Tag Archives: populism

Populism in modern day Russia

Nikita Lyakhovetskiy is an ALDE Im from Russia.  Political activist from Russia, specialising in International law and International relations. Member of Russian United Democratic Party “Yabloko”, he talks about populism in Russia.

Most often populism is understood as actions of politicians, who for the sake of gaining or preserving power promise to easily solve the problems which are recognized by the citizens as the most serious, as well as create an artificial social conflict between the so-called majority and another social group e.g. the ‘elites’, or  for example “enemies of the state” or “agents of the US” which is a common rhetoric among Russian state owned propaganda programs, referred to the liberal opposition.

Fulfilling the said promises is not so easy, so the populists in power tend to divert the public attention by making other promises, or deepening the artificially created social conflicts, as well as create the so called “besieged fortress effect” so loved by Vladimir Putin. It’s core idea is that people won’t be paying enough attention to political sphere, when they feel scared of  enemies both inside or outside the country. That’s why for Putin’s system it is vital to be in a conflict military or political, in order to “unite” the citizens in the face of this artificially created danger.

Putin’s invention is the anti-negative populism. This is a populism of one who is in power, however it requires very few resources. At first negative expectations are created, and then, of course by the good will of authorities and Mr. Putin, they are not being implemented, or are significantly reduced, which leads to approval rising for them.
Since the economy is in the decline, compared with the 2000s the government has to create positive news related to it, as well as implement the “good king – bad boyars” formula, when the government officials are blamed for all the problems, this includes even demonstrative punishments of corrupt officials, whilst Putin is shown as the good and caring Father of the Nation.

Populism is far from harmless because it leads to degradation of political elites and civic society, encourages prejudices and phobias, promotes ideas of national exclusivity and superiority.
But in the state where populism became a part of national ideology opposition is no exception. Many political forces who oppose or say that they oppose Putin use the similar rhetoric or approach, just on a smaller scale.
First there are parties of the Crimean consensus. These are the only three parties, apart from Putin’s United Russia,  represented in Russian State Duma – they support Putin’s military operations, as well as agree with him on major political issues. United Russia has an overwhelming majority, big enough to pass any bill they desire, so the parliamentary “opposition” which in reality is rather loyal to the regime, and controlled by it, can make any promises they want. As they have little to no chance of gaining a majority, they tend to make unrealistic, but appealing to the general public, promises, as there is no chance of them being in the position, where they would be able to bring any of them to life.
Lack of democratic institutions and transfers of power, is the best environment for populism, which in itself leads to further degradation of political institutes, as well as harms civic society.  What’s more worrying, is that some non-systemic opposition politicians and parties tend to use populist rhetoric and methods as well.

A great example of this is one of the prominent opposition leaders – Alexey Navalny. One of his characteristic features is constant changing of political views as well as allies – liberals, then nationalists, leftists. He tries to appeal and work with everyone, no matter their political views or positions. Navalny is using a common anti-elite populist method, of creating division, anyone who is not with him is labeled as pro-Putin, with no exception. He creates this two polar world, where there are only two main players – him and Putin, and no one else. He is not seeking alliance, only obedient supporters, who have to agree with him. And his political program has no scientific basis, but is filled with slogans and unrealistic promises.

So, What should be the liberal answer to the growth of populism? In the world of post-truth, where facts are way less significant than appeals to emotions and personal beliefs, social liberalism must counter populism with responsible politics.
Firstly we should focus on the grassroots level,  taking part in local elections, referendums and public hearings, as well as helping out people on the local level. This would increase the social capital, as well as help the formation of civic activists – environment that is hostile to populism.
Secondly – organize civic control over the authorities, ensuring their transparency and increasing public discussion of their actions.
And thirdly – create and help building up independent media sources, to break through the wall of state – propaganda.

Outside influence on the Euro-sceptic Populists

In this contribution, Yves de Rosee describes the climbing of Bannon’s populist vision of society in Europe and how liberalism is the antidote 

The Populists

As for any word in “…ism”, there is no single definition or interpretation for “Populism”. The word obviously comes from “people”. It is not a political philosophy, as populists can come from the left or the right of the political spectrum. What unites the populists is that they seek to appeal by playing on the fears of people, their anxiety or anger, and propose simplistic solutions to complex problems. Today’s populism is best described as a political approach that poses ‘the people’ as a group against their ‘elites’ or ‘establishment’ in the areas of culture, justice, business, economics, politics and media. The elites are viewed and portrayed as placing their own interests above the interests of the people, thus becoming enemies of the people. The elites are supposed to be active behind the scene, as a ‘deep state’ entrenched in a ‘swamp’ that need to be ‘drained’ so that the ‘will of the people’ can be implemented. This has become the common vocabulary of populists.

A society that feels threatened or insecure in its identity, culture, economic development is quick to conclude that their elected representatives do not serve its people, and need to be removed or replaced by others, who will establish a new order, outside the prevailing norms. Existing or would-be politicians with a good ear for this anger of the people are as quick to respond with easy solutions. The archetype of these opportunists in recent times is Donald Trump. But Trump could not have reached the Presidency of the United States without an intellectual mentor able to articulate the grief of the people, and the easy road to reach the new order. The name of this mentor is Steve Bannon, a well-known figure in all populist parties across the globe, and who has set his sight on the EU, and its next Parliament.

It is thus worth looking deeper at the Trump-Bannon duo.

Trump and Steve Bannon

Trump is not a thinker – by his own admission, he is not even a reader, just a “dealer”. He has never been faithful in his party affiliations. As he said: “You’d be shocked if I said that in many cases I probably identify more as a Democrat” … “Look, I’m a Republican. I’m a very conservative guy in many respects—I guess in most respects” …  “I’ve actually been an activist Democrat and Republican.”

Trump invented or at least popularized the now famous expression ‘fake news’ that he accuses everyone in sight of using against him. However, it is Trump himself who is the King of Fake News: according to the Washington Post Fact Checker database, barely two years after becoming President, Trump has made 8,158 false or misleading claims! He averaged nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day in his first year in office. But he hit nearly 16.5 a day in his second year, almost triple the pace!

Trump, who started his electoral campaign with less than 5% of the possible votes became a successful populist candidate under the guidance of Steve Bannon. His messages, methods and tactics are being copied in Europe.

Steve Bannon was born in 1953 to a Catholic, pro-Democrat family. He has 3 university degrees, of which one is an MBA from Harvard. He was a US Naval Officer; an investment banker at Goldman Sachs; a researcher in the Biosphere 2 project; the founder of the Government Accountability Institute; the producer and director of 18 films and documentaries; the CEO of Breitbart News, an online right-wing media website. Most noteworthy, Breitbart was financed by the US billionaire Robert Mercer, a computer scientist and early developer in artificial intelligence and co-CEO of  the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, as well as majority shareholder of Cambridge Analytica, the big data consulting firm, which illegally supported Nigel Farage and the Brexit side of the UK referendum on EU membership. Bannon was thus very well connected with money, power and the old and new media.

Bannon met Trump early in the Republican primaries in 2015 at the Breitbart talk show he was hosting. He joined the campaign of Trump after leaving that of the better-known candidate Texas Senator Ted Cruz because he thought Trump was more radically different from all other Republican candidates to implement his vision for changing society. Trump quickly made him the CEO of his campaign, which ended in a surprise victory.

Bannon’s vision of society

Bannon’s vision of American and Western society is anchored in the generational theory of two American historians (William Strauss and Neil Howe), known also as the Fourth Turning. According to the theory (dismissed by many scholars), world events unfold in predictable cycles of roughly 80 years each that can be divided into four chapters, or turnings: growth, maturation, entropy (degeneration) and destruction.  As the theory goes, western societies have experienced the same patterns for centuries, as naturally and necessarily as the four seasons.

Bannon believes that western societies are currently in the degeneration phase, in a period of momentous crisis, when the identity of the nation is at stake, and that radical change must take place, that includes, in his own words, the “destruction of the administrative state”.

According to Bannon, western societies faces three major threats for their survival: (i) Judeo-Christianity is threatened by Islam; (ii) national identity is threatened by immigration; (iii) capitalism is threatened as undermined by government regulations and social policies. Those threats and their radical remedies are all encapsulated in the Inaugural Address of Trump at his inauguration as President on 20 January 2017. The address itself – spelling out Bannon’s vision – is radical in its tone and historical perspective, as the future is presented as having no continuity with the past; instead there is clean break between two eras, the before- and after-Trump eras. Here are a few relevant excerpts: “January 20 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again… This American carnage stops right here and stops right now… From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

Bannon as icon for European populists – His rise and fall

Bannon’s career reached its peak when Trump made him his Chief Strategist and elevated him to the National Security Council. He became all-powerful and legendary when he was photographed in his office in the White House with a white board on which his political agenda was translated into a bullet point for each policy goal. He also became an inspirational leader for right-wingers across the world when he was featured on the cover of TIME magazine in February 2017, with the sole title ‘the Great Manipulator’.

That particular TIME issue was also the undoing of Bannon in Trump’s orbit, as the President could not tolerate in his inner circle someone who enjoyed being compared to Trump, or even viewed as the “real” president.

After being fired by Trump in August 2017, Bannon continued his crusade for a new order at the international level, especially in Europe, intent on disrupting the EU from within – starting with Brexit and throwing his support behind Nigel Farage and other Leavers. Returning to Breitbart, he reinforced its office in London, but failed to open offices in Paris and Germany.

The “Movement” in Brussels

Bannon had this idea of creating a super-group of “like-minded” Eurosceptics or right-wing parties that he would actively support with central source of polling, messaging advice, data targeting and think tank research. It has not yet materialised as there is an inherent contradiction in the promotion of nationalism through an international alliance. Nationalist parties are not “like-minded” at all in critical areas, such as the role of the state in general, social policy, economic policy, data protection, etc. Bannon is not withdrawing from this dream, but scaling it back. Along with Mischael Modrikamen (Head of the People Party in Belgium) and Matteo Salvini (Head of La Ligua in Italy), he created ‘The Movement’ – a populist bloc aiming to win at the next election for the European Parliament as many seats as possible in order to shift the balance of power towards the implementation of the bloc’s new, but limited, European dream of sealing Europe’s frontiers.

If over 20 right wing parties have indicated an interest in joining The Movement, only three have done so, demonstrating the waning influence of Bannon as an international populist leader. However, his original message of a post-global liberal order based on intolerance and closed societies is being sustained by the deep well of discontent across many European countries, as demonstrated by the gilets jaunes in France, which Bannon compares to the Tea Party movement in the US around 2008.

Liberalism as the antidote

Liberalism was defined by The Economist in its issue of 15 September 2018 as “a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform”.

That should be the best antidote to the current populism. It is not a given. We should all work for it.

Italian populism and the art of propaganda: how to gain consensus without governing

In this contribution, our blog coordinator Emanuele Lombardini explain his point of view on the present crisis in Italy and the growing of populism in the country, in light of recent political events. It’s a bit longer than most entries on this blog but the  the topic deserves special attention, to allow non-Italians  to better understand the events.


All propaganda must be popular, adapting its level to the least intelligent of the individuals to whom it is directed. The larger the mass is to convince, the smaller the mental effort must be made. Their capacity to elaborate informations is very poor, as well as their memory”.

(J.Goebbels, The 11 propaganda principles, “Principle of Vulgarization”)

The best way to make sense to what is happening in the Italian political scenario since March 5th onwards, is to use the words of Joseph Gobbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda. Because it’s only propaganda that moves on the debate. Economic crisis, high unemployment rate, inability of governments to communicate the importance of being part of the EU to be competitive and the unexpected explosion in the numbers of migrants landed on Italian coasts, fueled anger and indignations in people, so populist forces only need to feed this desire for rebellion to gain consensus, without making any serious and concrete proposal.

Moreover, among M5S (Five Stars Movement) and Lega voters, besides people tired of institutions, there is also a part less educated and another part  little inclined to go beyond a search on Google. People only need simple solutions to complex problems, and this nothing better for populist forces.

Italian Constitution state that is the President of Republic that have the power to nominate Prime Minister and “on the indication of the latter”, all the Ministers. This was not the first time that President of Republic says ‘no’ to one of the name on the list, so it is usual to present him also some alternative names. But the institutional clash is exactly that 5 Stars Movement and Lega wanted to provoke from the beginning of this crisis.

They found help in a particularly poor electoral law, which only allow a grouping to govern if a single party of a coalition reach 40%. None of the three blocks achieved this result, so President Sergio Mattarella tried first to join M5S (most voted party) and center-right (most voted coalition). But the attempt failed on the request from M5S to dialogate only with Lega, without Forza Italia and ‘condemned’ Berlusconi. Then he tried to join M5S with Democratic Party (second most voted party) but also this attempt failed, because of a ‘suffered no’ from this latter party.

When, in order to avoid a new ‘techincal Monti-style government’ Berlusconi accepted to ‘step aside’, it officially started the populist alliance’s attempt to delegitimate the institutions we are watching to, which is functional to the only real project: to grow consensus and return to the vote as soon as possible, without getting their hands dirty with the responsibility of government, with the risk of losing voters.

Propaganda must limit itself to a small number of ideas and repeat them tirelessly, always present them under different perspectives, but always converging on the same concept. Without doubts or uncertainties. From here comes the phrase: “A lie repeated endlessly becomes the truth”.

(J.Goebbels, The 11 propaganda principles, “Principle of Orchestration”)

Never stop propaganda. This is only important thing for the Italian populist parties. And do it in their own way: small number of ideas, few simple concepts that indignant people have to assimilate and built the consensus around them.

So, there is the so-called ‘Government contract’: a mix of economical proposals without coverage, a parallel currency, a ‘far west –style’ justice and racial discriminations. And there is the battle, sought and wanted on the appointed Minister of Economy Paolo Savona, a highly regarded professor well known in Europe for his ‘Euro-Exit’ ideas. President Mattarella accepted a ‘non elected’ mostly unknown prime minister (jurist and professor Giuseppe Conte), and all the list of ministers they propose. Except for Savona. And that’s exactly they want to reach. For M5S and Lega was important to present this name without an alternative one to say: “Without Paolo Savona, we will not make government start” and go to the clash.

It was above all Lega Leader Matteo Salvini who wants the clash, even if he spoke of ‘dignity’: everything was functional to build a narrative that had only one great ‘all season’ enemy, to be used as a ‘non government alibi’ and if needed as lightning rod in case the ‘impossible government’ had started and failed in their ‘proposals’.

“It is necessary to adopt only one idea, one symbol. And above all, to identify the adversary in an enemy, in the sole responsible of all evils “

(J.Goebbels, The 11 propaganda principles, “The Unique Enemy”)

M5S and Lega leaders, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, are well aware that it is impossible to get into the Government quickly through the change of the electoral law.

How to get out of the stall and gain consensus, then? Maximizing the tone of the fight, lowering even more the level of arguments and pointing to the belly of the voters (in example: video-harangues on facebook and tweets through which they call for a mass mobilitation), in a sort of massacre game and reduce as much as possible the number of real ‘competitors’. Then return to the vote as soon as possible. And if there is still not enough consensus, start again.

First step reached: Italy, probably will vote again in July, only 4 months after last elections:  none of the parties – not even the Democratic Party and +Europa  (albeit for different reasons) – will support the technical government that President Mattarella has now entrusted to a famous economist, Carlo Cottarelli, former International Monetary Fund official. He will therefore only remain in office at interim with limited tasks until next elections.

Uploading errors and faults to the opponent, responding to the attack with the attack. If you cannot deny bad news, invent new ones to distract “

(Joseph Goebbels, The 11 Principles of Propaganda, Transposition).

The only real winner of this game, unfortunately, is Matteo Salvini. The former MEP Parliament used the initial real M5S willing to govern (and their claimed inexperience, and multiform shape) to make them accept a right oriented ‘Government contract’ that distorted some of their principles and disturbed the ‘left oriented’ base Movement. More, Salvini is eroding Forza Italia spaces, and when Italy will return to vote, probably he will succeed in the objective of seeing Lega  consensus grow a lot.

And if M5S were to lose also some votes because of that ‘compromise’, then could be also possible that Lega becomes first Italian party.

This is why it is absolutely necessary that the liberal, pro-European and democratic forces – setting aside the differences – already join forces to build a real alternative to a drift that risks turning Italy into Venezuela rather than Hungary. Only in this way, with a dialogue around shared projects, can we really change Europe and lay the foundations for a re-start that gives Italy the leading role in the Union.

 

 

 

IL POPULISMO, IL FASCISMO E IL MEZZOGIORNO IN UN’EUROPA CHE CAMBIA

In this blog post (in Italian) Massimo Ricciuti describes the situation in Italy, the return of ‘fascist’ ideas and possible liberal solutions. Furthermore, he explains the particular situation in Southern Italy

In queste settimane, immediatamente successive alla tornata delle elezioni amministrative in Italia,  alle presidenziali e successivamente alle legislative francesi (oltre quelle inglesi) sono emerse questioni drammaticamente importanti che ci toccano da vicino. C’è una crisi generalizzata delle istituzioni democratiche, è vero e tale crisi fa immediatamente affrontata. Ma il punto più preoccupante che è emerso in questi giorni è la sfacciata ricomposizione di gruppi e forze politiche dichiaratamente fasciste. Purtroppo la questione è generalizzata e coinvolge tutta l’Europa.  E’ quindi quanto mai urgente porsi il problema di “quale Europa” ci sia bisogno.

Cambiare per superare la ‘transizione permanente’

E’ ormai acclarato che siamo definitivamente entrati in quella che si chiama “fase di transizione permanente”. La qual cosa ci pone di fronte a rimetterci continuamente in discussione come cittadini di un’Europa che se vuol davvero essere all’altezza delle sfide della contemporaneità deve fare del “cambiamento” il suo elemento distintivo. Il cambiamento (o anche crisi) è parte fondamentale della vita dei singoli ma anche delle istituzioni. Ma il cambiamento spesso fa paura e non è un caso che il sentimento dominante oggi è la paura. Le società contemporanee sono afflitte da questa sensazione di incapacità di affrontare il nuovo e ecco che trovano terreno fertile forze politiche e gruppi che si reggono proprio sulla paura. Ma abbiamo il dovere della memoria. E deve essere sempre presente la cognizione che le peggiori dittature sono diretta espressione dell’incapacità dei singoli e delle istituzioni di reagire positivamente alle fasi di crisi (cambiamento). Dalla Brexit all’Ungheria, dal fenomeno Le Pen fino allo scampato pericolo populista in Olanda e continuando fino all’Italia si può dire che l’Europa si sia battuta con tenacia impedendo l’imporsi di una egemonia reazionaria e illiberale. Ma è vero che nel frattempo elementi di forte preoccupazione si sono palesati in tutti i Paesi membri della UE. Non nascondiamoci dietro allo scampato pericolo…perché qualcosa che brucia c’è, e solo un’ Europa rinnovata e più forte può far fronte a segnali spesso intollerabili e sfacciati. Un’Europa che spesso è proprio il bersaglio principale di sovranisti di ogni risma. Per esempio, non è casuale quello che sta accadendo in Italia oggi.

Il ritorno di nostalgie ‘fasciste’  e come superarle

Proprio in questi giorni si sta discutendo, in Parlamento, della possibilità di estendere il reato di apologia del fascismo anche su web e di inasprire le pene per chi commette tale reato. La reazione delle destre populiste (Salvini, Fratelli d’Italia e il Movimento Cinque Stelle di Grillo) sì è subito fatta sentire. Tra l’altro in questi partiti vi sono molti assessori, consiglieri comunali e regionali che non fanno mistero di inneggiare a Benito Mussolini e al nazifascismo.

Credo di non essere il solo a essere preoccupato per tutto questo.

Di sicuro si tratta dell’ennesimo fenomeno che segnala una debolezza di tenuta della forma della democrazia rappresentativa e dei suoi meccanismi di funzionamento ma anche di una sensazione di lontananza delle istituzioni che devono rispondere a nuove urgenze che la contemporaneità richiede.

Però risulta evidente che esiste una questione “fascista” , in Italia, mai metabolizzata e risolta. E’ come se ci fosse una sorta di “rimozione” psicologica…. E spesso accade che chi si macchia del reato di apologia del fascismo non viene perseguito ma tollerato. Questo fa pensare che in fondo questo Paese non abbia mai affrontato realmente il ventennio fascista e forse ne abbia quasi nostalgia!

Mussolini viene ricordato come un “nonno” severo e nulla più dalla maggior parte degli italiani,  la cosa è drammatica.

Per questo occorre subito smettere di rincorrere i populisti e le loro tematiche. Occorre puntare sull’Europa come propulsore di democrazia e civiltà. Occorre rilanciare l’open society contro i sovranismi di ogni tipo.

La ‘Questione meridionale’: clientele da superare

Esiste, inoltre, un’altra questione che riguarda il mezzogiorno d’Italia e il ruolo che dovrebbe avere in un’Europa che sia protagonista dei cambiamenti che riguardano i Paesi che affacciano sul Mediterraneo. Un’Europa che sappia governare i cambiamenti e che stimoli e sproni zone come il sud-Italia a essere partecipe del presente e artefice del proprio futuro e non vittima di ataviche cattive abitudini e atteggiamenti conservatori. E’ proprio dalla presa di coscienza delle proprie possibilità che il sud e i Paesi mediterranei potranno (nel medio periodo) essere un volano per  tutta l’Europa visto il ruolo che potrebbero avere su un’area in cui gli scambi commerciali, culturali e economici offrono ambi margini e occasioni di sviluppo e crescita. Ma il Mezzogiorno di Italia la smetta di perpetuare modelli di governo locale plebiscitari, peronisti e clientelari! Abbia la forza di scommettere su se stesso e sulle proprie capacità di saper attrarre investimenti. Dimostri di saper sfruttare le sue naturali risorse e “faccia sistema” con il resto del Paese e si faccia parte propulsiva di un nuovo progetto di rilancio europeo che parta dal mediterraneo…. E vedrete che con un po’ di rigore e una decisa assunzione di responsabilità il sud potrà essere nel giro di un decennio l’esempio di un nuovo modo di fare impresa. Un ponte di opportunità per tutta l’ Europa. Un ruolo strategico (non è un caso che la base NATO di Napoli sia stata scelta come riferimento europeo per la lotta al terrorismo)

A patto che si smetta con nostalgie nefaste…

Massimo Ricciuti

European democracy reloaded (or pruned)

In this blog post, Leonardo De Melo talks about the future of the European Union, primarily for young people who do not remember a time when the Union didn’t exist. Leonardo leads a thoughtful discussion on what future these young people will inherit, particularly concerning education and employment opportunities. Finally, Leonardo discusses the need for Government transparency and openness. Continue reading European democracy reloaded (or pruned)