Truth is not the first casualty of war alone; it is the first casualty of populism
Today’s world is being increasingly shaped by charismatic leaders. In the US, Europe, and more recently in India, Indonesia, Philippines, Brazil and Turkey, we see the rise of populist leaders who claim to champion the cause of the working poor.
So, what is populism? It is a political and social phenomenon that arises from the common man being fed up with 1) wealth and opportunity gaps, 2) perceived cultural threats from those with different values in the country and outsiders, 3) the “establishment elites” in positions of power, and 4) government not working effectively for them. These sentiments lead people to put strong leaders in power because they want to believe that a powerful and charismatic leader is on their side in an unjust world and will make the system work for them.
Research by Investment firm Bridgewater Associates shows a rise in populism that mirrors the rise of populist leaders after 1930. The Great Depression in the 1920s created huge economic distress resulting in disillusionment with the ruling parties. The common man saw the elite prospering through outright corruption and crony practices. They became disenchanted with the political squabbling and ineffectual policymaking, they started to yearn for bold action. There was also the feeling among many that those who didn’t share the same background/ethnicity/religion, were threatening their way of life.
These conditions led to the rise of populist leaders like Roosevelt, Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco in the 1930s. They all recognized the opportunity to align themselves with the common man. Their initial rhetoric was profoundly anti-establishment, and they criticized the current ruling interests by calling them elites who were out of touch and had failed to serve the people. Like all populist leaders, they were strongly nationalists and held national unity as a key aim.
Populism’s natural way of expressing itself is authoritarianism. As a result, populist leaders generally detest the debate and disagreement inherent in democracy and seek to empower the executive branch, using strong-arm tactics to prevent others from getting in their way and, in more extreme cases, undermining democracy.
Populist leaders are typically confrontational rather than collaborative and exclusive rather than inclusive. As a result, conflicts between factions became increasingly intense, leading in turn to more autocratic leadership. Controlling the media (message) becomes an important aspect of engaging in these conflicts. Populist leaders also distort the truth as reality confronts their rhetoric and delusions. According to Simon Schama, Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, the biggest problem with populism is that it is based on lies. “The first thing populists do is distort the truth about themselves,” he said.
Another characteristic of populist leaders is they make empty promises that they know they can’t keep. Donald Trump promised coal miners that he would help them get their jobs back, knowing fully well that the ongoing replacement of coal by renewables is slowly and irreversibly killing the coal industry. Similarly, Mr Modi’s promise to double farmer’s incomes in the next three years is blatantly false given the excess supply of foodgrains and the continual downward pressure on agricultural prices.
Populist leaders are generally only good at raising false hopes but have no well thought out and concrete solutions to fix anything. They are experts at claiming to make a personal sacrifice for the good of the people. Many of them come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds and as a result, don’t get the educational experience of their elite counterparts. This asymmetry in upbringing eventually results in a profound aversion for elites and experts. Both Mussolini and Hitler got rid of policy experts and technocrats in vast numbers, and Modi is well known for his dislike of people with technical expertise. “It’s not Harvard but hard work,” is a phrase he often repeats to denigrate those who are better educated than him.
There is also a large expansion of the government during the tenure of populist leaders. Roosevelt’s New Deal was an enormous expansion of the state’s reach into areas of welfare, retirement, health-care and unemployment insurance. He created large government programs, engineered big debt write-downs and financed his spending programs in part through a significant expansion of the deficit. Hitler and Mussolini had similar expansions in government programs, and Chavez in Venezuela destroyed the private sector with socialised production. Like Roosevelt, Modi vastly expanded the role of government by creating over 120 large government programs. He engineered big debt write-downs that benefited debtors at the expense of creditors, waived off more than Rs 2.5 lakh crores in farm loans (Roosevelt waived off mortgage loans) and financed his spending programs through a significant expansion of national debt. And like Roosevelt’s New Deal, Modi promised Ache Din.
Populists often get elected on a promise to root out corruption. In the United States, Trump famously vowed to “drain the swamp”; Chavez in Venezuela vowed to “wipe the bloodsucking corrupt off the face of the earth”; Bolsonaro in Brazil rode public anger against a giant scheme of kickbacks from construction contracts that implicated much of the country’s political class, including the ex-president; and in India, Modi promised to wipe out corruption by famously claiming “I won’t take bribes and I will not allow bribes.”
But far from draining the swamp, most populists replace the “mainstream’s alligators with even more deadly ones of their own.” Over the last century, 40 percent of populist leaders have ended up being indicted for corruption. This number is likely higher since populist leaders generally amass sufficient power to hamper independent investigations into their conduct. Since 1990, countries led by populist governments have dropped an average of five places on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Finally, however, all populists end up dividing the country along very rigid polarised lines. Populism focuses on what divides people by reminding them to reject the other as part of the solution to their problems. Hitler did that with the Jews, Trump with immigrants and Modi with the minorities (especially the Muslims). Trump’s three years in office have created sharp political divisions and so have the regimes of Erdogan in Turkey and Duterte in the Philippines. Likewise, Modi’s five years in India have been extremely polarising and divisive. People either love him or hate him mainly because he has made everything about himself.
But in the end, populist leaders wash away ignominiously with little to show but economic destruction and social divisiveness. Their fiery rhetoric and masterful oratory cannot compensate for their inability to understand and solve real problems. Their impulsive and haphazard approach to decision making creates economic misery and social devastation, and just like the dying roar of a falling giant, their oratory eventually starts to sound dull and overbearing. Slowly the tide begins to turn. People lose faith, and these populist leaders fade away. Their end is as quick and sudden as their rise.
But why blame populist leaders, many argue –they provide the succour and assurance people seek. Why not blame the people that elect them? After all, Mr Modi won a substantial majority in 2014—he won it legitimately by convincing people that he had the answer to their problems. He demagogued, but every politician does, and it’s the responsibility of the opposition to challenge that. Roosevelt, the only US President to serve four terms, got re-elected three times by selling his New Deal to the millions who voted for him. We could spend all day arguing about populism and what it means, but in the end, populism is democracy in action. The rise of a populist leader is as synonymous with democracy as business cycles are to capitalism.
It is difficult for most people to see through a populist’s demagoguery initially. Thinking is hard work, so most people rely on social proof for many of their decisions. People are more comfortable following the multitude rather than conducting their own evaluation. It is this ‘herd behaviour’ that populist leaders exploit. They start their fiery rhetoric by attacking the establishment, the elites, and the powerful. But ultimately, to stay in power they, too become phenomenally corrupt, perpetuate their hold on power by delegitimizing the opposition and inflict lasting damage on their countries’ democratic institutions.
That is the inflexion point for a country. Both economics and liberty are potent concepts, and when people lose both their pocketbook and freedom, they begin to ask questions. They start losing enthusiasm for extreme policies of besiegement and threat, the economy starts to affect the pocketbook, the press gets its courage back and starts to question policies, and soon the process of social proof starts to work against the leader. That is the epiphanous moment when people realise the risk of unchallenged power and the value of independent institutions to provide the checks and balances in the system. It is then that a democracy matures.
Narendra Modi’s five years as a populist leader were the best thing that could have happened for India’s evolving democracy. But not because he was wise, effective, honest, kind, trustworthy, or benevolent, but precisely because he was none of those things. His five years of populism have been a cathartic experience for this young democracy, but the lessons learnt will transform the country both politically and morally. Out of the ashes will eventually emerge leaders who are compassionate, honest, humble and less self-obsessed. And as the citizens of India realise the dangers of falling prey to the rhetoric of populism, they will demand a smaller and more responsible government with real solutions enunciated and debated regularly and with civility. History shows that after a country’s tryst with a populist leader, its democracy matures, the economy prospers, corruption is reduced, and arbitrariness replaced by the rule of law. That will happen to India too very soon.
Every democracy needs a reminder of how vital economic freedom is to prosperity, and liberty to human existence. Mr Modi’s five years were that important reminder for India.