The Captivating Narrative of Populism in the Tale of the XXI Century

By Julia Bąk.

The story of populism is not a new one although it has seen a surge of popularity in modern societies around the world, as figures like Donald Trump (USA), Marine LePen (France) or Jarosław Kaczyński (Poland) appear on the political scene. The term populism itself is known to be ambiguous and hard to define; however, we can extract some of its main characteristics from the various forms it takes – the movement of people against the well-established norms of democracy with a strong leading figure using arguments against the establishment and the “old elites”. As I was trying to better understand why populism is taking the political scene by storm, I discovered that it is its narrative that makes it so attractive, portraying it like a new form of old-fashioned fairytale more than any other modern political movement.

Tales of populism start in societies rotten by fear and disappointment. Whilst the reasons for this differ from country to country, the proclaimed failure of the neoliberal system and the destabilisation of national values due to globalisation are the main ones. Some, such as Paul Chevigny, highlights the role of fear in modern populist discourse; it is usually the fear of the widely-defined and mystified unknown that leads to a societal divide between “us” (the ‘ordinary’ people) and “them”.

What makes the narrative of populism so close to a fairytale’s is its use of archetypical characters present in every children’s story. The three main archetypes defined by Stephen Karpman in his theory of the “conflict triangle” are the Persecutor, the Rescuer, and the Victim. In tales of populism, the Victim takes on the role of the main protagonist: the people. They are described in populist discourse as those who represent real democracy, having been in the past oppressed by the elites in power. They are also characterised by their purity and are usually appointed epithets like ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’, which highlights the fact that they are unblemished by the establishment’s influences.

Opposing the Victim and mysterious at first, the figure of the Persecutor is present in every story representing the antagonist. In tales of populism, this ‘evil stepmother’ takes the shape of “them” that can define a variety of population groups, depending on where the given form of populism lies on the political spectrum; for example, in right-wing populism, “them” usually describes immigrants and minority groups while in left-wing populism it is usually elites, wealthy bureaucrats, or those currently in power. “Them” is also the most fluctuant group in populist discourse as it largely depends on the ideology’s opposition at the time and ranges from politicians and scientists to independent activists, like most recently Greta Thunberg who, after her UN speech, was met with unprecedented amounts of cyber-hatred and condemned by populist discourse.

At the final corner of Karpman’s “conflict triangle,” we encounter the most influential figure of all – the Rescuer. Portrayed as a fairytale hero, the Rescuer is the leader of the populist movement. Portrayed as an outsider disgusted by the elites in power, the Rescuer is the voice of the people and the embodiment of true democracy.

The last, and most important, element of every populist fairytale is the specific language of its narrative. In a sense, populism finds its inspiration in the romanticized medieval chansons de geste, criticizing the Persecutor in an embellished way and creating the vivid vision of a movement towards a better, more truthful democracy. As Mary Canovan highlights in one of her essays, one of the populist movement’s most striking characteristics is its reliance on faith, and this faith is acquired through subtle persuasion. Indeed, through emotional and vague appeals to people’s instincts and feelings, denying factual arguments is their priority. In emotional populist discourse, we can find abundant metaphors (“Make America Great Again”) and synecdoches (where “the people” hides the wider concept of nobilitated masses that are characterised by specific values) but no fear of both colloquial language and strongly emotional epithets (“Crooked Hillary”). Alongside ad personam arguments, another commonly used stylistic figure in populist speeches is anaphora, which by constant repetitions of the same slogans highlights the “politics of urgency”.

Paradoxically, although populist discourse is based on values such as truth and transparency, “stating what all people think” (LePen), the language of self-proclaimed ‘representatives of the people’ is filled with overgeneralizations, sensationalisms, and post-truths. As highlighted by Silvio Waisbord, in this age of post-truth, populism does not care about establishing the truth on the basis that knowledge is an elitist domain. This, alongside flashy success propaganda, creates a fictional stage on which the populist spectacle can take place.

The tale of populism is not the easiest to tell. Behind the flowery metaphors and half-truths, I see people scared of democratic values and terrified by “the new”, “the different” and “the liberal”. The moral of this tale differs according to the point of view from which we approach it. On one hand, we can follow the optimistic vision of Margaret Canovan who underlines the importance of populist rhetoric which, according to every revisionist ideology, highlights the true values of democracy and embodies the storm amidst the years of stability. On the other hand, although I would love to believe her and rest assured after yet another win of the right-wing populist party in Polish parliamentary elections, I follow the statements of Stephan Lewandowsky who urges us to disbelieve in this post-truth emotional rhetoric and seek facts in this sea of misinformation. I believe that only the knowledge and tolerance of “the new” and “the other”, along with the courage to listen to the truth, regardless of how painful, can preserve the values of democracy and civilized society – and thus, I would like to read the tale of populism with that moral in mind.

Photo source.

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