihab. Prabowo’s strategy aligns with the majority of right-wing strong economic and cultural sentiments towards the Chinese ethnic group which has been long embedded in the history of Indonesia. Prabowo’s campaign managed to recognize the right-wing views on Chinese ethnic groups that always appeared as a significant factor in determining the course of Indonesian politics. This leads to the right-wing Islamic group that contextualizes their political movements based on the term “ummah” that is interchangeable with “people” and emphasizing the term in responding to the notion of an external group that causes several marginalization of the people. 

With this, there are two main policies that Prabowo always brings: an anti-foreign campaign and a self-sufficiency system. As he always said, the foreign power that currently occurred in Indonesia is something that oppressed the people. Hence, why he always brings anti-foreign policies to the table. Other than that, Prabowo seems to emphasize the need for sustenance and self-sufficiency for the stability of the nation. He once said at the presidential debate back in 2019, “Digitalization is good, but we need a self-sufficiency system.” He believes that rather than putting the main focus on digitalization, providing good sustenance self-sufficiency is more important. He said he would prioritize ensuring a better agricultural production and quality of life for fishermen and farmers.

On the other hand, the Jokowi approach to populism is different. He did not pinpoint and explicitly attack the elitist. His agenda did not revolve around anti-elitism sentiments, making him could be called a “polite populist”. Instead, his agenda is focused on making a bureaucratic reform for his “people,” the administratively oppressed people who experience difficulties in their lives. His solution instead, revolves around giving free education and healthcare to serve the people better and work for the people.

Unlike Prabowo and the majority of Indonesia’s politicians, Jokowi does not have any elitist background. Instead, he presented himself as someone who came from the people and ready to serve the people. He also established a new way to approach the citizens, called blusukan, he approached the people and asked them about concerns that they have. He offered his humility and politeness, also identified with closeness with his people. Making an agenda of from-people-to-people to charm Indonesia’s citizens.

THE RISE OF WORLDWIDE MODERN POPULISM

Although the concept of populism has dated back to the farmers’ protest movements in the USA and Russia during the late 1800s, the term did not peak in popularity until the economic crash of 2008. The emergence of modern populism was one of the outcomes of the 2008 global financial crisis. The economy took a big hit as the recession created a decline in employment and a rise in poverty. In the USA, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimates that nine million families lost their homes in that crisis—between 10 and 15 percent of all homeowners. For the record, amongst one of the European countries, in the UK, between 2008 and 2009, the sudden drop in housing prices, pension funds, and equities resulted in the loss of 31,000 pounds (or almost $50,000 Canadian) for every household (Best 2018).

Although the economic effect of the crisis was short-lived, it appears to have had implications for the democratic system. The economic crash of 2008 has created polarization in politics due to the election feud between Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, as she accused Obama of lying about healthcare for illegal immigrants. Since Palin and her party hold conservative values, the call-out is seen as an attack on the democratic party, exacerbating the crater between two political parties even more than before. 

Populism also emerged due to the failure of political leaders to respond effectively to the financial crisis. According to the research conducted by the Interconomics, every one percentage point increase in unemployment is followed by a one percentage point increase in the vote for populist parties. This shows that economic insecurity felt by citizens contributed to the substantial rise in populism. When the US government decided to focus on fighting inflation rather than unemployment, cutting back social spending, and withholding fiscal stimulus, citizens soon realized that the current system is not benefiting the majority of the people. It also did not help with the fact that the policymakers in the United States and Europe had to implement unpopular structural reforms in the labor, capital, and product markets as well as enforce austerity policies in order to stimulate the economy. 

The burden was especially immense for the unemployed and temporary workers. The balance of power in the job fields does not favor them and in the times where they do manage to make a living wage, they are treated like slaves to ensure the wealth of people above them. The economy was already rigged to ensure that money went to the few, not to the many. The economic crash of 2008 merely unveiled just how severe the division of class is. Then, amidst all of the disappointment, a populist leader rises and claims to represent what the people want; a promise to regain economic strength.

Beyond the 2008 economic crisis, the term “populism” increased greatly in 2016 when Donald Trump conveyed a problem directed not towards the legislators labeled as “the elites,” but towards a cultural aspect of a society: immigration. He portrays immigrants as a cultural and economic threat to “the people” by claiming that immigrants are taking their jobs. He inserted race into an economic problem to build a salient line of difference between real American citizens—as Trump put it himself— and immigrants. Thus, adhering to the concept of identity politics to prosper populism.

IDENTITY POLITICS AS A POPULISM TOOL

The term identity politics have been used to define a separatist movement in Canada and Spain in the late 1950s and the 1960s, to describe a violent ethnic and nationalist conflict in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, and to describe political activism from a minority group to fight against discrimination in the USA. However, according to Merriam-Webster, the definition of identity politics itself is a political belief and system that places a lot of importance on the group to which people see themselves belong, especially according to their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Identity politics plays a big part in populism due to the nature of populism that denies the existence of ingroup pluralism. Identity politics serve as the factor to mobilize populism which utilizes the psychological mechanism to enhance ingroup cohesion and detract the outgroup. Rather than class-based solidarity, a tribal mindset that takes the form of a shared identity-protective cognition seems to be triggered more easily when identity politics are utilized to support populism, even if the area where populism thrives itself is demanding economic reform.

The rise of populism in many parts of the world is related to assertions of identity. When we discuss populism in Hungary, it all started when Fidesz-Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) became the agent for change of a transformation in the parliamentary system in Hungary since 2010. Fundamental Law, a new constitution was established which required two-thirds of votes and regulation on the electoral system, election campaigns, and the media. This system supported by party loyalists and a few important state bodies made it possible for Fidesz-KDNP to ensure the party’s control over politics and the public discourse. Political competition and the values of pluralism have faced setbacks to mobilize in the Hungarian society by the rules benefiting the governing party, which put the opposition parties at a disadvantage. 

The populism in Hungary is nurtured by the triangle of nationalism, the scrutinization of migrations especially those who belong in the Muslim community, and anti-liberalism that relies on the homogeneity values of Christian culture. Prime Minister Orban, with his Fidesz-KDNP party, has indirectly claimed that an “ethnically homogeneous people” is better than the multicultural West. It campaigns the vision to maintain Hungarian people’s freedom and keeping a goal for equal wages across equal jobs in the EU by embracing the culture, strong families, and history of the Hungarian people above all. Its nationalism mostly corresponds to nostalgia for the glory of Hungary. Meanwhile, society’s refusal of the Muslim immigrants was mainly perceived through the lens of cultural difference. 

Referring to Ábel Bódi of the Identity Generation, the Hungarian identity is formed based on three layers; regional, national, and civilizational in which each of the respective aspects is composed of an ethnic and a cultural element. According to his opinion, people who belong to the Hungarian identity are considered ethnically European, and the Hungarian identity preserves Christianity and moral values. When the number of unprecedented asylum-seekers rose in 2015 in Hungary, this was a momentum in which Fidesz’s campaign finally took a course on exploiting the society’s objection to others that have traditionally been strong compared to other countries in the region against immigrants. Fidesz was able to turn Hungarian politics to be more authoritarian by utilizing an anti-immigration campaign. It resulted in the increased support of the party from 24 percent in March 2015 to 38 percent in January 2019. It also helped with the data collected by the Political Capital’s Demand for Right-Wing Extremism Index, which is based on the European Social Survey that says the right-wing supporters of the Fidesz party tend to endorse xenophobic views (Demand for Right-Wing Extremism Index (DEREX) 2016).

THE ESCALATION OF POPULISM AND IDENTITY POLITICS INTO AN AUTHORITARIAN LEADERSHIP

Although a populist leader claimed to speak on behalf of the people, it does not mean that every single of the country’s citizens shares the same values. Hence, to preserve the support and the ideals that already exist, the populist leaders will do whatever it takes to suppress any other voices and effort that hinders this populist to reach his goals. By necessity, a populist leader might have to degenerate into one or another form of non-democratic and authoritarian order.
A populist crowd with a shared value in accordance with their leader could also contribute to the making of an authoritarian regime. In January 2021, Trump’s loyalist voters incited terror in Capitol Hill after Trump’s provocative speech where he denied that he had lost the election. Trump’s words alone could move his voters to storm the Capitol, even though the election results presented proved otherwise. This major incident shows that populist movement loyalists are willing to revolt to change the system and will go to extreme lengths to achieve it. 

The populists in Hungary and the US imposed their policies which successfully institutionalized, through legal reforms, an authoritarian version of a democratic society. From 2015 to 2016, there has been a resurgence of authoritarian populists whose support has swelled in many Western democracies. The rising tides of authoritarian populism mobilize populism by working on the polarization amidst the society, and the stark contrast between “the people” to the various so-called out-groups: immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, or any other groups who do not always reach consensus with the populist leaders. Taking the United States as the case sample, the appeal of authoritarian populism was justified because of the fear of cultural and demographic change.

In the United States, the escalation of democracy towards authoritarianism was something to be longed for by Donald Trump’s supporters. Over recent decades, the World Values Survey found that Western societies have gone through a gradual change towards more liberal values, more welcoming attitudes to diversity, and more policies designed to allow opportunities for migrants to amplify the fear of the majority to be marginalized in their own lands. These fears would then be accommodated and echoed in political campaigns by populists like Donald Trump. In one of the research done by the World Values Survey, his supporters show an affirmation for “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with congress or elections,” thus becoming the basis to support the practice of authoritarianism.

According to the research conducted by political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, for instance, many popular “manifestations” of the politicians’ to “get things done” and combat social and economic problems were referred simply by partisan bickering. A notion that was echoed as a reaction to the federal government’s incapability to progress change is the urgency to elect a nonpartisan outsider; an authoritarian populist that will focus on getting things done.

HOW TO SURVIVE MODERN POPULISM

Through defining populism, examining the massive mobilization of populism throughout countries in the European Continent, as well as the United States, we argue that further cases of populism will lead to polarization of politics and hinder harmony in the society. Here, we believe that there are three key concerns that allow populism to function which are vital to be considered in order to overcome and escape populism, both as a citizen, and as politicians and/or policymakers, the echo chamber, the firehose of falsehood, and the anti-establishment economic paradox. 

First and foremost, in the Digital Age, populism thrives through the use of media play. Compared to the 20th century when access to media is only available to people of a certain status, anyone can now write about anything. And in a society with the constitutional right of free speech, we are bound to encounter hoaxes among the overwhelming amount of information in the media. In addition to freedom of speech potentially creating a blurred line between truth and lies, there is also a phenomenon called “the echo chamber”. 

The echo chamber is a term used to describe a hypothetical room in social media platforms where beliefs are reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttals. This happened because most social media platforms designed their algorithm to keep track of their user’s choices and preferences and recommend homogenous content according to the user’s interest. Thus, affirming their beliefs and make them distrust everybody who says otherwise since all they see are only like-minded opinions specifically tailored to their prejudices. 

The echo chamber phenomenon had led to greater polarization in politics. For example, a liberal user who believes in firearms regulation tends to get news articles about the danger of gun violence. They will be less likely to comprehend how there are people who disagree with passing gun control laws since for them it is apparent that the evidence of gun violence is everywhere. However, with the difference in articles seen by the opposition, they can also argue the same argument. In their perspective, more people disagree to regulate firearms usage than people who do. With the echo chamber, what we speak is what we hear, and any opinions beyond ours are deemed to be invalid. 

Secondly, populist leaders also took advantage of mass media through the “firehose of falsehood” tactic. The term “firehosing” originated from an article published by RAND Corporation back in 2016. In the article, Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews characterized Russia’s propaganda strategy in its 2014 annexation of Crimea as “rapid, continuous, and repetitive, and it lacks commitment to consistency.” According to Paul and Matthews, the goal of firehosing isn’t to convince but to overwhelm by putting out information via as many media and methods as possible. 

The firehosing tactic pioneered by the Russian government reemerges in the characteristics of Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. By enforcing the shared identity-protective cognition inside his supporters’ minds, Trump is able to convince them that the election was a meticulously planned fraud. The claim has no legitimate base and evidence, but it floods the environment with just enough theories that the public becomes disoriented to the facts. 

With the current state of the world that is very turbulent, fragile, and unpredictable, the appearance of populism might become more prominent again in the future. Governments are predicted to respond similarly to the economic decline as they did in the 2008 financial crash, hence making it almost impossible to be rid of populism altogether. After weighing in this fact, we conclude that there are three possible solutions to navigate the problem of populism.

Realizing that competing ideologies must exist to balance each other to create an accountability system, we must emphasize the importance of constructing positive political narratives where differences could be beneficial to the development of society. These positive political narratives can be given through organic changes such as the expansion of civic education about democratic processes and institutions. Additionally, in regard to media, public policy or legal laws that limit freedom of speech in media must also be implemented to minimize misinformation (similar to Law No. 11 of 2008 on Electronic information and transactions in Indonesia). 

Finally, when it comes to the anti-establishment economic policy, it is clear that the policies are made as a reaction to the national structural changes in the economy, which in some ways are turning into a setback such as trade and financial crisis. For example, the US during Trump’s administration did a full-scale trade war with China. What’s concerning about this protectionist strategy is that it acts as another factor that slows the economy, hence making people angrier. To overcome the illusion that external groups are at fault for the difficulties that the people experienced, steps such as raising minimum wages, ensuring better training for young people and anyone who needs to shift to another industry as a result of automation and trade, as well as implementing a progressive tax system to ensure that richer people pay more tax need to be taken.

References can be accessed through http://bit.ly/DipRevPopulismReferences

Lathifah Nurul Jannah, Azzadina Nurulain Ikhwan, and Regita Eka Maritza are Protégés of FPCI Chapter UI Board of 2020.

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