Populism before and after the pandemic

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by Professor Michael Burleigh

Sarah Coolican, a Research Associate at LSE IDEAS, interviews Professor Burleigh on his book, Populism: Before and After the Pandemic, below.

Sarah Coolican: Let’s start with the basics first, what is Populism?
Professor Michael Burleigh: When asked by somebody ‘what pornography was’, a very senior US judge once said, ‘well I will know it when I see it’. I feel that way about Populism. I would say that a part of Populism as a movement, is the process of defining the ‘ordinary person’ against the perceived elites. And of course, everybody that does not support the ordinary people, who are often sentimentalised out of all recognition, are also casted out.

Sarah: One thing you speak of in this book, is the role of mass media in stoking emotions among populations. The word ‘anger’ was used often. To what extent has the mass media had a role in the rise of Populism over these past decades?
Michael: I think the mass media bares a very heavy responsibility here. Anger is not a constant emotion, most of us lose our tempers from time to time but being constantly angry is psychologically abnormal. The mass media plays a big role in constantly throwing fuel onto the flames of anger. This prevents a pause for reflection, or a stalemate to help resolve conflict, it just perpetuates a constant state of anger. Something must be done to break the stranglehold on the media that these Populist organisations have, and to create an alternative outlet for people to channel their emotions. For example, sites like Open Democracy or Byline Times provide serious articles of investigative journalism, along with a strong hope to get us out of this cycle. Billionaire’s also have their role to play here. Jeff Bezos, for example, in his wage against Populist leader Donald Trump, has transformed The Washington Post into a terrific newspaper. That is what we need, benevolent billionaires, or grass-roots media organisations to quell these feelings of constant anger.

Sarah: You speak of the ‘Malevolent’ billionaires as a force behind Populist movements. These billionaires who fund media organisations like talk radios, and who present themselves as being detached from the elite class. But there is no way to regulate them, free-speech is free-speech, you cannot eliminate one billionaire from talking without stopping them all?Michael: Unless someone is very naïve, things are not that black and white. Someone can be criticised for some of their actions, while simultaneously being praised for other actions. Under the first amendment, US citizens are granted almost unregulated free speech. It is not about the right to speak or not, it is about persuading people that it is in their interest to seek out a more well- informed and critical press. Which is a very difficult thing to do. Although not impossible.

Sarah: Another issue plaguing the journalism industry, I would say, is ‘churnalism’, copy and paste articles and sensationalist headlines. People these days, with an abundance of news sources, are far more likely to read a sensationalist headline, not even open the article or read the facts presented, and form their opinions based on that.
Michael: Exactly. Sometimes the headlines bare no relationship to the article, there is no substantiation or fact. An example that springs to mind, which is not in my book, is the time when various UK Conservative party members were accused of treasonous dealings with the European Union, it was a big headline in the Daily Mail. However, the facts were not presented. There was no follow up in the article, but the headline was enough to stoke up the desired emotion from the public. One final comment I would like to make on anger, is that not all anger is malevolent. Civil rights movements, for example, have a lot to be righteously angry about, and there is nothing wrong with that. What is dangerous is the use of that anger for Populist means.

Sarah: On the topic of emotions, in the book you also mention the romanticisation and idealisation of rural villages and populations. You say this goes beyond recognition of what we actually know things to be these days, and this is due to a ‘heavy dose of sentimentalism’. Could you elaborate on these themes of nostalgia and romanticism, and how they are pertinent to Populist ideology?
Michael: As mentioned, a part of Populism is the definition of ‘ordinary people’ against the perceived elites. And these ‘ordinary people’ are sentimentalised out of all recognition. Something I did not mention in my book, but that I have learned through my own research, is about the rise of the Romanian far-right Populist party, Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR). A lot of their supporters in the 2020 local elections, where it won 9% of the votes in all of Romania, were first- time voters. This is also true of the Brexit referendum. The vote leave campaign successfully identified parts of the electorate who were politically apathetic and utilised their power. This is done through the definition of ordinary people, sentimentalising their existence, and stoking anger amongst them.
I do say in the book, that anger and political dissatisfaction are good, but that Populism uses this anger against imagined enemies. The EU is being blamed for things which does not concern it. The neglect of coastal communities across Britain, the forgotten de-industrialised North of England, or the problems of peripheral Cornwall are nothing to do with the EU whatsoever. These things are failures of central-government policy in nation states, who leapt so enthusiastically at the prospects of globalisation. In the 1930’s there was a lot of rural resentment about red-Berlin, red-Vienna, red-Madrid – the cosmopolitan left-wing cities who absorbed all the investment and development. This is very similar to the Britain we are seeing today; resentment towards the lifestyle the middle-class in these cities have. If you look across post-Soviet states in Europe, these feelings of resentment and nostalgia are even more exacerbated by the depopulation crises. Polska B, the rural areas of Poland, are suffering greatly with the effects of a national brain-drain. Likewise, Hungary has turned from ‘Red to Grey’ almost overnight.

Sarah: This reminds me of my studies of Russian society over the years. The Yeltsin era, for example, and the incredibly difficult transition Russian citizens went through in the 1990’s, saw a huge yearning for the Brezhnev era. Would you say Populism, in terms of emotions, needs the combination of anger at a real or perceived enemy and a nostalgic yearning for a life they believe they once had or could have again?
Michael: Yes, certainly. Nostalgia is an interesting way of putting it. It is a vision of a past which is never coming back. I point out in the book that you can say life in rural villages is traditional and quaint, but in these villages exists modern realities. A lot of the residents will be homeowners where this is their second home. The idea of this old-fashioned and traditional village is nonsense, that world does not exist. Another aspect, evident in the post-Brexit aftermath, is the extraordinary sentimentalisation of fisherman. They are not as important to the economy as the government ruckus would suggest.

Sarah: Something in your book, which is fascinating, is the discussion of the rise of the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany. Germany is interesting in this discussion about Populism because, unlike its post-Soviet counterparts, it did not have a whole state collapse in 1989, it was already a divided country. Do you think this sets Germany on a non linear path in democracy, different to other countries experiencing the rise of Populism?
Michael: There is a whole psychological dimension to the post-Soviet era. The collapse of Communism destroyed the established sense of gender roles. In a Communist society, the apex man was the industrial worker, working in the mines or steelworks. These professions were focused mainly around the East German regions, and once that system collapsed and was assimilated into West Germany, there was an entire part of the population who become effectively functionless. These people make up a core constituency of the AfD and Der Linker.

Sarah: The book has a chapter on Britain and Russia and their relations throughout the years. An interesting part of this section is about the building and falling of Empires. You even mention that Putin himself is a ‘fan of state-building autocrats’ as leaders. A question I have is, can we ever separate nationalism and patriotism, being proud of our history, from the practice of othering and promoting Populist ideals?
Michael: Both Britain and Russia share one fundamental characteristic, that they were both very big Empires. The deal with being an Empire is, that the dominant and ruling nationality suppresses its identity in favour of the minority peoples, as this promotes a larger unification. The English suppressed their English identity in favour of ‘Britishness’, likewise the Russians suppressed their Russianness in favour of a Soviet identity. We are now seeing a resurgence of an English and Russian identity after the collapse of Empire. Paradoxically, this resurgence of national identity is coming out in very anti-EU tones, which is starting to make both British and Russian identities, sworn enemies, look surprising similar.

Sarah: We have spoken quite a bit about Europe today. Do you think that the EU can ever heal from the wounds of Brexit? Not just in its relations with the UK, but internally, especially in reference to Hungary and Poland, can the EU restore faith in the union?
Michael: The thing in recent times that has come closest to destroying the EU as we know it, was the vaccine crisis. Had the EU not stepped in to centralise the procurement and distribution of vaccines, there would have been countries within this union which would have been unable to run a nation- wide vaccine programme. This posed a serious existential moment for the EU, but they have survived this. The AstraZeneca crisis has only highlighted the crude and selfish vaccine-nationalism Britain has been undertaking in this crisis.

Sarah: And when this subsides, can we heal from the wounds?
Michael: Look, this is very asymmetrical. Despite leaving the EU, British tabloids are still obsessed with the EU. The EU must embark on a PR campaign which seeks to increase the positive imagery of the Union. Getting out there highlighting the wins of the EU and what it does and can do for people. Populist ‘othering’ cannot be countered by reasoning alone, proactive steps to stop it must be taken.

Sarah: However, if the raison-d’etre of the Tory party in the UK has become to stand against the EU, then the tabloids who support them will never let this anger for the EU die?
Michael: Well, yes, but the British media have no control over what occurs in the EU. If you look at the recent Dutch elections, Democrats 66, the most Europhile party in the Netherlands, doubled their vote. So, I do not think it Is all doom and disaster by any means.

Sarah: You speak of selective historical memory and the deliberate re-traumatisation of populations for political gain. The ‘Polocaust’ was one example of this selective memory which absolves the Polish state of blame for their role in the horrors of the holocaust. In what ways does this serve Populism’s development across the region? 
Michael: I always distinguish between myth, which exists in all societies and are needed for group cohesion, and history. What I object to, is the freezing of history, where you stop re-evaluating the story based on new evidence. As this is where myth can have a pernicious influence on historical understanding. If you take how the Second World War or the holocaust has been written about, for example, this was revolutionised after the fall of Communism. Suddenly, historians had access to documents and government papers that had been hidden behind the Iron Curtain for decades.
History must be constantly re-evaluated considering new evidence available, even if it differs from the myth we have created. Even in 2021, there are more programmes on the Second World War than ever. It is like sharks… you can turn on your TV and you are guaranteed to find a programme on the War and sharks. TV producers want drama and grit. Things like political quiz shows are set up for maximum polarisation and to get people to lose their temper. The reason people like Nigel Farage are on television so much, is because they create controversy which in turn generates audiences. This is how Populism can get inflated beyond its true reach, which again links back to the role mass media plays here.

Sarah: Finally, your last chapter deals with the pandemic and how this has been the demise of many Populist leaders; Trump, Duterte, Obrador, Bolsonaro, Modi, Putin. They have failed in this crisis because their style of politics is maladapted to dealing with something one cannot attach a sinister face to. Do you think the illiberal wave has finally passed over Europe? 
Michael: Matthew Goodwin talks about a ‘wave of illiberalism,’ however I do not really see it as a wave. I believe Populism is much more erratic and episodic. In parts of the world, many of these Populist-parties do seem to be in decline, but in others it is on the rise. I would argue that this pandemic has finished off Bolsonaro. Not only will the military not back him, but the corporates and bankers are also horrified at his handling of this crisis. Bolsonaro is now left with his core voter base – evangelical Christians – which is not a winning electorate. The problem with Populism is that it is constantly present. I take great heart from the fact that the ratings figures for American news channels have collapsed since Biden became President. This is because he is not out making outrageous statements and because his twitter feed is professional. Biden represents dull-competence, normality, and above all he knows the utility of silence. His press conferences are orderly and professional. And I have begun to think, yes, that is the way to do it, we ought to get more used to this. We have become accustomed to seeing political figures saying extraordinary things to capture the news cycle for 24-hours. However, now we are seeing more semblance of normality in politics, and my hope is that we can all begin to recognise these sensationalist tactics for what they are.

If you are interested in reading more about Populism before, during and after the pandemic, you can buy Professor Burleigh’s book here.

Michael Burleigh is a historian and commentator. His books include the best-selling; The Third Reich: A New History; Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World 1945–65, which was long-listed for the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize which he won in 2001, and The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: A History of Now. This book, Populism: Before and After the Pandemic was published in February 2021. In May 2021 his latest book Day of The Assassins: A History of Political Murder was published.

He has also been active in bringing history to television audiences and won the British Film Institute Award for Archival Achievement. He writes regularly for The Times, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday on international affairs. A Professor of Modern History, Michael was the first appointed Engelsberg Chair in History and International Relations at LSE IDEAS, an annual distinguished visiting professorship, delivering public lectures to LSE’s foreign policy think tan.