Rethinking Nonviolent Resistance in the Face of Right-Wing Populism

Calls for civil resistance against the rise of right-wing populism have emerged. But political activism is more than taking to the streets.

US residents in Mexico protest against President Donald Trump’s foreign policy towards Mexico. Credit: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

US residents in Mexico protest against President Donald Trump’s foreign policy towards Mexico. Credit: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

From Brexit to the Trump presidency and Marine Le Pen’s campaign-trail successes in France, right-wing populism is sweeping across the West.

Analysts and scholars have expressed concerns that this movement could threaten the fate of liberal democracy and its hard-fought triumph over other contesting political ideologies since the end of Cold War.

In other words, the ‘End of History‘, as described by US political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, may come to an end.

The rise of right-wing populism may also open a Pandora’s box for demagogues to promote a xenophobic agenda, as evident in Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban.

Calls for civil resistance

There is deep fear that populist leaders such as Trump – advised by the right-wing ideologue Steve Bannon – will eviscerate democratic checks and balances in the pursuit of consolidated power.

As a response, activists are calling for civil resistance against authoritarianism, and street protests are being staged to remind the enthroned populists of people power.

Safeguarding democracy through civil resistance is necessary. But it is important to acknowledge the fact that many of these leaders are democratically elected and supported by large segments of society.

We may choose to believe that voters for right-wing populist parties share chauvinistic and nationalistic opinions with their strongmen. However, the popular appeal of these leaders has much to do with the socio-economic decline that some constituents in the West have experienced, and this needs to be addressed if we want to efficiently counter authoritarian regimes.

Dignity deficit

The increasing “oligarchisation” of liberal democratic societies set a stage for a dignity deficit, especially among white, non-urban and working-class population.

In recent decades, the middle class in the West found their lives unprecedentedly precarious due to increasing unemployment and a lack of social security. The post-Cold War era ushered into force neoliberal dominance.

The speed of economic globalisation means that manufacturing jobs have been lost to countries offering cheap labour, while austerity policies – resulting in cutback in social expenditure – imply that most of the time, individuals are left on their own to finance their increasingly expensive healthcare and education, to name a few necessities.

Automation and immigrants looking for high- and low-skilled jobs in economically advanced countries have raised many questions about the future of employment for the American and European middle classes. These were left unanswered.

Against this backdrop, the well-off have reaped the benefit of globalisation. So have the cosmopolitan urbanites who have caught up with changing socio-economic landscape.

Meanwhile, political elites in Washington, Paris and London are perceived as having ignored this crisis of surging inequality, as they continue neoliberal policies that hurt the working class – people who often consider themselves the backbone of their societies.

For instance, a series of free trade deals have been advocated by governments to be a brainchild of liberal democracy. However, rather than improving work conditions and life chances for common people, many of these deals have strengthened global corporations, contributing to greater inequality.

A good example is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which potentially radicalises corporate deregulation, challenging states’ judicial sovereignty, and “imposes fiercer standards of intellectual property”.

Think tanks also point out that the signed and ratified TPP can result in job losses and declining wages.

Anti-establishment rhetoric

Right-wing populism is a symptom of society polarised by economic injustice and the collapse of liberal democracy, which has enhanced the distance between political elites and their constituents.

Populist figures such as Trump and Le Pen can mobilise popular support sufficiently to contest other liberal or centrist candidates because of their anti-establishment rhetoric.

They acknowledge the injustice and humiliation inflicted on their constituents through the loss of jobs and neglect of the political class.

Often popular anger is being diverted toward immigrants, who are portrayed as a threat to economic and cultural security, resulting in the proliferation of xenophobic attacks. Scapegoating immigrants becomes the expression of fear and vulnerability.

The increasingly precarious livelihood of this section of the population has led to a general perception that their idea of a great nation is in danger.

Populist slogans – such as “Make America Great Again” or “Take back our Country” – respond to this perception and collective emotion attached to it.

Lacking other political alternatives, people find hope in right-wing populist discourse, even when the candidates push forward radical agendas.

In this sense, the social divide runs parallel to the crisis of liberal democracy. Tackling right-wing populism requires not only resistance against leaders with authoritarian traits but also comprehension of why a vast number of people view populism as a hopeful alternative to the existing system.

Addressing social bifurcation

Resistance in the form of street demonstrations and boycotts remains an important tool for defending democracy. Nevertheless, it does little to address ongoing social bifurcation.

It is difficult to imagine that supporters of right wing-populism, who despise the so-called “political correctness” and see the liberal agenda as irrelevant to their livelihood, would participate in progressive demonstrations such as the Women’s March.

Does this mean that protests end up constituting an echo chamber where the progressive agenda circulates among those already convinced by the progressive ideas? Does it imply that while liberals resist Trump with various methods of nonviolent action, they have so far failed to understand the underpinning causes of populist trajectory, and have thereby missed the chance to communicate with those electing populist leaders?

Is it possible that protests can contribute to dividing society even more as protesters at times claim to hold higher moral ground than their populist opponents?

Rethinking resistance

It is high time to rethink how nonviolent resistance can help counter right-wing populism.

Nonviolent resistance is more than taking to the street. It is political activism in the sense that it offers analytic tools to understand pillars of support of the ruling government, which normally include electoral constituents, bureaucratic bodies and the media.

Well crafted messages should convey to the general public the elites’ legitimacy deficit, and at the same time show the availability to political alternatives.

The messages amplified through persistent campaigns should be conducive to the eventual realignment of allies. Shifting alliances – especially the defection of electoral supporters of the government – will allow activists to increase political momentum in the pursuit of social and political change.

The implication is that those committing to nonviolent resistance not only resist the powers that be – they also analyse how the ruling power’s discourses resonate with popular resentment, which in effect helps galvanise support to sustain its ruling legitimacy.

This understanding allows activists to design campaigns that show empathy to groups across political affiliations.

In the wake of right-wing populism, these campaigns need to address the structural underpinnings of a collapsing political establishment and offer a genuine platform for debating alternatives based on economic redistribution, reconfiguration of power relations between the political class and the people and political reconciliation of groups with different aspirations.

Communicating with those you disagree with – instead of reinforcing an echo chamber – is the key to achieving all this.

Communicating across the aisle

The ideas laid out above are not completely novel.

Examples of communicating across the aisle appeared during US Civil Rights campaigns where African-American leaders tried to appeal to “white consciousness”, extending their political messages to convince white priests and white constituents to endorse the course of the black struggle.

In ousting the Slobodan Milošević, the “Butcher of the Balkans”, Serbia’s pro-democracy movements launched campaigns in Milošević’s rural footholds, areas that had initially endorsed his ethno-nationalism.

Their success lived in the campaign’s association of “healthy patriotism” with the downfall of Milošević, and the creation of peaceful and democratic Serbia. The campaign message sought to unite Serbians whose political opinions were once split along the fault line of pro or anti-Milošević.

Beyond overthrowing a dictator, a well-run campaign can bridge the perception gaps that divide a nation, reminding us of the importance of constructing the future together based on the idea of dignity, justice and inclusiveness.

This article is adapted from a blog originally published on Cafe Dissensus.

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, Assistant Professor, Thammasat University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.