Populism – the idea that a particular social group speaks for the nation as a whole, and should be first in the line for social benefits – threatens the core values of the post-World War order. It also challenges the World Bank’s own approach to development policy. As the world prepares for the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a year-long commemoration, culminating on December 10, 2018, we at the World Bank can use the occasion to reflect on our commitments and uphold them courageously.
To recap and settle our terms, the populist demagogues now emerging as leaders of governments around the world have a peculiar way of operating. At the core of their practice is a truculent nationalism that defines a part of the political community as the ‘real’ people. They claim to govern in the name of ‘the people’, as defined. They use polarization deliberately, even when in government; they define enemies and rail against these unceasingly in colorful language. They demonize The Other/ the Outsider. They are crude propagandists without the slightest regard for truth or logic or the rules of polite discourse. They can be both boorish and ridiculous…and they rejoice in the fact.
Now, typical technocrats or policy wonks are highly educated persons, usually with advanced degrees from excellent universities. These are minds that have been tilled, ploughed and cultivated to a sophisticated degree. They understand ideas. They have been trained to handle evidence with care. They have been taught the basic rules of logic, the nature of fallacious or tendentious reasoning etc. They also know the importance of public debate and discussion, of making your case vigorously but fairly, of avoiding lies, obfuscation and downright dishonesty. Finally, whatever the ideological commitments of these technocrats or policy wonks, they are not usually people who go around spouting racist or misogynistic views in public …no matter what they privately believe.
Yet, look around the world today, and you will notice that quite a few supposedly polished technocrats are working for brute demagogues. You listen to them and you wonder: How have you sold this gig to yourself, comrade?
Earlier this week I spent a day with Oxfam’s biggest cheeses, discussing how we should react to the rising tide of nationalism and populism (if you think that’s a Northern concern, take a look at what is going on in India or the Philippines). One of the themes that emerged in the discussions was how to engage with social norms – the deeply held beliefs of what is natural, normal and acceptable that underpin a lot of human behaviour, including how people treat each other and how they vote.
It’s pretty common to hear progressive types (in which category I include Oxfam) worry that while they have been busy having geeky conversations on the evidence on this or that intervention/project, or the case for this or that policy change, they have ignored the tide of disillusionment with politics-as-usual that underpins the rise of populism. We need to engage the public in a wider conversation aimed at encouraging progressive norms, or opposing exclusionary ones.
Fair enough, but what struck me is just how much would need to change for that to become reality. What would a ‘guide to shifting norms’ cover? Here are a few thoughts; please add your own.
There doesn’t seem to be much evidence on how to change norms. Eg what lies behind the increasing acceptance of the rights of people with disabilities? Or the age at which we deem chlldhood to end? Or even why dog owners routinely pick up their pooches’ pooh in my local park, something that was unimaginable a generation ago? How do deliberate attempts at change interact with the forces of demographic, technological or cultural change that also help drive norm shifts? This is one area where we really do need more research, both historical and current.
"The world has been transformed by the globalization of goods, services, and information, all of which have produced their share of pain and rejection. But we are now witnessing the globalization of people, and public reaction to that is stronger, more visceral, and more emotional."
- Fareed Zakaria - host of CNN's international affairs program Fareed Zakaria GPS.
Quoted in Foreign Affairs print edition November/December 2016 "Populism on the March."
"The populists always fail in their own terms. Let me be more specific, the protectionists always fail. They always end up delivering the sharpest fall in living standards to the people who are their biggest supporters."
- Daniel Hannan - British politician, writer and journalist.
Quoted in Financial Times print edition January 28, 2017 "Lunch with the FT."
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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Events around the world (on this please see Freedom in the World 2017) are teaching us at least two astounding lessons. The first is that in liberal constitutional democracies good governance is far more dependent on norms, particularly constitutional conventions, than formal rules. This has serious implications. The second lesson is that when certain political actors choose to ignore the norms of good governance …and the details vary depending on the context…it is not at all clear that anything can stop them. Let’s take these two issues one by one.
Norms, conventions, formal rules
In his classic work, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution the great English jurist, A.V. Dicey, introduced a distinction between what he called constitutional laws and the conventions of the constitution. Constitutional law, he pointed out, consists of rules that the courts will enforce. But there are other constitutional rules:
The other set of rules consist of conventions, understandings, habits, or practices which, though they may regulate the conduct of other officials, are not in reality laws at all since they are not enforced by the Courts. This proportion of constitutional law may, for the sake of distinction, be termed the ‘conventions of the constitution’, or constitutional morality.
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy
In 2016, populist and nationalist political forces made astonishing gains in democratic states, while authoritarian powers engaged in brazen acts of aggression, and grave atrocities went unanswered in war zones across two continents. All of these developments point to a growing danger that the international order of the past quarter-century— rooted in the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law—will give way to a world in which individual leaders and nations pursue their own narrow interests without meaningful constraints, and without regard for the shared benefits of global peace, freedom, and prosperity. The troubling impression created by the year’s headline events is supported by the latest findings of Freedom in the World. A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains. This marked the 11th consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements.
Financial Flows and Tax Havens: Combining to Limit the Lives of Billions of People
Global Financial Integrity
Global Financial Integrity (GFI), the Norwegian School of Economics and a team of global experts released a study showing that since 1980 developing countries lost US$16.3 trillion dollars through broad leakages in the balance of payments, trade mis-invoicing, and recorded financial transfers. These resources represent immense social costs that have been borne by the citizens of developing countries around the globe. Funding for the report was provided by the Research Council of Norway and research assistance was provided by economists in Brazil, India, and Nigeria. Titled “Financial Flows and Tax Havens: Combining to Limit the Lives of Billions of People,” the report demonstrates that developing countries have effectively served as net-creditors to the rest of the world with tax havens playing a major role in the flight of unrecorded capital. For example, in 2011 tax haven holdings of total developing country wealth were valued at US$4.4 trillion, which exacerbated inequality and undermined good governance and economic growth.
One of the most astounding features of public debate and discussion is how many times this occurs: a word acquires wide currency, even notoriety, yet its boundaries remain limitless and, very often, nobody really knows what it means. Because of current events around the world, right now the best example of such a word is “populism”. For instance, I read a special section in Foreign Affairs recently titled ‘The Power of Populism’ and after reading several of the essays I still could not make out the precise meaning of the concept. Right now, what seems clear is that being called a ‘populist’ is not a good thing. It suggests that you are somehow a demagogue, and that you have something to do with getting large numbers of people worked up, and that you are generally up to no good.
In search of conceptual clarity, I recently acquired and read a new book by Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University. The book is titled simply: What is Populism? (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). It is a short, lucid, and exceedingly intelligent book. Müller starts the book by demonstrating the ‘conceptual chaos’ around ‘populism’. The concept, he shows, is deployed fairly carelessly. It is a contested concept. He goes on to demolish what he calls definitional dead ends, that is, suggestions in public debate and discussion that populism means one or all of the following things:
- A particular psychological cast (you can fill in the terms of abuse you have heard!);
- A particular class of citizens (like those famous non-college educated voters!);
- A particular set of daft or simplistic policies; or
- A particular style of politics (boorishness, incivility or the famous paranoid style etc.).
Even in Era of Disillusionment, Many Around the World Say Ordinary Citizens Can Influence Government
Signs of political discontent are increasingly common in many Western nations, with anti-establishment parties and candidates drawing significant attention and support across the European Union and in the United States. Meanwhile, as previous Pew Research Center surveys have shown, in emerging and developing economies there is widespread dissatisfaction with the way the political system is working. As a new nine-country Pew Research Center survey on the strengths and limitations of civic engagement illustrates, there is a common perception that government is run for the benefit of the few, rather than the many in both emerging democracies and more mature democracies that have faced economic challenges in recent years. In eight of nine nations surveyed, more than half say government is run for the benefit of only a few groups in society, not for all people.
Media Development and Countering Violent Extremism: An Uneasy Relationship, a Need for Dialogue
This report looks at how media development practitioners are reacting to the rise of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) agenda, and its growing influence on their field. This influence is the cause of concern, not only because practitioners of CVE and media development have fundamentally different worldviews, but because the CVE agenda is seen to pose serious risks for southern media houses and the organizations that support them. Still, these risks are unlikely to be addressed without coordinated efforts from both sides. However uneasy the relationship, a dialogue between CVE and media development is needed.
Liberalism, perhaps the dominant political ideology in the modern world, is under attack everywhere these days. Its core ideas – namely, constituting the political community in a manner that protects fundamental human rights, liberty and equal opportunities for all citizens – are being rudely dismissed. The norms that it cherishes and promotes – for instance, a public sphere that promotes free and open debate and discussion of the great issues of the day in a manner that is respectful of all participants – are being ridiculed by sundry boors, thugs, and loudmouths with megaphones. Within liberal constitutional democracies, the challenge is coming from populists and nativists. Outside these democracies, the challenge is coming from autocracies… a growing band of hard men and maximum rulers. In Africa, for instance, rather than the building of vital and strong institutions we have the saddening return of the Big Men. They win power and refuse to leave, even when they become doddering old fools.
I submit that all this would not matter that much if Liberalism itself were in rude health. But it is in a bad way. The following are some of the reasons why this is the case.