For those left disillusioned by capitalism, communism and democratization, is there an alternative narrative more inspiring than populism?
By Sven Engesser
Human beings tend to form groups, they stick to their “tribe”. Or put differently, humans try to find ingroups, which they can identify with, and outgroups, which they can distance themselves from. Humans also view ingroups in a more positive light and look upon outgroups more negatively. By enhancing the group they belong to, humans enhance themselves as individuals. This is a normal psychological mechanism and very likely part of the human condition. We have always identified ourselves with people of our age, gender, country, or status group. However, the aspect of outgroup negativity can lead to serious social problems, such as conflicts, disintegration, and the discrimination of minorities. The denigration of “others” endangers the ideals of liberal democracy, such as universalism and human rights. These effects should not be underestimated. Therefore, many people try to avoid group identification altogether and prefer to be as cosmopolitan, open-minded, and tolerant as possible. This strategy, however, does not suit everyone’s personality.
Humans also like stories. For a long time, people gathered around the fireplace and listened to what happened in their communities. Social heritage has always been transformed into stories in order to be preserved over time. These stories or narratives also play an important part in the formation of identity. Humans construct their individual biographies as coherent narratives to make sense of their lives. They also like to embed themselves into collective narratives to perceive a feeling of relatedness, belonging, and purpose. Not so long ago, the “grand narratives” of capitalism, communism, and democratization inspired and mobilized millions of people. In the course of the recent decades, however, they have lost their credibility and attractiveness because they have obviously not been able to solve the major problems of the world, such as corruption, poverty, and war.
Against this backdrop, one can identify a lack of socially acceptable ingroups, outgroups, and collective narratives in our society. The resulting vacuum is increasingly filled by a group of politicians that have become known as populists. Prominent representatives are Donald Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Julius Malema in South Africa. They have discovered the potential of the most important one among the few remaining legitimate ingroups: “the people”. “The people” are regarded as the political sovereign in the democratic system, which means that a large majority of the population is able and allowed to identify itself with it. More or less subtly, however, the populists redefine “the people” by opposing it to certain outgroups, such as the corrupted, the strangers, the takers, the perverts, or the non-believers. By denigrating these “others”, the populists enhance the self-concepts of their followers. This is one of the reasons for their electoral success.
The populists not only instrumentalize ingroups and outgroups, they skillfully construct narratives around them. They refrain from drawing on the outdated “grand narratives” but prefer smaller-scale narratives instead. Beside the antagonism of groups, these narratives are frequently built upon an ideal version of the past, the notion that everything was better in the old days. Political scientist Paul Taggart called this idea the “heartland”. A perfect example for this strategy is the well-known slogan “Make America Great Again” by Donald Trump but populists around the world have used narratives of declinism, heroization, or victimization, such as the Old Swiss Confederacy, the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, or the Greek Resistence during World War II. There is nothing bad about instilling a feeling of identity into the people but these narratives, in general, also include denigrated outgroups and illiberal elements. The populists further amplify the animosity towards the “others” by means of dramatization and fearmongering. They support conspiracy theories or exaggerate existing social risks like economic instability, nuclear armament, human migration, or crime.
As ingroup identification and susceptibility to narratives appear to remain human constants, one of the most promising ways to counter populism may be to offer alternative ingroups and narratives. There is a portfolio of traditional alternative narratives, such as the narrative of the US as a country of diversity and progress, the narrative of the United States of Europe, or the global narrative of the knowledge society, that, by and large, fulfill these criteria. However, these narratives have been widely neglected by political actors or have been restricted to elitist public spheres. A rare example of an alternative narrative that infiltrated popular culture is the Hollywood blockbuster “Black Panther” which impressively demonstrated the power of the “Wakanda” narrative for Africans and African Americans. And yet, “Black Panther” is situated in a monarchy and cannot refrain from drawing on an outgroup of its own: comic book villains. This has to remain the exclusive privilege of fiction. An ideal counternarrative to populism should be completely devoid of denigrated outgroups, illiberal elements, and fear appeals.
Sven Engesser is a professor at the Institute for Media and Communications, Technische Universität Dresden.
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