Actually Existing Populism: Anti-Immigration Rhetoric and the Assault on Liberal Democracy

Sasha Polakow-Suransky, deputy editor of Foreign Policy magazine, discusses his new book Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy. The book explores the confluence of circumstances that led to the rise of authoritarian populism in countries that were until recently believed to be robust liberal democracies.

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This season of the Tel Aviv Review is made possible by The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which promotes humanistic, democratic, and liberal values in the social discourse in Israel.

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1 comment on “Actually Existing Populism: Anti-Immigration Rhetoric and the Assault on Liberal Democracy

  1. Greg Pollock says:

    The discussion in this podcast moves toward a consideration of social mechanisms–what’s possible rather than just what’s desirable. There will always be need of social dreamers; without them, no progress can come. But once the at first absurd dream of reaching the moon was taken seriously physics had to take control. The same will be true in social crises, slow motion or fast. At one time this wasn’t so: dream was the only strategy available. But the world is too dense now, mistakes too easily contagions which destabilize greater regions than in the past. We need hard nosed realists who tell us when the dream is impossible and, when so, what back up plan might work. Some thoughts raised through listening:

    1. Our post truth era is really an era of desiccated middling and low level elites. People have always wanted to grab hold of an authority, touting it in protected righteousness. We hate being wrong and want someone to tell us we won’t be. Such was the role of lower level elites, the kind of people would be candidates for national offices used to talk before, not mass rallies but smaller rather closed groups of “informed,” “connected” people who acted as candidate and opinion filters. They were influenced by what they heard prospective candidates say, but they also provided a set of hurdles candidates had to pass. Such Roland Reagan spoke before to hone his message, later entering politics directly. Such Trump was able to bypass in the 2016 primaries to clinch the Republican nomination. The Republican establishment hysteria over the strange plurality win Trump juggernaut was recognition that these filter elites not only had failed but seemed obsolete. Two population processes aided their demise: weakening local connections as people move for new job or in desperation; and cheap social media which fill the gap of lost connection and socially filtered information, media without local feedback control as in bound local elites. A kind of bubble insanity results, one we really don’t want to do without for we fear now the other we pass daily in life. We have had blips of this before, as in the 60’s counter culture movement, lost as these matured into permanent jobs. Now, however, we seem to be structurally repeating such crises unendingly. I don’t see how this can be reversed unless the role of permanent jobs can be recovered. Yet our lower end jobs are all temporary be corporate design.

    2. Anti-immigration logic is presented as a sure bet over a gamble, keying into a bias well captured now by experimental economics and psychology. Anti’s promise sure protection by exclusion while pro’s must rely on future benefits; since future, the latter are naturally seen as gambles rather than guaranteed outcomes (how well will Arab refugees acclimate in Germany, for instance). Our predispositions are toward sure bets. Terrorism augments uncertainty, so depresses the value of the liberal gamble, augmenting the distance between sure bet and liberal tolerance/investment. Sure bet dominance truncating investment was not always the case, but then Western economies were expected to grow, neo-colonial policy brought resources home, and a large enemy, the Soviet Empire, needed to be defeated through internal cooperation. Now Western growth is weak, its economies age biased requiring increasing social welfare payouts (in the US, Medicare and Social Security), and technological change is decreasing job opportunities at the bottom of the educational pyramid, all of which fuels sure bets, protecting what you have, over the promise of liberal later payoffs. Climate change will further augment this contention as State budgets are faced with disasters of increasing magnitude and frequency, enhancing zero sum competition over social programs. Immigrants are readily seen as stressing countries further, increasing home opposition to them.

    3. There is a natural correlation between immigration flow and home distress through climate change. Such change will displace more people directly or through resultant war at the same time that better off areas attracting immigrants are faced with increasing dilemmas over social trade offs. Liberalism is overall a philosophy of growth or future plenty. Conservative nationalism a response to resource decline with zero sum competition, this capturing what one hosts suggests about the inherent nature of humanity–neither all good or bad, but contingent. Climate change predicts days of plenty are ending. There have been other dire predictions, such as the population bomb, defused by the agricultural revolution. But there is presently no indication that a technological miracle can disrupt the climate correlation, and, a priori, no reason to believe human growth is unending. Even if a miracle comes, it will change the second derivative in climate change at first, not immediately the direction of the first derivative controlling cumulating effects.

    4. US agrarian populism is a fair candidate for a past pure ideology party that did well locally, peaking in the mid 1890s when Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan adopted some of its policy in a failed Presidential bid. When the Populist Party did well in State elections, even entering Congress, it soon was cannibalized by both Republican and Democrats, often when its elected representatives jumped ship to these latter. Purity is a property of emergence, not maintenance.

    5. The interviewee notes that fears are “exploited by politicians,” but one could just as well say that social processes generate these politicians to articulate populace fears. His phrasing comes from the clear recognition that people will not generally admit abject error; someone else must be found to blame. But it is not at all true that people are simple dupes of nationalist politicians; each uses the other. Liberals, globalists, and the left generally are in the unpleasant position of having to ride out processes beyond immediate corrective reason, in no small part because locally there will be no payoff for thinking long or medium term. A job lost leaves one empty now. The West Virginia coal miner became symbol as representative of individual lost to greater process.

    For some time I have thought that people dislike discussion of large processes because it creates, validly, a sense of helplessness. Climate change is one, evolutionary biology another, and economic recession/depression. In each individuals become subject to forces which erase their personality. I think it noteworthy that religions of eternal life like Christianity and Islam promise final opt out of population processes; nationalism does something similar by fusing the long term success of a nation with the short living individual (very effective in Zionism and present settler Zionism as Greater Israel). This negative correlation between short lived individual and population process is not true in economic booms, for then personal enjoyment is directly correlated with macro process. This is when lower level elites past were most valued, for they appeared to have connections helping one then surf the wave rather than being drowned within it (as climate change presents). Nationalisms promise a boom for all by willing a future prosperity; if one is sacrificed in the now, that is declared to nurture the Nation for latter glory. Liberalism’s and global humanitarianism’s emphasis on the individual makes such sacrifice difficult; indeed, the very global processes they evoke make individual sacrifice seem vanishingly absurd.

    That advocates of medium and long term views tend to be elite, with either secured jobs or credentials making job loss far from catastrophic, does not endear to those seemingly trapped at one location with little help of “retooling” in a fast changing information technology world. The key to lower end jobs is robotic replacement figuratively, now feared literally in the near future.

    Oh hand of global process without personality, I would ask that you let me be wrong if you were there to ask.

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