In a series of documentaries for the BBC, between the early 2000s and 2016, prolific documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis demonstrates how, since the late 1970s —when the idea of social democracy began to come under tremendous duress — politicians in Europe and the US began to outsource their responsibilities to financial institutions. 

Curtis links the evolution of this tendency to the demise of social democracy and the rise of ideas such as ‘neo-conservatism’, which eventually mutated to become the strand of populism that swept across many countries from 2014 onwards. 

The weakening of the image of a politician who existed to serve the people through reform was allowed to be overshadowed by ‘technocrats.’ But as the old-fashioned politician faded away, a new kind of politician emerged. He was not only against the old-fashioned politician but also against the technocrat.

He was the new populist — charismatic, audacious, contradictory and almost demagogic in his rhetoric. Yet he came to power through a democratic system. He enjoyed a staunch base of support which was unmoved by his contradictory behaviour. His disdain for experts, intellectuals and old style of politics was applauded by many who began to see the old-fashioned politician as crooked and technocrats as cold, calculating exploiters.  

This was post-modernist machoism: The muscular internalisation of the self by linking it to indigenous ideas of faith, culture and nationalism, and the externalisation of existentialist threats through rhetoric against those deemed as outsiders or working with hostile external forces. 

Could populism have become the first ideological casualty of the coronavirus pandemic?

But just like most postmodernist ideas that often wobble and fail to hold in the face of various universalist ideas, postmodernist populism too found itself feeling entirely disoriented with the rapid global spread of a tiny virus and the consequential disease, the Covid-19. 

Indeed, almost every regime is struggling to grapple with the spread of this virus. But one saw the neo-populist governments completely lose their sheen and composure in this crisis. These include Italy, India, UK, the US, Pakistan, the Philippines, Iran, Brazil and Hungary, and/or countries that had elected populists, even though Iran remains an authoritarian theocracy. 

Again, even non-populist regimes are facing criticism, but the thing about the neo-populists before the Covid-19 outbreak was that they were successfully riding out all other criticism in a world that seemed to have been okay with the idea of romancing nationalist chauvinism, and even various forms of bigotry and irrationality. Science, too, became a victim of this disposition. 

Nevertheless, regimes headed by populists are now facing a barrage of criticism that they cannot manage to divert or neutralise. As people around them continue to catch the virus, and as economies crumble, social life has come to a halt and the air of fear thickens by each passing day. 

Thomas Wright and Kurt Campbell write in the March 5 edition of Brookings that the dreaded virus is “exposing the limits of populism”. They point out how certain populist regimes in developed countries exposed their country’s susceptibility to the virus by cutting down health programmes and related funding. 

In an interview that he gave to the science newsletter Nautilus (March 12), the well-known virologist Dr Dennis Carol laments that many countries today are governed by inertia. He said such viruses can only be tackled through a global response but populism has fragmented the global networks required to face the challenge. 

He gave the example of Trump’s ‘America first’ mantra that expresses the kind of inertia which is disrupting the fight against Covid-19. True to populism’s habit of externalising the source of a problem, Trump seems to be more invested in blaming China for the virus rather than his own regime’s incompetence in handling the pandemic. 

On the website of the European Council of Foreign Relations, T. Corratella writes that Covid-19 is weakening Italy’s brand of populism. The article adds that restrictive measures required to check the spread of the virus are antithetical to the ideas of neo-populism that mushroomed in many European countries. That’s why authorities are struggling to apply these restrictions in countries such as Italy, France and the UK.

However, Corratella says that the popularity of populist parties is plunging in those areas of Italy most hit by Covid-19. Same is the case in Pakistan, where the populist government of Imran Khan, though tough in its rhetoric against ‘corruption’, seemed indecisive, even meek, when pressed to take the Covid-19 challenge head-on. It’s a simple matter of populists failing to recognise an enemy which does not belong in the cannon of threats that their pre-Covid-19 narratives had formed. 

They can’t understand it. And the measures required to tackle it are at the opposite end of the post-modernist worldview through which they understand their political, economic and cultural surroundings. As John Harris writes in The Guardian (March 15), populists all over the world had declared a war against civil servants, experts and scientific communities. But the crises caused by Covid-19 have brought these very communities at the forefront. One can thus assume that populism has become this outbreak’s first ideological casualty.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 29th, 2020