Globalised populism and anti-politics: the rising threat to democracy
Antonella Rampino 18 November 2014

After all, said Giuliano Amato, “those Islamists see the democratic state as the enemy.” In democracy, explained Professor Mauro Calise, who became famous with his book, published in 2000, in which he anticipated the subject of “personal political parties” and who recently studied the (communicative) populism in Matteo Renzi (which in his opinion has shown interesting and successful results), this is “a phenomenon characterised by a demos with no kratos, without power and without rules.” And unfortunately nowadays it is “mainstream crossing continents,” not only in Europe, where there is fear of becoming enveloped in the aspirations of the Le Pens,  Farages and Grillos, or in America where the GOP recently managed, to a certain extent, to regain ground from the Tea Party, but also in India, where Modi expresses Hindu nationalism as populism, or in Thailand.

While European political analysts consider the category only applicable where there are political parties and electoral forces entrenched within the population, the issue is different when seen from the perspective of a Tunisian Muslim theologian, a professor of Islamic Studies at the Pontifical University in Rome such as Adnane Mokrani. Like many other scholars, including western ones, he considers populism as something that arises from an ethnic or religious identity to then become a political project, “and all the more so seeing that IS, unlike Al Qaeda, proposes a Caliphate, even a form of statehood.”

These were the questions that, alongside many others, were debated by those attending the conference “Minorities and Populisms,” organised by Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations and its founders Giancarlo Bosetti and Nina zu Fürstenberg at the Cini Foundation in Venice last weekend. The discussion at this event was very open, multi-cultural and lively, thanks to a well-tested full immersion format. The debate was based on a specific principle, the fact that respect for the rights of minorities is the only solid antidote for that particular kind of democratic deviation that is populism. If what the Indian intellectual and activist Binalakshmi Nepram described as “a non-democracy, and therefore an un-kept promise of democracy” is the result of fear and in particular as Giuliano Amato says, “of having an enemy within our own communities” and is “democracy’s real disease, ” then the risk is that this fear will reach the point of being expressed as a regime. Hence, said the Italian Supreme Court judge quoting Habermas, it is evident that “the dominating classes and the political leadership, will have to, in their own best interest, assume responsibility for social solidarity and the citizenship rights of minorities.”

At whatever latitude it may appear, populism remains contemporaneity’s great problem. The philosopher and researcher Will Kymlicka said that in Canada he saw populism arise from “the anxieties that the impacts of diversity risks having on solidarity,” especially in the wake of liberism and when not correctly mediated by politics, “the only thing capable of affecting individuals’ changed attitudes.” His colleague Avishai Margalit, from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, spoke of Israel, where resentment is added to rational and irrational fears, and asked, “Why not have just one state for Israelis and Palestinians, with inclusive rights, as supported by the Israeli establishment 35 years ago?”

The answer too has its roots in a rational kind of fear: “Because I fear it would be an invitation to a civil war, as in Lebanon.” And yet, if populism means misleading citizens, nowadays even the “two people, two states” solution is an illusion, says Margalit, seeing that even that result would be no guarantee against violence. The conclusion one might draw is that by continuing to deceive people by stating that there are simple solutions for complex issues, when this is done by leaders skilled in demagogic communication, capable of presenting themselves as anti-political while being just a political short-cut, then democracy itself is at risk, as Ambassador Roberto Toscano wrote a few years ago. The risk is that the noun may become an insult: populist!

Translated by Francesca Simmons