Populism Invading Societies: the Role of Media


Populism has been known since politics started their misuse of people; using the rhetorical abilities and content of their speeches to move flocks, assuring a full obedience of “citizens” to a single leader, a single system or a single authority.

While it is some sort of a fake democracy collecting its fans, populism does have some positive connotations in the United States, but definitely, in Europe, ‘populism’ is exclusively perceived as negative. The positive aspect of it is that it voices discontent and often raises questions that need to be addressed.

Populism’s answer to those questions are not necessarily the best for liberal democracy, but the questions that populists ask are clearly questions and concerns that are shared by a sizeable portion of the population. In most countries, populist parties get only a minority of the vote because they represent only a minority of the people, but those people believe that they are the majority.

In certain European countries the political establishment is almost completely corrupt. Romania or Italy, for example, has massive corruption problems. But when you go to Denmark or the Netherlands, which also have strong populist parties, corruption is marginal. Is it true that politicians are representative of the interests of all the people?

Away from USA and Europe, speaking of the Arab region, populism has many faces. In the early independence years in 1950s and 1960s, Nasser of Egypt, Saddam of Iraq, and Qaddafi of Libya used their sounding speeches before the masses to spread their ideas and gain their popularity, while the three are totally different but they used the same machine used by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The result that peoples and nations of them all have been trapped, and the five leaders were defeated, killed or committed suicide. Populism helped them all in approaching a tragic end.

For decades, after the national revolutions in the Middle East, the “people” took the role of “parish” and practiced the rituals of obedience to the shepherd / ruler, who seeks to strengthen the regime through the use of traditional structures such as the clan and tribe, customs and traditions. Many historians used to describe the “people” as a shrew, a marketer, a commoner or a don, and the other signs of disdain that are placed in exchange for “elites” from the people of leadership and authority who own science, solutions and thoughts. But this was not subject to firm institutional rules as was the case in Europe (nobles, priests, craftsmen, peasants …), but was based on family, tribal and class considerations.

So, in tribal states like the Arabian Peninsula’s regimes (UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman, Jordan and Morocco, they all have ruling families in common, and their “populism” means to advocate the ruling family, and other voices against such populism are shut off.

In other “republic” systems, the families are replaced by three new tribes; the armed forces, the intelligence and security forces and the businessmen. The populism of these ruling authorities is controlling the whole scene.

Paul Taggart, in his book on “populism” says; “Silvio Berlusconi was one of the richest people in Italy. Ross Perot was one of the richest people in the US. Thaksin Shinawatra was one of the richest people in Thailand. In the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn was a flamboyant gay man leading one of the most homophobic electorates in the country. And the reason for this is that populism is not about who you are. It is not about class. It is about morals. So the idea is that Trump—while being from New York, which is home to the East coast liberal elite—is actually, in terms of his values and his morals, part of the people.”

So while populism was only linked to negative practices by politicians, it has come to be a lifestyle for millions; who copied the morals of populism in politics and brought them to societies; and this is dangerous. People will no longer consider the corruption of politician is not acceptable, as such corruption is borrowed to the society by footballers, cinema stars, artists, media outlets and so on.

With regard to social media, Paul Taggart does not think it qualitatively changes politics in a fundamental way, but he confirms that it has strengthened certain processes that were already underway. Particularly in Europe, until the 1980s, roughly, most of the traditional media were strictly controlled by the established political parties. That was already changing because of the commercialization of the media. The gatekeeper function of the media for the political establishment was already weakened. Social media has weakened that even further. He adds: “If you can get a lot of traction on Twitter, the traditional media are going to write about it. But if the traditional media doesn’t write about it, not that much happens. The power of social media is to set an agenda but it still comes down to the established media to take that agenda to the mass of the people.”

Here comes the responsibility we must take to deal with it; media must not work as a propaganda tool for populism of such authoritative dictators, corrupted businessmen, fake organizations and systems alike. In Egypt, during the religious ruling Muslim Brotherhood for one year, all voices in media were against their ridicules ways which lacked sense and democracy. The MB were criticized in papers, television and social media. Expecting that the new regime would not do the same mistakes, and pushed by populism, millions have come to streets calling to remove the MB man. But for the surprise of these millions, the new man, is doing the same mistakes, and instead of putting MB people in power, he is putting his own tribes; the armed forces, the intelligence and security forces and the businessmen, who bought all media outlets, or shut down the opposing ones, while the rest of 100 million (Egypt’s population) are neglected, suffering and blaming themselves being the only victims of populism.

By Ahraf Aboul-Yazid

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