Populists dismantle institutions that are seen as a hindrance to serve the ‘popular will’. These institutions are often democratic, but can also include state institutions such as the judiciary and the military. However, in developed democracies, the role of the judiciary and the military in politics is infrequent.
That’s why populists in the US and Europe concentrate solely on entering legislative assemblies which they can then attempt to bend according to their worldview, in ways that are not very democratic. Populists do not necessarily completely step out of democratic boundaries. Rather, they operate from the peripheries that are usually left uncharted by more mainstream politicians.
If we look at Trump’s presidency in the US, the politics of Brexit in the UK, and the current governments headed by Narendra Modi in India and Viktor Orbán in Hungry, we can observe how populists build narratives from emotions and issues bubbling just underneath the surface of their countries’ democratic set-ups.
Read: Populism and Pakistan
They make these a talking point in the public discourse. These narratives are usually avoided by mainstream politics because they smack of some entirely illiberal ideas. But these ideas (and emotions) are put in the mainstream by the populists. They are then re-figured as logical responses to the ‘oppressive’ ways and the ‘corruption’ of the elite and the liberals. Racist and bigoted ideas and emotions are framed as responses to ‘subjugation’ rather than as perpetrators of discord and intolerance in society.
In Europe and the US, a majority of people who recently voted for populists come from classes below the middle. Those voting for populists in developing countries, however, largely belong to urban middle classes. Why?
Yet, the populists who paint these ideas as justified responses to elite subjugation and liberal biases, operate inside mainstream democratic edifices. These populists did not storm legislative assemblies. They were put there by voters. In Europe and the US, a majority of people who recently voted for populists, often (but not exclusively) came from classes below the middle. But those voting for populists in developing countries largely belong to urban middle classes. Why?
The answer to this may lie in the recent shift observed in the electoral patterns of a large number of Latinos in the US. From being solid Democratic Party voters, they are now more likely to vote for the increasingly populist Republican Party. Why would a non-white community support a populism that has a demagogic disposition towards non-white races, and on issues such as immigration and multiculturalism?
For decades, Latinos migrated from various Latin American regions. Many of them have done well to become ‘middle class’. But those who have, are not comfortable with more Latinos pouring into the US. They see them (and also non-Latino migrants) as a threat.
They feel vulnerable and fear that the pressure on the US economy to accommodate newer migrants might push the middle class Latinos down the ladder that they have spent decades climbing. Consequently, many Latinos have developed anti-liberal views. Trump’s anti-Latino rhetoric did not bother middle class Latinos, as long as it kept the ‘threat’ out.
In the last decade, in India and Pakistan, the urban middle classes have increasingly provided unprecedented support to populists such as Modi and Imran Khan. Indeed, it was the working class whites, and those residing in conservative rural regions of the US and Europe, who became the main vote-banks of populists. But the non-whites who voted for Trump or Brexit, for example, were largely middle and upper-middle class.
Their reasons were almost the same as those of the middle classes rooting for Modi and Khan in India and Pakistan: a feeling of vulnerability and the consequent fear of being overwhelmed by the uncouth classes below, and by the economic ‘subjugation’ and ‘corruption’ of the classes above.
According to Professor Raj M. Desai, there has been a sharp fall in poverty and a steady growth of the middle class since 1965. In developing countries such as India and Pakistan, schemes were enacted by ruling political parties to pull a substantial number of people out of poverty.
These schemes often convert into votes. Expectations of the poor who get pulled up are modest. Many of the poor also managed to enter the middle class segments. Here, expectations rise. According to Desai, people with increasing purchasing power, education and information can place tremendous pressure on governments that lack the capacity to meet such expectations.
The speed with which the number of middle class folk grew in India and Pakistan, outpaced the responses of governments that were still doing constituency politics. And the constituencies still had a majority of people looking to either escape poverty or improve their economic standing. But middle class constituencies also began to form. They developed their own set of demands, which the governments did not have the capacity to meet.
So these constituencies began to depend on ‘better’ utility services, education and employment provided by private sectors. They also developed a distaste for conventional party politics, rejecting it as being corrupt and outdated. Conventional parties were seen as a threat too.
The perception among the middle-income groups in developing countries is that these parties are only serving the needs of the lower classes for their own electoral and economic benefits.
As a result, in countries such as Pakistan and Thailand, for example, the middle classes began to support authoritarian ideas manifested by military elites. This elite was often at odds with established political parties. It adopted the middle class mindset. But as direct military rule became tougher to sustain in a changing global scenario, the military — that had developed a constituency of its own — began to engineer civilian outfits. The Thai party Palang Pracharath is an example, and so are the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N, in the 1990s) and recently the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).
The military elites do this because they too begin to see established electoral parties as a threat to their interests. But often, to neutralise established parties, outfits engineered by the military (with the aid of other state institutions such as the judiciary) adopt overtly populist dispositions. Eventually, this populism begins to see the military as an anti-middle class threat as well.
This is what happened with the PTI in Pakistan. Its populism found a natural home in the already reactive middle income groups. But it also permeated individuals active within the military and the judiciary. This populism thus mutated and began to harbour even more intense reactionary ideas. These ideas are a mixture of religious nationalism, victimhood, siege mentality and an entirely self-centred outlook, which perceives the middle class ‘us’ as an untainted lot compared to the vast body of the ‘them’ who are illiterate, uncivilised and corrupt.
The country today is a proper mess.
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 31st, 2022