In every époque, political systems have evolved, progressed and in other cases destroyed themselves. In the 21st century, one event has been labelled as the defining moment so far in world politics – the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States. The 9/11 attacks are still regarded by many as an event that forever changed the environment in which international politics is conducted. In as much as 9/11 represents a shift in international politics, there are events that have happened after 9/11 that should be added to the list of the elements that are contributing to the ever-changing international political system in the 21st century. I argue that the rise of populist parties and policies in both Western Europe and North America illustrates the evolving political system. It should be noted that populism is not unique to the 21st century alone, there were elements of less radical populism in previous centuries. In 2018, the international and domestic political playing field finds itself at a crossroads on how to adapt to the phenomenon of a haunting spectre of populist politics.
An editor of Foreign Policy argued that Populism has to be taken seriously even though it has no intellectual coherence. It is merely a rhetorical ‘tactic’ that demagogues around the world have always used, and will continue to use, to gain power and then hold on to it. I have come to label this phenomenon “anger motivated politics”. The proponents of ‘populism’ are angry at various aspects of government and social structures. Then rises political candidates among this anger-driven group of the citizenry to assume political positions. These candidates are by far seeking political office because they champion the views of the anger driven crowds that form the part of their base but they only use them to an end. This is one of those instances when they argue that the end justifies the means. However, upon the assumption of political power, the hate-filled political narrative does not end but continues so that they feed the political base that gave them the power. Which in turn threatens the very fundamentals of the international and national system.
The current form of ‘populism’ has its roots in the darkest fringes of society. Right-wing political parties in both the US and Europe are monopolizing on the rise of Islamophobia, sexism, racism, xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiments and Neo-Nazism. The groups that have become the foundational base of right-wing political parties presents an immediate danger to democracy, globalization and tolerance. Even though some critics might argue that political leaders like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Boris Johnson are opportunists who pander to the darkest fringes of the far right, the immediate threat they present to the evolving international system will be felt for years onwards. What I am trying to point out that political terms end but the structures that are damaged by these far-right leaders supersedes political terms and could have a lasting impact on democratization and social progress.
Immense uncertainty has become a key characteristic of world politics and the election of Donald Trump has proven that there is no need for a momentous event like the World Wars or the Cold War to shake one of the oldest democracy. Fringe right ‘populism’ has become that factor, that is determining international policies and the fate of the international system. The Italian right-wing extremist party of Matteo Salvini’s The League and Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement are in control of the future of Italy and its prospects of staying or withdrawing from the Eurozone. The driving force of this uncertainty is populism, which is not only behind the many mistakes Europe has made in the past but which has become an opportunistic conduit for the rise of Neo-Nazi policies. Those who don’t understand the threat that this new form of populism has on the international system simply don’t realize the extent of the risks that are looming. The 21st-century populism is going to be the most impactful ‘ism’ on the international and domestic political systems.
In this volatile times, it is important for political pundits to differentiate between populism as we have known it and the current brand of ‘populism’ that is infected with religious intolerance, sexism, bigotry and racism. I do not believe the ‘populism’ that elected Donald Trump- a billionaire or led to Brexit has anything to do with economic anxiety or the plight of the ordinary person. It is extraordinary when a billionaire who has never championed the plight of the “small man” becomes the leader of a group with so-called economic anxiety. Ever since the Syrian refugees started flocking on Greek beaches fleeing from the Assad regime in Syria, far right parties under the façade of maintaining state sovereignty, culture and conservative religious values have shifted to open racism and xenophobia towards Muslim immigrants whom they have managed to label as potential threats to their intolerant political base. The fringe far-right parties have reinvented themselves as defenders of “Conservative Christianity values” and “border/territorial sovereignty” against the encroachment of both non-white Christian foreigners.
With the current situation in both some parts of Europe and the US, I can argue that the contagion effect of this brand of ‘populism’ shall continue spreading. It should alarm all liberal democratic theorists because, if Western Europe and Washington’s politics have been overtaken by ‘demagogic populist’ ideas what could happen to fragile democracies in Africa, South America and Asia? At this point, the future of the international system is in a ‘self-destruction mode’. The system that has been founded on liberal democracy and still trying to solidify democracy is at a risk of being melted by the rise of extreme right politics. Thus Cox 2017 describes this form of populism as taking a more international form than only affecting the national front like previous populisms. I would also stress that the even though the international system is being threatened by the rise of extremist populism, the international political system will endure and rebuild its self as it has done since the beginning of time.
The author is M.A. & B. A in International Politics by the University of South Africa. He has been published in Asian Journal of Peace. His areas of research include nuclear diplomacy, cybersecurity, and foreign policy. He is currently serving on the IAPSS authorial board and is the Chairperson of the IAPSS SRC on Conflict Security & Crime.