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We the People: Populism and progress

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Skoll Scholar and MBA Candidate 2016-17, John Kakungulu Walugembe, gives his perspective on the  Skoll World Forum session “We the People: Populism and progress“.

We the People: Populism and progess panel

We the People: Populism and progess panel

When President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to seek the Republican party nomination, under the slogan, “Make America Great Again”; many considered this to be one of the many publicity stunts, he had become famous for: The Daily News compared him to a clown, the Trentonian’s headline was: “I am rich”. On the contrary, the Boston Herald cautiously predicted that Trump’s running, would be impactful. Well, in the end, they were right. Contrary to mainstream predictions; he went on to clinch not only the Republican party nomination, but also the Presidency of the sole superpower – the United States of America. How could an individual with no political experience get himself elected using xenophobic and misogynistic tactics? My view is that we should have seen this coming. The rise of populist leaders like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France in the recent past is well documented. These leaders seek to discredit the establishment by labelling it “corrupt and dishonest” as compared to “regular, hard-working and honest” people. They also tend to appeal to nationalistic sentiments by attributing the challenges faced by “ordinary folks” to “immigrants from other countries” or what they consider to be unfair dealings, by other countries or institutions.

One is compelled to ask several pertinent questions? What explains this surge in populist sentiment across the West? Is this a new phenomenon or history has had precedents? Are there economic explanations for this phenomenon and if so, how should the world respond?  I do not think that there is a single explanation for this rise in “populism”. However, many researchers admit that there is a linkage between the rise of populism and economic inequality, in the west. There is no doubt that globalization, technological advancement and the rise in immigration have led to tangible benefits for humanity, as a whole. However, it appears, they have also led to the disenfranchisement of significant sections of society; who now feel, “ignored and left behind” Rising levels of national prosperity have been accompanied by a growing gap between the “haves and the have-nots”, due to unemployment, redundancy and low wages. The 2008 financial crisis, in particular, led to an explosion of anger among those who felt that the system had been “rigged” to favour Wall Street and the establishment. It is therefore not surprising that populist politicians have tended to exploit and benefit from the economic grievances of the unemployed and working class who have been hit hardest, by the forces of the “market”. Donald Trump has referred to this adverse economic situation, as the “American carnage” in which American factories were shattered, millions of American workers left jobless and “their wealth” redistributed. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the President and CEO of New America cautiously agreed with this position in today’s session, when she talked of the brokenness in America’s infrastructure, campaign financing system and policy framework that may need fixing, if the system is to work for all.

On the other hand, others have attributed this rise in populism to socio-cultural factors. According to this school of thought; the shift in the value system of western societies over the last forty years away from traditional to liberal/secular values, was bound to elicit a backlash. Older citizens in these countries look suspiciously at the left’s liberal agenda, including support for; human rights, immigration, gender equality and LGBT rights. The hosting of refugees, the openness to immigration and the granting of asylum to individuals from volatile and troubled parts of the world, elicited resentment and xenophobia, in this group. Demagogue politicians have therefore exploited these fears to capture power by democratic means; a view shared by Ernesto Zedillo, the Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. For example, Nigel Farage and the Vote Leave campaign in the UK promised to cut net migration to under 50,000 and to reinvest the £350m which they claimed the UK sends to Brussels each week, in the National Health Service (NHS). No wonder, in a 2014 press conference, Nigel expressed his discomfort at hearing only foreign languages being spoken by other passengers, on a London train journey. Unfortunately, such racist remarks simply serve to solidify his support base.

It is interesting that populism is not an entirely new phenomenon. History is full of examples of populists who have appealed to popular discontent and gotten elected: From Lajos Kossuth in Hungary, Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy to the more recent examples in Latin America. Perhaps, Latin America, more than any another continent, has had the largest share of populist leaders such as; Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Alvaro Correa in Ecuador, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Morales in Bolivia. What lessons can we draw from these countries in tackling populism? I consider their context to be quite different, from the one in the West.

As I close, I wish to be optimistic; by proposing solutions:  First, it is important that there is a recognition, on both sides of this issue that certain things need to change. It is true globalization has been beneficial to humanity, as a whole. However, some sections of society, feel excluded. As such, there is need for better regulation of markets to ensure inclusion of the most vulnerable. National economic growth must translate into prosperity for everyone. Investments in social services and job creation for low skilled workers, is key. As Emma Mortensen, the co-founder of Crisis Action, mentioned in today’s session; we must create a society that works for everyone.  In my opinion, this is where social entrepreneurship can become a game changer. Second, it is important that we listen to each other. The rise of social media, has had the unintended effect of facilitating siloed debate. People choose with whom to interact, based on common interests; and tend to avoid those with whom they disagree. This deficiency can be addressed by facilitating conversations among groups that may be on opposing sides of issues. Finally, we must learn to listen to each other.  As Emily Kasriel, the Head of Editorial Partnerships and Special Projects at the BBC World Service Group advised in her closing remarks; we should look out for people with whom we do not necessarily agree, on issues and listen to them.

John is a Skoll Centre Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA programme, he is also the founder of Better-Livelihoods Uganda, a community-based organisation working in rural areas of Uganda to improve the livelihoods of poor and vulnerable people. 

Follow John: @JohnWalugembe

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