Nos­tal­gia and Ro­man­ti­cism: Pop­ulism and the Rise of Iden­tity Pol­i­tics

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By John Nils­son-wright

Con­ven­tional ex­pla­na­tions for the re­cent rise of pop­ulism and iden­tity pol­i­tics are too nar­row.

As vary­ing strains of pop­ulism and iden­tity pol­i­tics play out in the styles of Asian lead­ers from In­dia to In­done­sia, the Philip­pines and be­yond, it is in­struc­tive to look at the roots and na­ture of pop­ulism as it is ex­pressed cur­rently in the West, par­tic­u­larly in deeply es­tab­lished lib­eral democ­ra­cies such those in the United States and Western Europe. At some level, even the very no­tion of lib­eral democ­racy ap­pears un­der threat.

John Nils­son-wright ar­gues that con­ven­tional ex­pla­na­tions for the re­cent rise of pop­ulism and iden­tity pol­i­tics are too nar­row and of­ten ig­nore the mul­ti­fac­eted na­ture of the phe­nom­e­non. Po­lit­i­cally, the world is more dan­ger­ous and un­pre­dictable than it was just a cou­ple of years ago. seem­ingly overnight, fol­low­ing Bri­tain’s un­ex­pected vote on June 23, 2016, to with­draw from the euro­pean Union and the elec­tion of Don­ald trump as Us pres­i­dent in novem­ber of the same year, con­fi­dence in lib­eral democ­racy is at a low point. the rise of far-right na­tion­al­ist par­ties in Western europe and the emer­gence of au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments in Hun­gary, Poland and else­where along with the weak­en­ing of con­sti­tu­tional norms and the emer­gence of ex­is­ten­tial threats to free me­dia and open so­ci­eties have raised wor­ries about what has hap­pened to the once-con­fi­dent post-cold War as­ser­tions of an “end to His­tory” and the tri­umph of lib­eral democ­racy.

a sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion is to fo­cus on eco­nomic changes. the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis, the spread of glob­al­iza­tion and the rel­a­tive shift in the cen­ter of eco­nomic grav­ity from West to east have un­der­mined the well­be­ing of once se­cure mid­dle-class so­ci­eties in europe and north amer­ica. In­di­vid­u­als have had to ad­just to sharply di­min­ished life­time in­come ex­pec­ta­tions, and the ris­ing costs of ed­u­ca­tion, hous­ing, wel­fare and re­tire­ment.1

How­ever, this brake on the con­fi­dent be­lief in the ben­e­fits of eco­nomic mod­ern­iza­tion is only one part of a more com­plex story. equally im­por­tant is the re­cur­rence of cycli­cal pat­terns of po­lit­i­cal be­hav­ior that seem rem­i­nis­cent of a more con­tentious and po­lar­iz­ing time, es­pe­cially the up­heaval of the in­ter­war pe­riod in europe in the last cen­tury.2 much of this is ev­i­dent in the shift to­ward a pol­i­tics of anger, re­sent­ment and an­tiplu­ral­ist ex­clu­sion, fre­quently rooted in the resur-

rec­tion of his­tor­i­cal na­tional myths and themes. We can see this in trump’s in­vo­ca­tion of the “amer­ica First” cam­paign or the emer­gence of mass neo-nazi demon­stra­tions in Chem­nitz in Ger­many, or the at­tempt to re­ha­bil­i­tate the rep­u­ta­tion of Joseph stalin in rus­sia.

look­ing back, an­grily

How should we ac­count for this re­newed ap­peal of the past and an ap­par­ent re­jec­tion of moder­nity, a trend that the amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tual mark lilla has re­ferred to as the “pol­i­tics of nos­tal­gia?” a key ex­pla­na­tion is the cen­tral role of


emo­tion, rather than rea­son, in shap­ing both in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive be­hav­ior, and in this con­text the re­cur­rence of iden­tity pol­i­tics as an an­i­mat­ing fac­tor in po­lit­i­cal life. Fran­cis Fukuyama — who in 1989 first claimed (con­tro­ver­sially evok­ing Hegel), that his­tory had ended — has cap­tured the salience of this trend in his lat­est work by point­ing to a “new trib­al­ism and the cri­sis of democ­racy.” For Fukuyama, bor­row­ing


from Plato, the driv­ing im­pulse be­hind this pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with in­ner life and the rel­e­vance of self at both an in­di­vid­ual and a col­lec­tive level is the de­sire for recog­ni­tion or “thy­mos.” this


feels in­tu­itively ap­peal­ing and cap­tures some of the cur­rent mood — the sense, for ex­am­ple, felt by some, of hav­ing been left be­hind in so­ci­eties as di­verse as the Us and the UK where com­men­ta­tors have spo­ken of a split be­tween “in­sid­ers and out­siders” or “any­wheres and some­wheres.”


How­ever, with­out min­i­miz­ing the de­sire for recog­ni­tion, this feels far too nar­row an ex­pla­na­tion. the power of iden­tity pol­i­tics and the re­lated pop­ulist push is a much more mul­ti­fac­eted phe­nom­e­non. It not only in­volves a de­sire for recog­ni­tion, but also, and per­haps para­dox­i­cally, a par­al­lel in­stinct to deny that recog­ni­tion to oth­ers. It is based on an ex­clu­sion­ary, judg­men­tal and po­lar­iz­ing ten­dency that fos­ters con­flict and stands in the way of con­sen­sus and ac­com­mo­da­tion. In the words of Jan-werner müller, an es­pe­cially per­cep­tive an­a­lyst of pop­ulism, it is based on “… a par­tic­u­lar moral­ist imag­i­na­tion of pol­i­tics, a way of per­ceiv­ing the po­lit­i­cal world that sets a morally pure and fully uni­fied — but … ul­ti­mately fic­tional — peo­ple against elites who are deemed cor­rupt or in some other way morally in­fe­rior.”

7 at its most ex­treme, pop­ulism spills over not only into a re­jec­tion of elites, but a broader and much more de­struc­tive form of ni­hilism, a type of “neg­a­tive sol­i­dar­ity” that is fu­el­ing what Pankaj mishra has de­scribed as a new “age of anger.” Im­por­tantly, this ten­dency has deep his­tor­i­cal an­tecedents and is re­flected in the com­men­tary of 18th and 19th cen­tury writ­ers as di­verse as the great rus­sian nov­el­ist Fy­o­dor Dos­to­evsky, the Ger­man philoso­pher Jo­hann Herder and the Ital­ian na­tion­al­ist Gabriele D’an­nun­zio.

Cen­tral to such writ­ers is a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with his­tor­i­cal le­git­i­macy and the power of na­tional, cul­tur­ally de­fined nar­ra­tives as the ba­sis of group iden­tity. equally im­por­tant is a ten­dency to priv­i­lege emo­tion over rea­son and to fo­cus on strug­gle and re­sis­tance as the apotheo­sis of both in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive en­deavor — a mer­i­to­ri­ous end in it­self, rather than sim­ply a way of chal­leng­ing vested in­ter­ests. to­day’s pop­ulist move­ments are driven by the same pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and, strik­ingly, are mak­ing them­selves felt not just in the West, where rel­a­tive eco­nomic de­cline is be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced, but glob­ally. as mishra notes: Hate-mon­ger­ing against im­mi­grants, mi­nori­ties and var­i­ous des­ig­nated ‘oth­ers’ has gone main­stream — even in Ger­many, whose post-nazi pol­i­tics and cul­ture were founded on the pre­cept ‘never again.’ Peo­ple foam­ing at the mouth with loathing and mal­ice — such as the lead­ing can­di­dates in the Us re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pri­maries who called mex­i­can im­mi­grants ‘rapists’ and com­pared syr­ian refugees to ‘ra­bid dogs’ — have be­come a com­mon sight on both old and new me­dia. amid the length­en­ing spiral of eth­nic

and subeth­nic mas­sacre and mu­tinies, there are such bizarre anachro­nisms and nov­el­ties as maoist gueril­las in In­dia, self-im­mo­lat­ing monks in ti­bet, and Bud­dhist eth­nic-cleansers in sri lanka and myan­mar.8

such dan­ger­ous ex­clu­sivist and na­tivist ten­den­cies have, of course, found an easy tar­get for their en­er­gies in the back­lash against im­mi­gra­tion in a range of coun­tries, whether or not the im­pact is ma­te­ri­ally threat­en­ing, be­nign or ac­tu­ally pos­i­tive. Un­prin­ci­pled pop­ulist lead­ers and dem­a­gogues (such as turkey’s re­cep tayyip er­do­gan, Hun­gary’s Vik­tor Or­ban or trump in the Us) have used the fear of out­siders and the rise of re­sent­ment and iden­tity pol­i­tics to marginal­ize and stig­ma­tize op­po­nents, dis­man­tle demo­cratic safe­guards and un­der­cut the core as­sump­tions of plu­ral­ist pol­i­tics.

ris­ing ro­man­ti­cism

Given the dan­ger­ous con­se­quences of this re­turn to po­lit­i­cal au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, it is un­der­stand­able why some have spo­ken out forcibly against the re­turn of iden­tity pol­i­tics. Fukuyama, for ex­am­ple, has stressed the need to tran­scend the de­sire for a sense of dif­fer­ence and ex­clu­siv­ity by fo­cus­ing on as­sim­i­la­tion­ist poli­cies and the re­in­force­ment of uni­ver­sal val­ues such as the rule of law and hu­man equal­ity. Clearly, few would dis­pute the crit­i­cal im­por­tance of these val­ues, but to see them as the so­lu­tion to meet­ing the ba­sic drive on the part of in­di­vid­u­als and groups to­wards ex­clu­siv­ity is to un­der­es­ti­mate the power and in­stinc­tive ap­peal of the pop­ulist im­pulse.

We need to look be­yond the oc­ca­sion­ally knee­jerk re­ac­tion that sees iden­tity pol­i­tics and pop­ulism as prin­ci­pally a neg­a­tive or re­gres­sive phe­nom­e­non. One way of do­ing this is to con­trast the val­ues that an­i­mate iden­tity pol­i­tics with the as­sump­tions that un­til very re­cently have been dom­i­nant in mod­ern Western so­ci­ety, par­tic­u­larly the en­light­en­ment faith in ra­tio­nal en­quiry and ev­i­dence-based anal­y­sis. the ap­peal of the

new pop­ulism is in part ex­plained by the power of ro­man­ti­cism — more a per­spec­tive than a sin­gle doc­trine and a di­verse body of think­ing (en­com­pass­ing not just pol­i­tics but also the arts, phi­los­o­phy, and lit­er­a­ture) that has at its heart, as the Ox­ford his­to­rian Isa­iah Ber­lin pointed out many years ago, an ex­plicit re­jec­tion of uni­ver­sal truth and con­ven­tional author­ity. ac­cord­ing to Ber­lin:

We … owe to ro­man­ti­cism the no­tion that a uni­fied an­swer in hu­man af­fairs is likely to be ru­inous, that if you re­ally be­lieve there is one sin­gle so­lu­tion to all hu­man ills, and that you must im­pose this so­lu­tion at no mat­ter what cost, you are likely to be­come a vi­o­lent and despotic tyrant in the name of your so­lu­tion. the no­tion that there are many val­ues, and that they are in­com­pat­i­ble; the whole no­tion of plu­ral­ity, of in­ex­haustibil­ity, of the im­per­fec­tion of all hu­man an­swers and ar­range­ments; the no­tion that there is no sin­gle an­swer which claims to be per­fect and true — all this we owe to the ro­man­tics.9

at its worst, the ro­man­tic im­pulse can lead to a dis­trust of all forms of author­ity and the de­mo­niz­ing re­jec­tion of “fake news” — a trend am­pli­fied by the spread of so­cial me­dia. less con­tentiously, it can help to ex­plain the ex­clu­sive eu­pho­ria that an­i­mates na­tional sport­ing suc­cess (such as the ju­bi­lant cel­e­bra­tions that gripped France dur­ing this year’s World Cup win), or the sense of col­lec­tive unity that un­der­pins many forms of pa­tri­otic na­tional en­deavor, such as amer­ica’s vic­tory in the race to place a man on the moon.

Im­por­tantly, this ten­dency to priv­i­lege emo­tion over rea­son can op­er­ate both on the left and right of pol­i­tics and ex­plains why pop­ulism is not con­fined to ex­treme right groups such as afd in Ger­many, or the swedish Democrats, but also ap­peals to the pro­gres­sive forces of Pode­mos in spain or syriza in Greece. In some cases, such as the new 2018 Ital­ian govern­ment, left and right pop­ulist forces have con­verged, in this case in the form of the coali­tion be­tween the cen­ter-right league and the left-wing Five star move­ment.

For the lead­ers and sup­port­ers of such pop­ulist move­ments, com­mit­ment to one’s own cause, at the ex­pense of, and some­times in di­rect op­po­si­tion to, other po­lit­i­cal groups is un­con­tentious and of­ten ac­tively en­cour­aged — a ten­dency neatly re­flected in to­day’s mega­phone po­lit­i­cal de­bate around Brexit in the UK. It ex­plains the in­creas­ing trib­al­ism of po­lit­i­cal life that we are see­ing across the world, not just in the de­vel­oped world, but in newly de­vel­op­ing and rapidly in­dus­tri­al­iz­ing coun­tries such as naren­dra modi’s In­dia, where Hindu na­tion­al­ism has spawned vi­o­lent and of­ten deeply dis­crim­i­na­tory poli­cies against mus­lims, of­ten in the name of na­tivist his­tor­i­cal myths of na­tional iden­tity. In other words, ex­trem­ism can flour­ish in coun­tries that are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing eco­nomic progress as well as re­trench­ment.

wired for rage?

to ex­plain the pow­er­ful ap­peal of these ex­clu­sion­ary, col­lec­tivist forms of iden­tity pol­i­tics, we can turn not just to in­tel­lec­tual his­tory, but also to new sci­en­tific re­search. the so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Haidt, for ex­am­ple, has made a pow­er­ful case that in­tol­er­ance and self-right­eous­ness is hard-wired into our way of view­ing our­selves and oth­ers.10 Our moral sen­si­bil­ity is a prod­uct of our in­tu­ition, rather than our rea­son, and the val­ues and norms that gov­ern our so­ci­eties func­tion in Dar­winian fash­ion to bol­ster and pro­tect es­tab­lished com­mu­ni­ties. We cling to our moral be­liefs, not be­cause they are em­pir­i­cally true, but be­cause they work to re­in­force group sol­i­dar­ity and our ex­clu­sion­ary com­mit­ment to our own com­mu­nity at the ex­pense of oth­ers.

Con­se­quently, we should be wary of as­sum­ing that we can eas­ily ac­com­mo­date the views of oth­ers based on rea­soned ar­gu­ment — “the ra­tio­nal­ist delu­sion” that Haidt sees as gen­er­ally dom­i­nant in Western so­ci­ety.11 this does not mean that we should not try to be re­spect­ful and tol­er­ant of the views of oth­ers; only that we should be wary of as­sum­ing that em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence is ei­ther suf­fi­cient or even nec­es­sary to re­solve dif­fer­ences be­tween two com­mu­ni­ties equally an­i­mated by their re­spec­tive iden­tity-driven and fre­quently con­tentious his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives. this is true both be­tween and within na­tions, whether, for ex­am­ple, be­tween Brex­i­teers and re­main­ers in the UK or pro- and anti-trump sup­port­ers in the Us.

Haidt’s “right­eous mind,” Fukuyama’s stress on the de­sire for recog­ni­tion, mishra’s fo­cus on anger and re­sent­ment, and Ber­lin’s ac­count of the in­tu­itive ap­peal of the ro­man­tic sen­si­bil­ity all in their ways help ac­count for the rise of pop­ulist pol­i­tics — a phe­nom­e­non that, in its par­tic­u­lar man­i­fes­ta­tions in dif­fer­ent poli­ties, is it­self var­ied and re­sis­tant to sim­pli­fied gen­er­al­iza­tions. Harder to ex­plain, at first glance, are those so­ci­eties where the pop­ulist im­pulse ap­pears not to have taken hold. a key case in point is con­tem­po­rary Ja­pan.

the ja­panese Ex­cep­tion … so far

By all ac­counts, Ja­pan re­mains a main­stream polity. the gov­ern­ing lib­eral Demo­cratic Party (LDP) has been in power since 1955, save for a brief in­ter­lude in the mid-1990s and be­tween 2009-2012. Prime min­is­ter shinzo abe, and many of his se­nior col­leagues, are clas­sic es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures with long po­lit­i­cal pedi­grees that ex­tend as far back as the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the sec­ond World War. abe’s fa­ther served as for­eign min­is­ter in the 1980s, and his grand­fa­ther nobusuke Kishi was prime min­is­ter be­tween 1957 and 1960. the cur­rent deputy prime min­is­ter, taro aso is the grand­son of former Prime min­is­ter shigeru yoshida, who helped lay the foun­da­tions of Ja­pan’s post-war eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment strat­egy and its rel­a­tively low-pro­file for­eign pol­icy for some 30 or so years af­ter 1945. While there have been pop­ulist politi­cians, par­tic­u­larly at the lo­cal level, such as the former gov­er­nor of

tokyo, shin­taro Ishi­hara, and his coun­ter­part in Osaka, toru Hashimoto, who have run as mav­er­icks chal­leng­ing the po­lit­i­cal cen­ter; both have failed to gain trac­tion at a na­tional level. the most re­cent in­stance of a na­tional, pop­ulist pitch came from yuriko Koike, the cur­rent gov­er­nor of tokyo, who dur­ing the last lower house elec­tion in 2017 formed a grass­roots move­ment named Kibo no To (Party of Hope), in an ef­fort to un­seat the LDP. Her cam­paign fell apart at the 11th hour, largely due to a set of con­tra­dic­tory pol­icy prom­ises and her re­sis­tance to ab­sorb­ing into her new party former left-wing mem­bers of the weak­ened op­po­si­tion Demo­cratic Party of Ja­pan (DPJ).

Pop­ulism’s ap­par­ent fail­ure may re­flect the ab­sence of any ma­jor dis­rup­tion to the eco­nomic sys­tem in Ja­pan. two to three decades of slow if not stag­nant eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment have led to a diminu­tion of Ja­pan’s global eco­nomic sta­tus, but the pain of eco­nomic re­trench­ment has been grad­ual rather than abrupt. nor has Ja­pan, as a rel­a­tively ho­moge­nous so­ci­ety, had to con­front the chal­lenges of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism or mass mi­gra­tion that have been con­tentious in europe. even when the elec­torate has flirted with pop­ulist-style poli­cies, such as the wel­fare-fo­cused, re­dis­tribu­tive poli­cies of the DPJ in 2009-2012, ad­min­is­tra­tive con­fu­sion, as well as the chal­lenges of man­ag­ing Ja­pan’s triple dis­as­ters in march 2011, all helped to seal the elec­toral fate of the DPJ — a now much di­min­ished and frac­tured party.

yet not­with­stand­ing these sur­face dif­fer­ences, pol­i­tics in Ja­pan re­mains sharply di­vided over iden­tity is­sues, and if any­thing these di­vi­sions are likely to grow as abe plans to push for­ward his con­tentious pol­icy of con­sti­tu­tional re­vi­sion should he be re-elected LDP leader this septem­ber. next year will also see the in­au­gu­ra­tion of a new em­peror, fol­low­ing the ab­di­ca­tion in april 2019 of the in­cum­bent em­peror ak­i­hito. For many politi­cians on the right in Ja­pan, es­pe­cially within the con­tro­ver­sial na­tion­al­ist body, Nip­pon Kaigi (the Ja­pan Con­fer­ence), the start of the new era is an op­por­tu­nity to re­visit and re-em­pha­size some of the coun­try’s more con­tentious his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives, by both down­play­ing the coun­try’s ex­cesses dur­ing the 1930s and stress­ing the im­por­tance of moral and pa­tri­otic ed­u­ca­tion. By con­trast, on the left of Ja­panese pol­i­tics, the com­mit­ment to ar­ti­cle 9, the peace clause of the Con­sti­tu­tion, has a totemic value that is less about a prag­matic de­tach­ment from global pol­i­tics and more about a de­sire on the part of many Ja­panese pro­gres­sives to find dis­tinc­tive mean­ing in an emo­tion­ally au­then­tic en­gage­ment with in­ter­na­tion­al­ism and the anti-nu­clear move­ment.

It is a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion to frame Ja­pan’s iden­tity pol­i­tics purely around these com­pet­ing sets of core val­ues; be­tween the poles there ex­ist sub­tle gra­da­tions of dif­fer­ence be­tween mod­er­ates and ex­trem­ists on both sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. the im­por­tant point to note, how­ever, is that the ex­clu­sion­ary in­stinct and ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment to a cause that an­i­mates iden­tity pol­i­tics and the ro­man­tic im­pulse is also at work in Ja­pan and has ar­guably been a con­stant fea­ture of much of its mod­ern ex­pe­ri­ence in the 19th and 20th cen­turies. Whether it has the po­ten­tial to fuel a pop­ulist re­ac­tion at some point in the fu­ture is un­clear, but given the un­ex­pected speed with which such ideas have taken hold in coun­tries such as the UK and Us that once seemed im­per­vi­ous to such trends, we should be wary of as­sum­ing that Ja­pan will con­tinue along its lin­ear, mod­ern­iz­ing tra­jec­tory and re­main re­sis­tant to the cycli­cal pat­tern of pop­ulist re­vival that we have seen else­where.

john Nils­son-wright is se­nior lec­turer, uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge; se­nior re­search fel­low, Chatham house; and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor. this ar­ti­cle is based on a longer aca­demic piece, cur­rently in press.

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