ALL over the world, a new kind of populism is gaining momentum — one that is frightening in the kind of appeal it relies on for support. Its thrust is in two directions: the first against the democratic conventions enshrined in the discourse of rights, citizenry and tolerance; the second in the anger aimed at an amorphously defined other, whether resident minorities within a country or immigrants and refugees. There are other undercurrents too, such as resentment at growing inequalities and the tightening grip on power by big business, as evidenced by the anger directed at banks and trade agreements. But those animated by such strong feelings arising from the increasingly unrepresentative character of contemporary democracies through their near-complete subordination to the needs of big capital, are finding it hard to turn their anger into a viable political project. This has left the stage wide open for a more atavistic, xenophobic anger as the principal opposition to a discredited status quo. Bernie Sanders bowing out of the race, leaving the field to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, illustrated this perfectly.

Undoubtedly, this new populism has been many years in the making. Long before Mr Sanders, there were the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, and the Howard Dean campaign in 2004. And long before Mr Trump, there were innumerable congressmen who ran on anti-immigrant, xenophobic platforms. But today the firebrand variety of populism is on the march around the globe, capturing state power at the top in countries from India to Turkey, and upsetting national elections and referendums from Europe to Australia. A delicately drawn and embattled consensus around the politics of rights and citizenship, in place since the end of the Second World War and embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, now wears a haggard look in a world where inequities rule and state power is crumbling setting into motion some of the largest movements of people ever seen in history.

This new populism presents a stark challenge to the continuation of the democratic project. The biggest challenge it presents is the latent threat to the democratic experiment — not more than a few centuries old — from within through the ruthless suppression of dissent and the branding of all those who are not marching in lockstep with it as traitors, terrorists, agents of foreign powers or enemies of the state. The challenge for the old guard now is to advance a vision to drain the growing swamp of discontented constituencies that are flocking to the toxic allure of xenophobia and hyper-nationalism. Mounting an effective opposition to this juggernaut of hate is emerging as global priority number one. Citizens and intellectuals in each country where this trend is sweeping the landscape, must forge solidarity and find a way to face this challenge together.

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2016



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