What is the cause of the rise of populism?

(Photo: Reuters / Denis Balibouse)

In the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL) the two famous contemporary writers and thinkers Youval Noah Harari y Michael J. Sandel spoke in a conversation and debate titled “The dilemmas of a collapsing world”.

Youval Noah Harari is an Israeli Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This young 44-year-old intellectual has written some of the best-selling popular science books in recent years, including “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity” (2014), “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”(2016) and“21 Lessons from the 21st Century”.

Michael J. Sandel is American, teaches political philosophy at the Harvard University and published a highly acclaimed book called “The Tyranny of Merit. “What has become of the common good?”.

Michael J. Sandel began the discussion by summarizing his previously mentioned book. The fundamental argument is that in the past four decades in which globalization has transformed the economic and social dynamics of the world, the working class has lost a good part of its purchasing power. On the other hand, the meritocracy It is an ideology that makes those who were born in very privileged conditions think that they have earned, through their efforts, to be at the top of the social pyramid and those who do not share their position have not been capable, dedicated or intelligent enough as to deserve better living conditions.

Meritocracy makes the privileged extremely arrogant and looks down on the working class; simultaneously, the working class strongly resents this disdain and humiliation.

Populist politicians like the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, They have been able to capitalize on this resentment of the working class through populism. Thus, populism, he noted, is the consequence of socioeconomic inequality exacerbated by globalization and meritocracy that generates feelings of arrogance in the most privileged and resentment in the less fortunate.

The president of the International Book Fair of Guadalaja EFE / Archivo

The president of the International Book Fair of Guadalaja EFE / Archivo

The Israeli historian described himself as a skeptical historian who believes that great intellectuals have been very good at describing how social processes have happened; but they have not been able to explain its causes convincingly. He then claimed that many people have sought to explain the recent rise of populism, generally pointing to meritocracy and globalization as its causes.

Youval Noah Harari believes, admitting that he is not an expert in the region, that these causes may be correct for the North American case. However, it underlines that the rise of populism is a global phenomenon and that these possible causes are not present in all nations that are experiencing this political process.

His argument about the heterogeneity of particular cases developed as follows: it may be that the American working class has lost a lot to globalization, but in Brazil, Turkey and India it has benefited notably; however, in these countries populism is also present. There is no global explanation.

The Israeli historian also states that we can assume that “Populism is a reaction to the arrogance of the elites and the fact that you have these winners taking it all and the rest being pushed aside and even blamed and ridiculed for their failures. But why this anger results in the rise of anti-democratic forces. Because we do not see the emergence of political leaders who are committed to the intrinsic and institutional values ​​of democracy […] Added to this, because the main victims of populism are not the wealthy elites, who are supposedly blamed for all this, but the main victims are minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community and others like it.

In response, Michael Sandel enunciated the following words: “I think that certain similar threats connect populist movements. And to the populist reactions countries around the world ”.

One of these threats is the “failure of traditional political parties, especially center-left political parties, to deal with the growth in inequality that the last four decades of globalization have generated. You could almost say that the success of the populist right is a symptom of the failure of progressive or social democratic policies “.

(AP Photo / Berenice Bautista, file)

(AP Photo / Berenice Bautista, file)

Extending his argument, he commented “In almost every country where we see populism flourish […] the center-left and the Social Democracy have failed and what they have failed to do is to fulfill their historic mission. Its historic mission has been to stop the excesses of capitalism and keep it auditable before democracy ”.

Sandel explained that the failure of the global left is due, to a large extent, to the adoption of the axioms of the free market promoted by the Donald Reagan administration in the 1980s.

This fiery discussion about the roots of the greatest political and economic problems facing the contemporary world is far from over, but lhe contributions of these famous intellectuals give us a guideline on where to direct our reflections.


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The Guadalajara International Book Fair 2020 will be virtual, due to the pandemic

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