• Fall 2018
précis FALL 2018 : Briefings
December 5, 2018

Populism: A case-by-case study

Una Hajdari, IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow, Center for International Studies
First published here.

Discussions about populism have been front and center in recent societal debates—online, in the news, and in social settings. The subject has also drawn intense interest from academics and brought attention to those who have studied the phenomenon over the years.

Sana Aiyar

Sana Aiyar, an associate professor of history at MIT, explored ways in which populist nationalism has reversed the progressive and inclusive policies of post-independence India. Photo: Laura Kerwin/CIS

While many people associate the populist wave with current political leaders, such as Donald Trump in the United States, Nigel Farage in the UK, and Marine Le Pen in France, its current manifestation has roots in movements, beliefs, and deficiencies in the liberal democratic order that predate these leaders rise to power.

For many countries experiencing an increase in support for populist ideas—or in the more extreme cases, whose current leader or leading party is of the populist mold—it represents a very acute risk, one that has endangered basic civil liberties and societal harmony, and has seen hateful and intolerant rhetoric permeate the public sphere.

At its latest Starr Forum, MIT's Center for International Studies brought together a panel of academics whose work has focused on some of the most extreme forms of populism seen in the past years, and whose leaders have become synonymous on a global level with the state capture that is part and parcel of governments led by populists.

The three countries—Brazil, India, and Turkey—share certain characteristics. All of them are very influential in their part of the world, both in size and political clout. They are all emerging economic powerhouses, and they all boast ethnically diverse populations. In their presentations in front of the MIT public, the speakers, all academics who are either from these countries or have studied them over a long period of time, highlighted the way in which the current populist governments slowly accumulated power and made use of the deficiencies in their societies to amass wide voter support.

General overview
Pippa Norris, the Paul F McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, explained the rise in support for populist parties as a result of what she called a “cultural backlash” leveled at the mainstreaming of progressive and liberal values. According to Norris's research with Ronald Inglehart, to be published soon in a book titled "Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism," this wave of populist support is buttressed by social conservatives who are uncomfortable with cosmopolitan lifestyles that encourage diverse sexual and gender identities, as well as other markers of progressive thinking.

This group supports authoritarian populists and strongmen, she said, because they offer forms of "tribal protection" against "perceived risks of instability and disorder," and feed into their insecurities by promoting a hostile approach towards "outsiders" such as immigrants, people of religious or ethnic backgrounds different from their own. These parties and leaders react to perceptions of cultural threat, and they in turn offer the leaders their loyalty in the voting booths.

Norris explained that this is the main reason for an increase in populist support for leaders like Trump, Farage, and Le Pen.

Brazil: A sharp turn to the far right
"Brazil's perfect storm of negative trends began in the late 2000s, which led to the ascension of the radical right," explained Elizabeth Leeds, a research affiliate of the Center for International Studies, and a leading expert on police reform and issues of citizen security in Brazil. Leeds has conducted research on these topics over the last four decades. "The economic downturn and the subsequent recession starting around 2013 due in part to the worldwide drop in petroleum prices—petroleum is one of the engines of the Brazilian economy— and China's economic retrenchment which caused drops in Brazilian exports to China, led to a sense of hopelessness and unemployment, especially amongst the Brazilian youth that had recently graduated from college."

In the mid-20th century, Brazil emerged from a military coup and subsequent military dictatorship as a country that largely voted for left-wing or left-leaning parties. The progressive spirit of these parties embraced its rich cultural composition and included many welfare programs to pull its most disenfranchised segments of society out of poverty. The deficiencies of these policies—lack of equal distribution of resources—proved to be its undoing.

"The Workers Party, what it had become famous for and praised in its first eight years, its redistributor policies, its poverty alleviation programs, the Bolsa Familia, racial justice, gender equality, LGBT rights, gay marriage — all of these policies became fodder for those who were not benefitting from economic redistribution and were resentful at the attempt for racial justice," Leeds said.

The founder of Brazil's previous ruling party, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva or "Lula", and the creator of its landmark social welfare programs, was found to have been part of a massive corruption scandal and initially wanted to run his campaign from prison, where he is currently serving a sentence.

"The massive corruption scandal that occurred on the Worker Party’s watch and involved all parties [severely damaged their electoral success]," Leeds explained. "This provided further pretext for attacking the Worker’s Party and its redistributor policies."

"The increase in violent crime, prison rebellions and the spread of organized criminal activity in the country, led people to search for a savior," she said.

In this chaos, Jair Bolsonaro, the head of the Social Liberal party and a former military officer, provided an appealing contrast to everything the Worker's Party represented. Fernando Haddad was put forward as the candidate of the Worker's Party. While having a clean slate, he did not offer the appeal of “Lulism” and did not offer strong opposition to Bolsonaro.

The news that Bolsonaro won the October presidential elections with 55 percent of the vote was met with shock in intellectual and political circles around the world and led to headlines claiming that Brazil had "elected a fascist" to office. Bolsonaro has openly praised Donald Trump's foreign policies, has said that women and men should not be paid the same salaries, and is thought to be against progressive policies towards the LGBT community in the country.

Of the things he is expected to reverse, Leeds explains that his lack of commitment to the Amazon and wildlife reserves in the country is causing the most outrage.

"The most acute issues that people are aware of and afraid of are reversal in economic regulations especially in the Amazon. He is planning to reverse may of the indigenous reserves to expand agricultural development and mining," Leeds said.

He also wants to quash dissent, by "criminalizing social movements," she said.

“The well-known MST or Landless Workers Movement may be prosecuted under the anti-terrorism laws,” said Leeds, who believes Bolsonaro also wants to quash the liberal ideas that seem as if they support his predecessor’s beliefs. “He has attempted to constrain academic expression or ideological expression labelled communist, he has asked students to report professors for spreading objectionable or ideological speech. The protection of minority rights, gender rights, is in jeopardy.”

India: a reversal of diversity
Sana Aiyar, an associate professor of history at MIT, explored the ways in which populist nationalism has reversed the progressive and inclusive policies of post-independence India, and the way it clashes with the beliefs of the post-colonial secular and supra-ethnic state.

India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, is a proponent of the belief that India should be ruled by its Hindu-centered party and that ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Muslim population, should not have a central role in the government.

“Modi turned his back on India’s spirit of tolerance, its inclusive pluralism,” said Aiyar of Modi’s beliefs. “When India declared independence in 1947... the nationhood of India was defined by its equality and diversity.”

India’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru of the Indian National Congress, insisted on an Indian identity that was secular — thus eradicating, at least in the political sphere, the ethnic differences between the various religious groups in the country. However, in a large country with many states composed of different groups, this status quo was difficult to maintain. 

“The Indian National Congress (INC), the party that ruled India in its post-independence period began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s as regional populist parties began to form,” explained Aiyar. “Through the 1990s and 2000s two major changes took place. First the Congress itself began to decline, primarily in the states where regional parties began emerging at the state level, and eventually at the national level.” 

From the late 1990s onwards, there was a change and a shift towards coalition governments. The INC and the BJP would form alliances with these regional parties that had been emerging over the years. In 1991, India shifted from a socialist to a neoliberal country through economic reforms, and the Indian middle class began expanding.

One of the promises of these reforms, Aiyar said, is “that the economy will be depoliticized. That the institutions will be the mediators between the public and the state.”

“As this unravels in the 2000s, growth falls from around 7 percent at the turn of the century, there is rising inequality, and there is a sense that aspirations were not fulfilled,” sais Aiyar, explaining the spread of disenchantment across the country. “The institutions begin being seen, at best, as ineffective and at worst as incredibly corrupt, the INC blames this on coalition politics and regional parties.”

“The one state that began defying this all-India trend of inefficiency, corruption and lack of development is Gujarat, where Narendra Modi had been the Chief Minister since 2001. He builds up a reputation as being pro-business, as being an extremely effective leader, attracting huge foreign investments,” Aiyar continued.

“Modi, with his strong record, transforms his anti-corruption movement into an anti-Congress one. He cast the Congress leaders as being very out of touch with the nation,” he said. “The Congress was cast as corrupt, out of touch with the pulse of the nation, its leaders as elites. Congress beliefs, such as socialism, secularism, and the focus on diversity were depicted as being Western or English notions of the nation.”

Modi was part of a group of politicians in India at the time who were offering various definitions of populism. The approaches attempted to define Indian nationhood, and his belief centred around the fact that India should be dominated by its majority ethnic and religious group.

Modi supported “the idea that a nation’s political destiny is [should] be determined by its religious and ethnic majority,” Aiyar said.

“Majoritarianism has two components that one should keep in mind. It differentiates between citizens – those who are seen as having the majority faith are seen as being true citizens, the sons of the soil. The rest are minorities or courtesy citizens,” he said. “For the first years after independence, by defining India as secular rather than Hindu, Nehru manages not to commit India to the decolonization’s original sin. India defines herself not as majoritarian—not because these tendencies didn’t exist but precisely because there were these notions that had existed from the 1920s onwards.”

In many countries around the world, populist politicians attempt to instill the fear amongst the majority populations or ethnic groups—those they rely on for electoral victories — that they are being threatened by a minority or that they have to “appease” to them rather than assert their dominance, Aiyar said. In many of these countries, the minority populations can be first-generation immigrants; religious, ethnic or linguistic minorities that have always been present in the country or those who plan to move there in larger numbers for academic or work opportunities.

For Modi, promoting the idea that only Hindus were truly autochthonous in India since it was the birthplace of Hinduism helped him secure a win in 2014 and continues to be a hallmark of his mandate as prime minister. Aiyar described the ideology as emphasizing “a common fatherland, and a common holy land. This meant that all Hindus are Indians and that minorities, for whom the holy land lays in the west, are seen as somewhat suspect.”

Turkey: A blueprint for populism
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been making headlines in the past couple of years as his authoritarian grasp on the country grows stronger. His Justice and Development Party, or AKP in Turkish, has become the largest party in the country and promotes a conservative platform that insists on an Islamic identity for Turkey and fondly looks back at the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey that controlled vast territories in the Balkans and the Middle East.

Intially seen as a reformer when he started making gains on the political scene in the early 2000s, Erdogan has asserted his dominance by weakening Turkey’s strong military, which promoted the country’s secularism in the 20th century, and by expanding the powers and mandate of the president in a referendum held last year.

His mandate has seen a crackdown on critical journalists, NGOs, and academics, and he has persecuted opponents both within the country and abroad. Aysen Candas, an associate professor at Bogazici University and a visiting associate professor at Yale University, explained what she called the core components of “a successful populist takeover.”

According to Candas, the populist checklist includes certain key components. “Desecularization, no matter what religion the country is based on, is detrimental for the constitutional order of the country,” she said. For populists, constitutions are not binding. “When movements that rely on a majority’s identitarian claims monopolize power, they acquire the ability to reverse the accomplishments of constitutional democracies, no matter how weak or strong these accomplishments may be.”

Another component is that populism is only a transitional phase. “Turkey’s experience with unhinged advanced populism proves that populism is a temporary phase, a snapshot, within the [counter]revolutionary transformation process of constitutional states, into right-leaning totalitarianisms,” she said. “The only remedy against it is forging a common front.”

Candas explains that populism comes from a feeling of insecurity, where people feel that opportunities they are given in life are becoming constrained.

“They respond to the shrinking or uncertainty of the economic pie, and the associated crisis of solidarity in the most regressive manner,” she said. “Populism's political proposal consists of a counterrevolution, against egalitarian, liberal democratic sources of political legitimacy to reinstall status hierarchies.”

Candas said populist ideologies and influences should not be taken lightly. “The ideology of populists must be taken very seriously, as they do fulfil their campaign promises and they are not short-termers but marathon runners.”

The Turkey of the 20th century was a modern, secular country that consciously split from its Islamic identity following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. “A Pew Research study, repeated every year, shows that only 12 percent of the people in Turkey want to live under Islamic rule. The rest, the majority, want to live in a secular society. How could it then be that political Islamists monopolized power in Turkey? The short answer to that question is that the majority failed to forge a common front.”

The two main fault lines along which the country is divided include the religion issue, but also the question of the large Kurdish minority, consisting of 20 percent of the population. “Since the 1980s there is an ongoing kulturkampf on two major fault lines in Turkey. The first one is on the Kurdish issue,” she said. "Recognition of Kurdish identity, some form of regional autonomy, equal representation, and the unsurmountable 10 percent threshold that was put into practice in 1983 to prevent Kurdish parties from entering the parliament.” 

“This threshold grossly skewed every election result, so much so that in 2002 AKP came to power with 34 percent of the vote, which translated into 66 seats in the parliament,” Candas explained. “The electoral threshold designed by the military in the 1990s, that was designed to keep Kurds out, let Islamists in.”

“The second question is that of the secular republic or Sharia-based monarchy. These two fault lines cross-cut each other, in the sense that many Turkish secularists, who are for example gender and LGBTQ egalitarians turn into illiberal authoritarians on the Kurdish issue because they suspect that granting Kurds cultural rights and autonomy will lead to the partition of the country.”

“Similarly, the intensely religious portion of the Kurds supported and still support the Islamist party even when repressive policies remain in place,” she said.

On Reducing Gun Violence

John Tirman, Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist, Center for International Studies
First published here.

Mass shootings have become a regular feature of American life over the past few years. John Tirman shares from his research an ideal scenario for the U.S. position and cultural ethos on gun violence and the policies necessary to move us toward that ideal.

John Tirman

John Tirman is the executive director of and a principal research scientist at CIS.

America's gun culture is a resilient fact of political life. Attempts to reverse the country’s appetite for firearms have largely failed, even as gun violence persists at an astonishing pace. Lately, however, a social movement to challenge gun culture has rocked politics for the first time in a generation, and this might shake up congressional complacency in the midterm elections.

The bare facts are that Americans possess nearly 300 million firearms, and guns are present in more than 40 percent of US households. About 35,000 people die by gunshot each year, more than half by suicide, and the overall numbers are gradually climbing. There have been more than 1,800 mass shootings, defined as incidents in which four or more people are shot, since the horrifying Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren in 2012.

This is an international problem, too, as several countries with high homicide rates get guns from the United States, and gun advocates such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby for looser gun laws in many nations. The culture of the gun is exported with the firearms.

That gun culture—the history, lore, social practices, networks, and politics of firearms—is a stubborn artifact of the American experience. We have long extolled the pioneer, the frontiersman, and the cowboy, those paladins of settler expansion across the continent. The gun was central to that frontier myth and remains strongly linked to the nation’s core value of freedom. Today this archetype is valorized on television in the form of a cop or a soldier. It is no coincidence that gun homicides are markedly higher in other settler nations in the Americas than anywhere else in the world. Brazil and El Salvador, for example, even outpace the United States in per capita deaths by gunshot.

Proven methods
But the carnage and the culture are being tested as never before. The Parkland, Florida, high school massacre on Valentine’s Day, in which 17 students and staff were murdered, sparked a survivors’ campaign, March for Our Lives, that drew an enormous amount of attention. In Florida alone (a state and a governor long scornful of gun laws), a gun-control bill has been enacted that sets a three-day waiting period for purchases, changes the lawful age of possession from 18 to 21, and sets up a “red flag” mechanism for confiscating guns from those considered a threat to themselves or others. Other states have passed similar measures—all proven methods for reducing gun fatalities.

March for Our Lives was effective because the survivor students turned grief into activism—their authenticity was their principal asset. Another organization that uses its members adeptly and is shaking up several congressional races is Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, founded by a suburban Indiana mother, Shannon Watts, the day after the Sandy Hook massacre. Launched with a Facebook post and modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Moms Demand Action (which merged with the Michael Bloomberg–financed Everytown for Gun Safety in 2013) now has 4 million supporters and chapters in every state. The organization gets pledges from congressional candidates and provides endorsements.

The list of achievements by groups like Moms Demand Action is often preventative — blocking state legislation to loosen gun laws — and convincing businesses to stop selling semi-automatic weapons like those used in many mass shootings. Shifting attitudes Their success is also visible in public attitudes, which are shifting toward preventing gun violence. In Gallup polling, for example, in 2010 about the same numbers of Americans said gun laws should be more strict or should stay the same. Today, 67 percent say they should be stricter, with just 28 percent saying they should stay the same. By even larger margins, the public supports stricter background checks, red flag laws, and raising the age for the legal possession of firearms.

The old gun culture remains potent, as evidenced by the many legislative battles fought over ending restrictions on gun ownership and possession. The entertainment industry appears wholly committed to putting gun violence front and center in its programming. (A family physicians’ journal notes “an average American youth will witness 200,000 violent acts on television before age 18.”)  And politicians pay homage to gun culture, bank NRA lobbying money ($5 million in 2017), and aver that they are powerless to stop the violence.

Redefining liberty
Preventing gun violence will entail disrupting gun culture—redefining liberty to include freedom from violence, insisting that citizen safety is implicit in the Second Amendment, and scripting gun-free versions of Hollywood heroism. A tall order, but in April, one opinion poll asked, "Would you definitely vote for or definitely vote against a candidate for Congress who wants stricter gun control laws?" Sixty percent said “yes” to a stricter-law candidate. A cultural transformation? It just may be happening.

Starting new conversations about identity abroad

Madeline Smith, MISTI, & Michelle English, CIS
First published here.

Students from diverse cultural, racial, ethnic, national or economic backgrounds; students with disabilities; LGBTQ+ students; first-generation students; and others face unique challenges when participating in international programs. MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), based in the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, has launched an initiative to address such issues and better understand those perspectives.

Identity X Ambassadors

IdentityX Ambassadors gathered at SPXCE Intercultural Center to discuss their international experiences. Photo: Madeline Smith/MISTI

The mission is simple: to prepare and support all students while abroad. Through student blogs, guided peer-to-peer conversation sessions and tailored resources, MISTI aims to empower students with new methods for engaging with their identities during the course of their international experiences.

“I have always ‘traveled’ through the course of my life. I have, in my 19 years of life, lived in 19 different buildings, four different states, and two different countries. Being a first-generation, low-income student did impact my confidence in my abilities to do well traveling abroad. …Thankfully, there were MISTI resources available that helped me,” says sophomore Enriko Kurtz Granadoz Chavez, who participated in an internship in Santiago, Chile, at the University of Santiago de Chile through MIT-Chile.

Co-sponsored by the Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO), MISTI received grant support to host speakers from Diversity Abroad for both staff and students in 2017, and this year received additional funding to foster student leadership. MISTI is focusing on professional development, campus collaboration, and student communication in order to better prepare students before departure to their host countries and to provide thoughtful support while students are abroad.

To develop the new programming, Mala Ghosh, MIT-India managing director and MISTI diversity lead, talked with campus partners, researched current best practices, and sought out student feedback. “We are proud of the diversity represented in MISTI participation,” says Ghosh. “However, we must go beyond numbers and ensure that we are supporting all students to thrive abroad.”

Creating a conversation
MISTI offers a series of dialogue-based sessions, led by students and guided by MISTI staff, partners, and speakers. These gatherings are focused on particular aspects of identity and are open to all MIT students, with the goal of preparing students for traveling and living abroad. Four sessions were held during the past year: “Embracing Your Diversity Abroad”, “Being Out in the World: Being LGBTQ+ Abroad,” “Going Abroad as a Student of Color,” and “Religion & Spirituality Abroad.”

Eduardo Rivera, MIT-Chile program manager, captures the goals for both students and staff, “Every international academic experience is unique. The singularity of those experiences is not only shaped by the particular context of the destination, but more importantly by the unique lens through which the student will see and interact with the new context. Offering our students an opportunity to reflect on their identities and their international experiences is a fundamental step to supporting their personal and academic growth before, during, and after an experience abroad.”

Sharing student perspectives
MISTI also highlights student-to-student learning through MISTI IdentityX Ambassadors, where students write blogs about their MISTI experiences. These blogs start conversations on the ambassador’s identity and how it shaped their global experiences. This summer, 10 students wrote about religion, race, heritage, prejudice, privilege, LGBTQ+ identity, and economic status, among other topics. 

“I joined the MISTI IdentityX Ambassador Program because it was a way to capture my thoughts while abroad. I picked South Africa because I had questions about my own identity that I sought to answer and this was a perfect medium,” says IdentityX Ambassador and sophomore Peter Williams, who completed a MISTI internship in South Africa to complement his MIT mechanical engineering studies.

“Participating in IdentityX has provided me the opportunity to frame, process, and write about my experience abroad in the context of identity,” says Carrie Watkins, who is pursuing her master’s in city planning and completed her internship in The Netherlands. “It has given me an excuse to enter into real conversations with new friends and colleagues.”

MISTI aims for these conversations to inspire students who don’t feel like international opportunities are for them, or are nervous about being successful in an internship abroad. “I think having honest accounts are valuable for individuals who are considering MISTI,” says Yara Jabbour Al Maalouf, a senior in chemical-biological engineering who wrote her IdentityX blogs during her internship in India. “It isn't necessarily purely for advice on 'how to survive' or reassurance of certain worries, but it is also a unique perspective on how to make the most out of the experience and grow.” 

For master's student Trang Luu ’18, who completed MISTI internships in South Africa and Cameroon through MIT-Africa, the international experience forced her to expand and question aspects of her identity. “When I got my acceptance letter to MIT, I felt like I had broken through a glass ceiling,” says Luu. “I decided that the life I was going to live would be the life that I chose — and I chose to be an engineer. Never once did I anticipated that being an engineer could be have a downside; however, during my time in Cameroon, I began to realize that I needed to question my own perspectives and ensure broader social impact not only a technical or physical solution.”  

Future goals
Future MISTI events will continue to highlight different perspectives, the intersection of varying identities, and focus on providing country-specific resources to students. IdentityX Ambassadors will play an important part in that goal as peer mentors and program representatives.

“We believe one of the most effective ways for students to learn is by engaging with one another,” says Ghosh. “We are preparing MISTI IdentityX Ambassadors to help lead pre-departure sessions for students going overseas next year. It is vital for students to hear from other students not only about international academic and career opportunities, but also how their various identities played a role in their time abroad. We have found that students tend to open up more in smaller sessions focused on gender and safety abroad, being LGBTQ+ abroad, concerns around immigration and travel, student wellness while abroad, and preparing ahead for managing wellness or accessibility abroad.”

“The blogs and other identity programming can only make MISTI more approachable as a community,” says IdentityX Ambassador Johnson Huynh, who completed his internship in Mexico and is studying mechanical engineering. “If we could continue this trend of encouraging students to think about their identities, and highlight MISTI student personalities, I believe that it can only draw more participants towards the program and to international programs in general.”

The blogs not only met a student need, but also fulfilled a MISTI goal. “The MISTI blogs are a window to discover our students beyond their course or simple demographic data. The blogs are an exercise of reflection, but moreover, they are an expression of life changing experiences narrated in first person, an open book to the entire MIT community,” says Rivera.