Populism, People and the Media: Some Opening Reflections

Image: Tim Gouw

Monday 28th May, 2018

Gholam Khiabany, Des Freedman and Natalie Fenton

Political life in the West has become increasingly volatile and polarised. Anger at elites, disillusion with established forms of representation and experience of economic uncertainty has led to a growth of support for populist parties. This resurgence of ‘populism’ – clearly articulated in the 2016 EU referendum and US presidential election and, more recently, in the 20218 Italian election – has been attributed, at least in part, both to sensationalist coverage of mainstream news providers and the ‘echo chambers’ of a militant social media.

If popular uprisings, social movements and growing resistance to dictatorships and decades of neoliberal globalization marked the start of the current decade, then the electoral breakthrough of far-right parties across Europe and the victory of Donald Trump in 2016 have dominated the headlines in the last few years. Alongside the sense of democracy as popular power, there also exists a strong sense of powerlessness highlighting the fact that a proliferation of voices demanding inclusion and recognition has not led to an expansion of democratic rights. As the global financial crisis, unrelenting austerity and the reconfiguration of the state’s priorities continue to take their toll, an exasperated citizenry, a weakened establishment, a degraded public sphere – alongside the increasing range of state surveillance, an intolerance of dissent and even the imposition of colonial-style emergency laws in some of the most established democracies – are now features of what some have called ‘post democracy’.

The march of far-right populism in particular is not limited to established liberal democracies. Right wing militarism has returned to East Asia and in particular in Philippines; the BJP has successfully dominated the political scene in India; the ‘appeal’ of Putin’s brand of populist authoritarianism extends beyond the border of Russia; Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, once regarded as an ideal model and a template for Muslim majority countries, has plunged the country into darkness; and millennial Islamism has spread like wild fire in the wake of the defeat of Arab uprisings of 2011-12. The comparison between the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Depression of 1929-1939 has now been extended to include a contrast between contemporary forms of authoritarian politics and emerging fascist movements in the 1920s and 1930s.

The problem with historical analogies, however, is that they rob events of their distinct features in a historical mode of politics for the sake of ‘simple repetition’. The alarmism which has emerged in response to recent political developments and, in particular, to the election of Donald Trump, for the most part ignores the fact that his victory was not an inevitable outcome of the current economic crisis. We should remember, after all, that the crisis in the US between 1929-1939 led not to fascism but to the ‘New Deal’. In addition, and at a time when established political norms are increasingly fragile, there are also huge opportunities for a renewal of politics and democracy and, indeed, for the possibility of a form of left-wing populism. Witness how resistance to Donald Trump’s executive orders is undermining the stability of his presidency. Indeed, it appears to be the case that the erosion of democratic rights is felt especially acutely in the ‘liberal democracies’ of the west and it is in these countries that the struggles for the defence and expansion of democracy has intensified.

It is difficult, however, to refer to the insurgency of ‘populism’ as a singular movement. What we are witnessing is two different populist sources of pressure – from both right and left – on the established order and a clash over the very definition and forms of ‘the popular’ and of political representation. The other related paradox is the position of the ‘centre’. If the growing attractiveness of ‘populism’ also reflects the impotence and vulnerability of the ‘squeezed middle’, then one of the central questions for contemporary politics is how the ‘centre’ intends to revive itself and to win back the legitimacy that it seems to have lost for now

In assessing factors contributing to the insurgence of right-wing populism in particular, many people have rightly focused on issues of misogyny, racism and nationalism, not to mention the devastating impact of austerity. Others, not least the representatives of established news organisations, however, appear to see this insurgency in relation both to their own failure to capture the changing political mood and the growing power of social media as a destabilising political instrument and a major source of misinformation. Gone are the days in which social media were seen as intrinsically democratic tools with which to combat dictatorships and to empower citizens. In fact it was only few years ago that social media platforms were credited with inspiring the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Academics – including some in politics, media studies and sociology – have long been in danger of being mesmerised by the digital platforms, actors and rituals that they have sought to evaluate. They appear at times to be entranced by the passion and rage of social media exchanges and the unfettered power of algorithms to shape public debate and knowledge and have elevated media logics above often more fundamental (and less visible) conflicts concerning resource distribution. This can lead to a definition of power that is, above all, focused on the management of symbolic spaces and the use of discursive strategies to gain advantage. Such an approach runs the risk of diminishing the political and fetishizing the communicative.

We believe that the study of media has never been more significant just as the practices and institutions under investigation have never been more central to the conduct of politics and public affairs. Trends, so readily tossed around by commentators, policymakers and politicians – from the emergence of ‘post-truth’ to the circulation of ‘fake news’ and from the ubiquity of political marketing to the importance of data mining – are seen to shape political landscapes as never before. Political life has become thoroughly infused with symbolic practices and communicative dynamics: the idea and practice of politics has come to be narrated, mediated, affected, imagined and technologised and it is vital that make sense of – and figure out how best to respond to – this new conjuncture between populism, the people and the media.

This is the first in a new special section, tied to the Populism, People and the Media symposium taking place on May 30th.

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