The contemporary structural shifts in the modern world have given rise to anti-system politics which cut across left-right divisions. This politics of resentment is instrumentalized and mobilized by the political entrepreneurs who provide an alternate platform to the people through which they voice their disenchantment.
More so, the populists often enrich their rhetorical substance with the arguments of nationalism that turns the Kohnian civic-ethnic dichotomy into the two sides of the populist coin. The exclusivity of ethnic nationalism is justified through civic appeal. This chameleon nature of nationalism is busting the dichotomous Manichean myths because both populism and nationalism have become mutually constitutive.
The Rise of Anti-System Politics
The walk into the twenty-first century is marked by enormous structural shifts. The rise of neoliberal capitalism and the vulnerability created by financial crises has mobilized the politics of resentment. This process of asymmetrical development has created both the winners and the losers of modernity. The nuanced horizontal and vertical inequalities are giving rise to what Jonathan Hopkin calls the ‘Anti-system Politics’ or simply populism. This phenomenon is marked by the tussle of two homogenous groups; the people and the elite, which are at loggerheads with each other.
However, there is not any stream of anti-system politics; rather it falls at both ends of the political spectrum; left and right. It is marked by the Pink Tide in Latin America, rise of nationalist strongmen in the Central and Eastern European states, Hindu nationalism in India and the white ethnic nationalism in the Anglosphere. And the reason why the materialization of populism is distinctive in the spatial-temporal zones is that all the states have different welfare systems. They have distinct ways of filtering the effects of socio-cultural or economic changes. In doing so, they cushion some groups while exposing others to risks. In such a scenario, populism with its alternative action channel fills in the vacuum through its ‘moralist appeal’ to reclaim the power of ‘the people’.
Both populism and nationalism being mass movements hold a focus on the collective. And the ‘empty heart’ of populism with its ambiguous definition of the people, finds ‘elective affinities’ with nationalism. This profusion has further tangled the varying streams of anti-system politics. However, there are two similarities. First, all anti-system politics is about caching power. And secondly, it acts on myths of dichotomies. In furtherance, when the Kohnian civic ethnic distinction is applied to right-wing left-wing populism, the conclusions become mostly erroneous. It leads to an assumption that right-wing populism is nativist, exclusionary, and ethnocultural by nature whereas left-wing populism is more inclusive and civic. But both civic and ethnic dimensions of nationalism are the part of populist politics.
The right-wing populism of the BJP in India, Tea Party wing and Donald Trump of the Republican Party in the US, Le Pan in France and United Kingdom Independence Party in the UK are all marked by an appeal to right-wing populism. But in addition to that, these movements are not ethno-nationalist in the Kohnian sense rather they are ‘ethno-traditional nationalist’. And they instrumentalize the civic nationalist narrative to broaden their vote-base. This is precisely the justification of exclusion carried out in civic terms as the biological language is replaced by an ideological one.
Political Entrepreneurship: Instrumentalization and Mobilization
The political entrepreneurs: in both electoral populism and populist movements, act as an agency for strategically articulating the latent grievances. Thus, both the demand and supply-side perspectives are crucial vantage points for a prudent analysis of the populist rise. The demand-side resentment is both addressed and tailored by the supply-side entrepreneurs through the perspective of nationalism.
In electoral populism, dissent is instrumentalized and it is mobilized through nationalistic appeals. Populism coupled with nationalism leads to the radical right-wing politics that it is witnessed in both Eastern and Western Europe, Latin America, and South Asia. Both the ideologies indicate a sense of social closure in one dimension or another. It is done by fixing what Bankim Chandra calls the ‘cultural attitudes’ which limit the sense of inclusivity and pluralism. But the question is why to appeal to the people on national, cultural, or ethnic grounds? Isiah Berlin suggested in the 1960s that nationalism is a core characteristic for the success of any political movement. And as both the ideologies are an antithesis of an open society, their profusion generates cognitive, social, and political rigidities.
The political entrepreneurs utilize these ‘banal’ ideas to introduce their own political agenda. It helps in building a foundation of the new system on the entrenched realities of the old system. A case study of various electorally successful right-wing populist parties like the Swiss People Party in Switzerland, French National Front of France, National Democratic Party of Germany and Pim Fortuyn List in Denmark indicate that populist leader or political entrepreneurs who make use of national ‘symbolic resources’ with a civic appeal perform better in their political system. And the civic nationalism in the West provides the platform to the radical-right populists who attain and maintain their share of power based on civic values without undermining their exclusionary ethnic-traditional policies. Civic and ethnic nationalism is the means to attain the ends of populist politics. The political entrepreneurs tactically oscillate between both the civic and ethnic dimension of nationalism by persistently engendering a sense of threatened ‘bounded moral community’ at risk from the outsiders.
Akin to electoral populism, populist movements use grievances as a latent force. But that does not explain why the anti-immigration protests by PEGIDA were not instigated prior to 2014, or why the Occupy Wall Street movement came after the major shockwaves of the Great Recession were absorbed. To explain this there is a need to understand the role of political entrepreneurs as opportunity seekers who articulate the shared grievances when the time is ripe to fulfil their agenda backed with shared resentments.
Populism and Nationalism: A Bi-Dimensional Analysis
In all mass movements, ‘sociological necessities’ are invented and instrumentalized by the political elite. Nationalism and populism are no exceptions. A national myth is invented through a common heritage and mobilized through horizontal differences. Whereas the populist myths are brought back from ‘under the rug’ and mobilized through vertical antagonisms. And when combined, this the bi-dimensional dissidence defines the politics of the new age.
The resentment against those at the top and outsiders are mutually constitutive of the populist politics. The right-wing variant of this infusion criticizes multicultural politics, acceptance of refugees and the elite’s consideration of the indigenous population as xenophobic. This is the prime scene in the European and North American contexts as Hilary Clinton reportedly called Trump’s supporters as ‘basket of deplorables’. Such differences accentuate the need for people’s sovereignty over the state. And because the ethnic/cultural nationalism signifies ‘the people’ over the nation, it is easily juxtaposed with the populist discourse.
The ‘civic nationalism normalization’ strategy is used to disguise the exclusionary cultural politics behind the facade of legitimizing only the interests of the in-group. The Front National (FN) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) both use a value-laden out-grouping of the Muslims based on their anti-Islamist agendas. And they instrumentalize civic nationalist discourse to legitimize their claims that Muslims are not an outgroup based on their ethnic descent rather on voluntarist reasons as they do not adhere to the democratic values. This is a supply of populist ideas through nationalist channels; covertly ethnic/cultural and overtly civic.
Manichean Myth to Chameleon Reality
Nationalism has its roots in the Greek city-states and was crystallized as an idea of organization in the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. During the decolonization from 1945-1960, nationalism was at its pinnacle. However, since then it has been on a downward trajectory. But the populist utilization of the nationalist concepts has given it a new colour. The entrenched resentments are being voiced not just by the minority ethnic/cultural groups but also the majority who feel threatened by the minority’s rising rights and political participation in what Rawls calls the post diversity era. The Muhajirs in Karachi is a classic example of a chameleon nationalism which has utilized both ethnic and civic strands to widen the vote base. Both the political movements, populism and nationalism are political projects which are in the continual process of transition.
Despite modernization, the centre-periphery distinction still pertains based on a deliberate exclusion of the peripheral identities to form a homogenous power circle at the centre. And the grievances and opportunities created in this gap are mobilized and exacerbated by the political entrepreneurs. And the infusion of populism and nationalism are changed with the changing socio-political and economic contexts to cache the rising opportunities. The right-wing populism is not based on rigidities of objective identities but on the flexibility to catch the opportunity situations.
The ethnic groups to are not homogenous which indicates their divided politics to gain benefits. The myth of groupism is instrumental, not factual. In this way they utilize both civic and ethnic nationalist appeals firstly, to cater to their in-group and secondly, to widen their prospects of political ins. In this way, their politics becomes amorphous which is easily utilized by thin ideology like populism and the mix generates popular differences. Thus, the ethnic conflicts in the populist world are not the pure outcome of ethnic groups rather of ethnic organizations and populist political entrepreneurs.
Ethnic and cultural nationalism are not primarily nativist rather opportunistic. The populist world has provided nuanced avenues for the articulation of the ethnocultural resentments which are exacerbated by the modern inequalities. However, the Kohnian civic-ethnic dichotomy is too rigid to explain the anomalous instrumentalist nature of the populist movements which build upon the combination of both ethnic and civic nationalism.
The analysis suggests that the populist world is a juggernaut of various thick ideologies which are used as an opportunistic context to propagate the agenda of the political entrepreneurs. Civic and ethnic nationalism was relevant before and instrumental now. They are both entrenched and tailored, natural, and transitive and contextual and opportunistic. Hence, the idea of nationalism is in a vicious cycle of constructive usage by the populist leaders and not merely a matter of some fixated identities.
Before the coronavirus in late 2019, there was a rise of a counter-populist wave on the fringes as observed through the leaderless protests where the middle class who once supported the populist movements was ‘revolting against the revolt’. However, the rise of the pandemic exacerbated a kind of nationalist-populist response. Now the question is about who writes a better political bargain to satiate the rising middle class and that shall determine the course of future politics.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.