Populists know that there’s nothing more powerful than ideas. When a culture forgets its history, its values, its institutions and their bases, it’s condemned to be intellectually colonized. A society far from its essence can be convinced that its values are the mother of all evils. Western society has systematically been forgetting that it has been the only civilization that has managed to develop a state of rights, in which there are personal guarantees that don’t exist in other cultures. Throughout centuries, from the philosophy of Greek politics, the Roman rights and the input of various European peoples, the Carta Magna and many other instances, the concept of democracy was developed, along with personal guarantees in the West. But a civilization that has forgotten almost everything about itself becomes indifferent to the values that built it. It negates its own culture.
From here there is only a step to the populist demagogy.
Aristotle defined demagogy as the corruption of the republic, the corrupt or degenerate form of democracy. Today we refer to populism, both terms complement each other and refer to the interest of pleasing or manipulating peoples with omissions or false, or deliberately incomplete information, with promises that cannot be fulfilled, in order to obtain popular support. Although there are various ways to analyse populism, the most negative is that which appeals to resentment. Social revindications are legitimate and important. But the mis use of this that is undertaken by certain politicians, certain press and overall social networks is worrying. In his book Rage and Time, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk explains that populism uses social resentment and a political tool. He adds that envy, often associated with resentment, converts historical injustices ⸻that exist in all societies and require responsible attention⸻ in absolute injustices, that remand an absolute reparation.
Populism affects above all democratic and open societies that allow for public discussion, different kinds of massive protests, and consider it their responsibility to consider all thoughts and political groups, even if they aim towards the destruction of democracy itself.
Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed, complains about the generalized ignorance of students and sustains that it isn’t merely an accident that can be fixed by improving the quality of education. He says that there is simply no commitment to civilization, on the level of the entire society, with the knowledge and defence of democratic values and the liberties obtained in the West.
Populism has always existed in different forms. What makes it complicated today is that it reveals and exposes the vulnerability of western societies. We live in a global time of great uncertainties: technological changes that force us to rethink work relations; massive immigrations towards western countries precisely because they offer a better quality of life; and the demand for recognition of all minorities, ethnicities and in general of civil society, described by Francis Fukuyama ⸻demands that can almost only express themselves in western democracies⸻; the ease with which fake news is spread or distorted on social media… This mix of factors hit societies like a tsunami in this second decade of the 21st Century. The rise of easy political populism, that seems to attend to these social demands without offering real answers, is a tremendous challenge to the legality and the very bases of the western way of life.
“Populism has always existed. There is however a fertile atmosphere for it to prosper in the West, and this has to do with the weakening of the values that allowed for democratic societies… A culture that doesn’t believe in its own legitimacy goes into decadence and into the mercy of populists and demagogues that are more lethal than the arms of any enemy force”.
In his book The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder attributes a limitless ability to intervene in the politics of the main democracies in the West, to Vladimir Putin. He may be right in particular cases, but I’m sure that no external force, even with the strategy to rig elections and intervene information, can weaken a democratic culture if it is well rooted. The problem is that in the West, the pride of everything achieved has been lost. Some people feel that democracy should be defended from within, in families, in the education of children, at schools, in the values given by universities, but most commonly there seems to be a greater interest in preparing for the commercial and financial world, rather than in the democratic ethic and civic respect.
A concrete example of how society can be corrupted and weakened from within is the subprime crisis of 2008. I think this generated an incalculable wound in the faith of the democratic and free market system, that caused a greater damage than any cybernetic effort from the Russians or even worse than the attack of the twin towers. The greatest and most influential democracy of the West was brought to its knees by an internal cause: the anti-ethical and speculative acts of large financial banks like Goldman Sachs. Their unscrupulous actions caused a strong blow on the model of liberality that, well applied, has allowed for societies to progress as never seen in history. Governments that were condescending to speculators in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the acts of Alan Greenspan in the Federal Reserve, among other causes, allowed for these abuses. Goldman Sachs is a group of enormous power and political influence that selected credits with a negative profile that could not be paid. In parallel, the same bank formed a fund which insured it and reported large gains if these credits weren’t solved. Double win: in the catching of credits and in their failures.
“A concrete example of how society can be corrupted and weakened from within is the subprime crisis of 2008. I think this generated an incalculable wound in the faith of the democratic and free market system, that caused a greater damage than any cybernetic effort from the Russians or even worse than the attack of the twin towers. The greatest and most influential democracy of the West was brought to its knees by an internal cause: the anti-ethical and speculative acts of large financial banks and the State”.
A machine that reported to Goldman Sachs scandalous gains and that represented a maximum sophistication in the abuse of the system, at the cost of the general public’s saving and faith. After this crisis many voters were disillusioned by the traditional parties that didn’t react or whose candidates -such as Hillary Clinton- were supported by them, and this generated more populist discourses. However, and something that should wane or somewhat deviate the focus of these reactions, is that the subprime crisis cannot be understood entirely without the vicious fiscal stimulations that were given through subsidies and endorsements of the State through Freddie Mae and Fannie Mac, institutions that handed over credits to people who couldn’t pay them, endorsing them, and that precisely because of this, stimulated bankers to act. Populism has always existed. There is however a fertile atmosphere for it to prosper in the West, and this has to do with the weakening of the values that allowed for democratic societies. The antidote against populism and the devaluation of good politics is the renovation of civic virtues, recovering the study of history, institutions, philosophy and ethics in school. A culture that doesn’t believe in its own legitimacy goes into decadence and into the mercy of populists and demagogues that are more lethal than the arms of any enemy force.